HATTIESBURG, Miss. — Southern Miss has defensive issues with only four starters returning, but cornerback C.J. Bailey doesn’t see many problems in the secondary.

Bailey had 10 starts last season as a redshirt freshman and was productive, making 40 tackles, breaking up 10 passes and recording two interceptions. His performance earned Conference USA All-Freshman recognition, and he has been selected as a preseason first-team all-conference choice by Athlon Sports.

“I gained a lot of experience last year, and I’ve got to build on it,” the Moss Point, Miss., native said as the Golden Eagles continue preparations for the Aug. 30 opener against Louisiana-Lafayette. “I made some mistakes, I learned from them, and I became a better player.”

Bailey was forced to grow up in a hurry because he played on the opposite side of the field from three-time C-USA performer Brandon Sumrall. Opposing quarterbacks didn’t challenge the veteran Sumrall often.

“It was a challenge, and it goes with the position,” said Bailey. “I had to play a lot of man coverage, and it really helped me. This year we’re going to do both. We’re still going to play man, but we’re going to use zone at times to confuse the quarterbacks. I think we’re going to have a real good secondary.”

So does Southern Miss’ new head coach Larry Fedora, who wants the defense to play with the same attacking philosophy he’s seeking with the spread offense.

“We have some really good talent in the secondary,” said Fedora.

“They all can really run, and we are pleased at the way the corners are playing right now. Bailey and (Justin) Wilson are going to be really good players. We’ve got some depth in the secondary.”

The secondary has plenty of experience. In addition to Bailey and the redshirt sophomore Wilson, who appeared in all 13 games last year, redshirt junior Eddie Hicks returns at one of the safety spots along with sophomore Chico Hunter. Redshirt senior Eddie Willingham played in nine games last year and junior Michael McGee saw action in every game. Redshirt senior Ivory Bradshaw could earn some playing time if he fully recovers from knee surgery that sidelined him the entire 2007 season.

“We lost a couple of really good players in Brandon and LeVance (Richmond), but we’ve got a lot of guys that are ready to step up,” said Bailey. “Everybody is working hard and trying to improve. We’re excited about the season and showing folks we can get the job done.”