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Fletcher will start for USM

Southern Miss freshman running back Damion Fletcher went into one of college football’s toughest atmospheres and came away with both the respect of his coach and a starting job.

Fletcher accounted for 127 yards during the Golden Eagles’ 34-7 loss Saturday to No. 7 Florida in Gainesville. He played 52 snaps, coach Jeff Bower said, and made the right decision 80 percent of the time.

“I was impressed,” Bower said. “He was poised for a true freshman in that environment.”

Fletcher, a 5-foot-10, 175-pounder from Biloxi, rushed for 89 yards on 18 carries, earning 4.9 yards a carry against one of the Southeastern Conference’s more stout defensive fronts. He also caught two passes for 38 yards.

He didn’t sparkle all the time. For example, dropped a screen pass on a promising play that Bower lamented when talking about potential scoring opportunities that missed.

“If he catches it, it would’ve been a big play,” Bower said.

After the game Fletcher acknowledged he has more to learn as the team prepares to host Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday in Hattiesburg.

“I have a lot of things I need to work on — reading defenses and pass protection,” he said.

But he admitted enjoying the experience as more than 90,000 mostly hostile fans watched.

“It was great coming in here as a freshman and playing in front of that many people,” he said.

Fletcher takes over the starting tailback job from Larry Thomas. The junior started the game, but carried just two times for 5 yards.

Thomas started 10 games last season, rushing for 647 yards and four touchdowns. He lost the starting position in the team’s 11th game to Cody Hull, who also saw limited action Saturday.

Bower lamented a muddled running back position in preseason. Judging by the way Bower talked about Fletcher during his Monday news conference when asked if the freshman’s performance surprised him, he may have found the answer he’s been looking for.

“For a true freshman, nothing fazes him,” Bower said. “He isn’t intimidated. He’s poised, athletic and has learned fast. I didn’t expect this.”