Whatley, McLaurin have big day at USM Spring GameBy ANDREW ABADIE,
Both sides of the ball at Southern Miss’ Black and Gold spring game seemed very parallel compared to this past season. The defense, again, looks to be dominant, but the eyebrow raiser for the day went to Gold Team members sophomore quarterback Tate Whatley and senior wide receiver Neil McLaurin.
McLaurin twice had to go up and battle in the air to come down with 35-yard and 44-yard catches.
“I was just telling the quarterback, just throw it to me we need a touchdown,” McLaurin said “If you just throw it to me, I’ve got it. It doesn’t matter if I’m covered or not, just throw it high because I know he isn’t going to come with me.”’
Part of the reason for McLaurin’s success was being moved to the outside receiver position rather than the slot position he had played for most of his career.
“I feel more comfortable outside,” McLaurin said. “I’ve been working inside since I started playing receiver, but I feel pretty good outside because I’m a bigger guy. It feels good that I can make plays down the field that we’re going to need later down the road.”
McLaurin dealt with a hamstring injury for most of the 2018 season but made a notable return against Louisiana Tech where he had two catches for 52-yards and a touchdown.
“I just thought he high pointed the ball well,” Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. “Neil was hurt all of last year and we didn’t get him back until late in the year. He had a hamstring [injury] that he kept aggravating. I think a week or so before we played Louisiana Tech. We finally got him halfway healthy. Neil is just a natural athlete. He’s a guy who can do a lot. He’s a big physical receiver. Keeping him healthy, he’s had a healthy spring, he showed us what he can do. Today was no exception, he came out and made a lot of big plays.”
Aside from a turf toe injury, McLaurin said he is almost completely healthy.
“I feel way better than I did last year,” McLaurin said. “I don’t feel like I’m 100 percent but I feel like I’m 90 percent. I’m still playing through [turf toe] and trying to make big plays like I did today.”
Of McLaurin’s two catches, one set up a field goal for the Gold Team. A key part was the chemistry he had with Whatley, which McLaurin says he and Whatley built through the past spring practices.
“We’ve been practicing,” McLaurin said. “They’ve been giving us shots at practice and stuff and that all transferred over to today. I feel like we had a good chemistry today.”
Whatley finished the day unofficially 10-for-15 with 203 yards passing and a touchdown. His one touchdown pass went to wide receiver Trevor Terry for 64-yards in the second half. According to Whatley, the biggest difference for him is the time he has spent watching film.
“I got in the film room a lot and did my reads faster,” Whatley said. “Obviously, I’ve still got to work on reads. I missed some today. I have to be quick with my reads and get the ball out.”
Redshirt junior Jack Abraham finished the day unofficially 18-for-27 and threw two interceptions.
“I’m going to let them compete,” Hopson said. “Tate has earned that right. He came out today and just had an outstanding day, so we’ll put the ball down and let guys go and we’ll find out here mid-August where we’re at.”