August 27, 2014 9:21:15 PM
There isn't much that can slow Dylan Bradley down.
Nicknamed "The Beast" at Noxubee County High School for his knack for pressuring and sacking the quarterback, Bradley realized his dream when he signed a scholarship to play football at Southern Mississippi.
Playing at the Division I level was the only thing that Bradley could think about last season when he arrived in Hattiesburg for his freshman year.
Bradley quickly discovered he had plenty of other things to occupy his thoughts.
"At first, it was difficult because I was basically starting over from what I was used to doing and I was doing something I wasn't accustomed to doing," Bradley said.
After an initial adjustment period, Bradley gained his footing and emerged as a consistent contributor for a Southern Miss football team that went 1-11. This season, Bradley hopes he can play an even bigger role and help the Golden Eagles have an even bigger season in their second season under coach Todd Monken. The first step will come at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Mississippi State in the season opener for both teams at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville.
"Once I got smarter and realized I can do the plays and that I can also do it with my ability and my instincts (I was more comfortable)," said Bradley, a 6-foot-1, 265-pound defensive lineman. "This year, it comes as second nature to you. When you see things from the offensive line and hear what the coaches are calling, you get accustomed to that and can play off instinct."
Bradley played with passion and wreaked havoc on offensive lines in high school. A three-star recruit -- and No. 11 in Mississippi -- by 247sports.com, Rivals.com, and Scout.com, Bradley helped lead the Tigers to a 16-0 season and the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A state championship in 2012. He was named the MHSAA Class 4A All-State Defensive Player of the Year and to The Clarion-Ledger's All-State Defensive Team. He also was named The Dispatch's Defensive Player of the Year after making 96 tackles and posting 21 1/2 sacks. As a junior and a sophomore, he combined to make 169 tackles and 21 sacks.
Despite being a dominant player in one of the state's premier programs, Bradley admitted he had a big transition to college football. He said he quickly realized everyone was at his level and that he had to play to his potential every snap and to do the right things to help the team be successful. Part of that job involved getting into the playbook and learning 100 or more plays and then figuring out how not to think about the plays he didn't need and focus on the ones he needed for that game.
"At first it slowed me down," Bradley said. "Once I got the hang of it it made me a better and more efficient football player."
Bradley played in 11 games as a freshman and made one start. He earned his first start on the road at Alabama-Birmingham, which turned out to be USM's only victory of the season. He finished the season with 52 tackles, including 24 solo stops, and four and a half tackles for loss. He had a season-high 13 tackles, including a season-high nine solos, against Middle Tennessee.
This season, Bradley said he is subbing in at defensive end and would be considered a No. 2 on the Golden Eagles' depth chart. He believes he will see a lot of playing time up front on a team that is confident it will have a much better season that it did in 2013. To realize that potential, Bradley said he is ready to everything he learned to even more use this season.
"I feel like a different player because I am smarter," Bradley said. "I am moving a little faster in practice because I am able to adjust quicker and I know what to expect in the game, and I know I have to practice like I am playing in a game situation."
Bradley said that also has been an adjustment because his coaches at Noxubee County tried to help him save his legs in practice so they could keep him fresh for games. These days, Bradley and his teammates aren't afforded that luxury because their goal is to climb the ladder in Conference USA and become more competitive.
"You can't turn it off in practice and turn it right back on in the game," Bradley said. "You can't slow down because you play like you practice. Every day you have to practice like it is a game and work real hard to make sure you are playing at game tempo.
"Right now, I am just trying to go out there and do my job. If you are doing your job, the plays will come. I want to make sure I am helping my team out."
Bradley isn't banking on individual awards or accolades to come his way this season. Those thoughts are clouding his focus. Instead, Bradley is primed to be another piece of the puzzle who has learned what it takes to be a team player and to help his squad become a winner.
"I want to do everything I can to bring Southern Miss back and to put our name up there where it belongs," Bradley said.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor