Writing or talking about Memphis football for the last 5 years of podcasting (and occasionally writing) has been a bitter pill to swallow.
As a University of Houston alumnus and hopeless addicted fan of the school’s football team, I’ve always had a belief that UH can and should be regularly flirting with double digit wins and always in the conference championship picture.
To be clear, the 21st Century has seen plenty of highs for Cougar football, but the sticking point has been consistency.
There have been great seasons, but stringing together multiple great seasons in a row and weathering the loss of key players and coaches has been hard to overcome. Yet, the Memphis football program has been a tantalizing vision of consistency and program identity trumping the loss of key individuals.
Consider the Tigers have finished the season in the AP Top 25 a total of 3 times since 2014, something the Cougars have done only 2 times in the 21st century and 0 times since 2015. While UH certainly boasts a superior cumulative program history, in recent times the Tigers have been a superior program beyond winning their last 4 head-to-head match ups with the Coogs.
Going into the 2020 season the Tigers may get their stiffest test of whether their winning ways can weather a coaching change and live up to expectations that have never been higher for that program.
Big Picture Outlook:
There certainly weren’t many people not affiliated with Florida State more excited than me when Mike Norvell left Memphis for FSU immediately after the Tigers captured the 2019 AAC Championship.
Norvell took over after the best 2-year run in program history under his predecessor Justin Fuente and with the task of replacing 1st round draft pick Paxton Lynch.
As a first-time head coach and at one point the youngest HC in all of Division 1-FBS, Norvell had his work cut out for him and somehow left Memphis football in even better shape than he found it. In Lynch’s place he discovered Riley Ferguson, a one-time 4-star QB recruit who had quit football entirely and ended up breaking Lynch’s Memphis single season passing record in 2017.
The Tigers were a consistently excellent offense under Norvell and what made it so impressive is he could go pass heavy with a virtuoso QB like Ferguson, but could also feature the country’s top individual rusher in 2018 when Darrell Henderson totaled 1,909 yards.
Norvell, like his mentor Todd Graham, also had an eye for assistant coaching talent and experienced 3 straight off seasons where a bigger name program hired away his offensive coordinator. But Memphis’ big break through came as a result of him hiring Marshall’s Adam Fuller as defensive coordinator, a move that saw the Tigers D transform from barely adequate to above average in a 12-2 season.
All good things must come to an end as Norvell is now in Tallahassee and took Fuller plus a number of assistants from last year’s team with him.
Stepping into even higher expectations is new Tiger head coach Ryan Silverfield. For the last 2 years Silverfield has been the Tigers’ offensive line coach and run game coordinator and before last season Norvell gave him the deputy head coach title.
Maybe the best coaching job of any Memphis assistant last year was Silverfield getting a young Tiger offensive line to play well enough to support one of the country’s most explosive offenses.
Prior to Silverfield’s time in Memphis he coached with the Detroit Lions, Arizona State and his longest stop: with the Minnesota Vikings from 2008-13. As an undergraduate student, he even coached the defensive line at Division III Hampden-Sydney from 2001-02.
Naturally, Cougar fans will get knots in their stomach at the idea of promoting a non-coordinator to head coach after Tony Levine didn’t work out in the aftermath of the success of UH's 2011 season.
There are parallels between the hires and like I was with Levine, I am inclined to question Memphis' desired to hire a first time coach and promoting from within after a historically successful season.
What convinces me this hire is more Chris Petersen than Major Applewhite is the fact Silverfield retained 2019 Tiger offensive coordinator Kevin Johns (previously of Indiana and Texas Tech) and brought in one-time National Coach of the Year Mike MacIntyre as defensive coordinator.
The new staff also has position coaches and staff members from Duke, USC, Ole Miss, Syracuse and recently successful G4 programs Fresno State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Its an impressive staff for a first-time head coach and more than anything the assistant hires make or break the success of the head guy (ask Messrs. Levine and Applewhite about that).
I’m not sure even a mediocre staff could do badly with this group of players in the short term. The Tigers return a multi-year starting QB who took a big step forward last year, a freshman All-American who was one of the country’s best all-purpose backs, a terrifying matchup nightmare receiver looking to make 2020 his 3rd straight 1,000+ yard season and a veteran defense led by an inspired DC hire.
It is a testament to the number of great teams in the AAC that Memphis has serious competition for the league title. Even with worthy foes like UCF and Cincy vying for the league trophy, it’s not a stretch to say the Tigers have a good chance of repeating in 2020 as league champions.
It will be the Coogs’ job in week 3 of the 2020 season to go to Memphis and solve the Tigers on the road for the first time since 2014.
As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, the Tigers return an enviable amount of talent from an offense that was excellent by any qualitative or quantitative measure.
In addition to being an excellent head coach for all the reasons I mentioned in the previous section, Norvell was an excellent offensive play caller. The Tigers’ ‘low point’ under Norvell was averaging 38.8 points/game in his first season (2016) and they never averaged below 40 points in the following 3 seasons.
Kevin Johns is well-regarded enough as an offensive mind that he coached under great spread offense minds like Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech, 2018), Kevin Wilson (Indiana, 2011-16) and of course Norvell. Johns wasn’t the play caller either of the last 2 seasons, but the last time he did his 2017 Western Michigan offense was 26th nationally in points/game.
On the field it all starts with 6th year doctoral student (not a joke, he is) Brady White, entering his 3rd year as the Tigers’ starting quarterback. I’ve been one of many to ridicule White by saying he’s solely the product of talent around him at back and receiver, and I was one of many to be proven laughably wrong in 2019.
White passed for 4,014 yards and 33 touchdowns last year, while also completing 64% of his passes and averaging an absurd 9.5 yards/pass attempt. Its one thing to complete about 2/3 of your passes in an offense heavy on screens and high percentage throws, but White did all of that while running one of the country’s most 'vertical' and explosive offenses.
I don’t know what the Tigers’ long-term plan is when White’s college eligibility finally runs out, but there isn’t a team in the AAC with a healthy QB (in case any UCF fans read this and send me letter bombs for not tacitly acknowledging McKenzie Milton) more accomplished than the Tigers’ starter.
It’s the definition of an embarrassment of riches to go from having the 2018 Division 1-FBS rushing yards leader (Darrell Henderson) to a freshman All-American and unanimous 1st team All-AAC selection with over 2,000 all-purpose yards in Kenneth Gainwell. Last year, Gainwell led all players in the conference in yards from scrimmage, averaged 6.3 yards/carry, accounted for 13 of the team’s 32 rushing touchdowns and finished 2nd on the team with 51 receptions.
Let’s also acknowledge he has the perfect name for a running back here, too.
Gainwell will certainly be this offense’s bell cow in 2020, but junior Kylan Watkins established himself as the clear #2 running back by the end of last season and finished with 325 rush yards on 5.2 yards/carry.
Damonte Coxie deciding to return for his senior season after leading the AAC in receiving yards (1,276) last year and coming off back-to-back 1,000+ yard seasons was a coup for Silverfield. UH faced a lot of really good receivers in 2019, but other than maybe Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb I don’t think I saw another opposing receiver better than Coxie.
The Tigers do lose some of last year’s key weapons from the receiver group: multi-year starting tight end Joey Magnifco and receivers Antonio Gibson and Kedarian Jones. That trio represented 97 receptions, 1,670 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns last year.
The diminutive (listed 5’9”) junior Calvin Austin III is the only returning Tiger, besides Coxie and Gainwell, who last year had more than 6 receptions. If I had to guess, senior Sean Dykes (a product of Manvel High School) will get the first shot at replacing Magnifico at tight end.
In the 2020 signing class the Tigers brought in 4 receivers who were rated to be at least mid 3-star recruits, although the highest rated recruit (Kudarrius Taylor) recently announced he was leaving the program after joining for spring ball.
I still don’t think this Tiger offense will struggle, but receiver is one group where the new staff has questions to answer.
Last year’s biggest question mark was offensive line and in part thanks to 2nd straight year of freakishly good injury luck up front, the Tigers were able to break in 3 new starters and still function as the backbone of a great offense.
As for that freakishly good injury luck, the Tigers had the exact same starting 5 O linemen all 14 games of 2018 and had the same line up all last year until their season finale: the Cotton Bowl. For comparison, last year UH started 9 different combinations of O linemen.
Maybe the biggest recruiting haul of the Norvell era was getting one-time 4-star recruit and current junior Obinna Eze to turn down Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and many other names to play at Memphis.
There were some growing pains for Eze as he started 13 out of 14 games at left tackle last year, but he also has the kind of frame and athleticism you see from Day 1 NFL draft picks. I’m not saying he’s there yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he is after the 2021 season.
Senior Manuel Orona-Lopez started every game at right guard for the Tigers last year, seeing his first Division 1 action after redshirting 2018 and beginning his college career at Glendale Community College. Junior Dylan Parham projects to be a 4-year starter at left guard and has played nearly every snap since his freshman season.
If I had to guess who will start at the opposite tackle spot of Eze, it’d be junior Brian Thomas, who started at left tackle in the Cotton Bowl. But its hard to really project who will fill in the 2 offensive line spots vacated by graduation, as the Tigers haven’t had their depth at this position tested for a while.
Out of all the assistant coach hires Silverfield made, hiring offensive line coach Jim Bridge away from Duke may have been the most impressive. Bridge spent the last 4 years with a Blue Devils program at their peak in the modern era andalso has extensive ACC and Big Ten experience on his resume.
There are questions that still need answers with this offense, mainly: did the offensive mojo leave with Norvell and can a receiver not named Damonte Coxie turn into a difference maker.
But I think there’s too much talent here for the Tiger offense to take much of a step back and if the last several years are indicator, there are no shortage of explosive athletes ready to take the place of departed players.
There are so many bitter pills for me to swallow as it relates to Memphis football as a UH fan, as mentioned here at the beginning. But few pills were more bitter than Adam Fuller leaving after a successful stint at Marshall to become Memphis’ defensive coordinator.
I spent a lot of December 2018, after UH mercy killed the 2-year tenure of Mark D’Onofrio, pining for UH to hire Fuller on social media. Unfortunately, by the time UH pulled the plug on Major Applewhite Fuller had already taken the DC job at Memphis.
And while I have written at length here what a great play caller and evaluator of player and coaching talent that Norvell was here, the addition of Fuller was truly the ‘missing piece’ for Memphis football getting over the hump from good team to elite team.
The Tigers shaved 5.5 points off their points/game allowed in 2019 and were dramatically improved by every quantitative metric under Fuller. In back-to-back must-win games against Cincinnati, first to clinch the West division and then for the AAC championship, the Tiger offense was held under their season average but won both games with strong defense.
Fuller departed with Norvell for Tallahassee, but a defense that was good for most of 2019 and is top 30 nationally in returning production remains. And as high as I am on Fuller, the Tigers might have upgraded with their new DC: Mike MacIntyre.
If that name sounds familiar, MacIntyre was a head coach from 2010-18 at San Jose State and Colorado.
At SJSU MacIntyre let the team to a 10-2 record in 2012 and this was the first and only season where the Spartans finished a season in the BCS top 25. This led to MacIntyre taking the Colorado job and in 2016 the Buffs won the PAC-12 South, won MacIntyre basically every 'Coach of the Year' award and went bowling for their first and only time to date in the PAC-12.
Maybe the most interesting piece of totally random trivia I picked up writing this preview is that his father George MacIntyre also won the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year in 1982, when he led Vanderbilt to 8 wins.
Ultimately, MacIntyre was ousted at Colorado after 1 winning season in 6 and took over as Ole Miss DC last year and cut the Rebels points/game allowed by 10 and oversaw noticeable improvement on that side of the ball. It wasn’t enough to save his boss Matt Luke’s job and Ole Miss’ loss ended up being Memphis’ gain.
Up front I expect Memphis will still primarily feature 3-down linemen, like they did the entirety of Norvell’s time as head coach.
In the middle senior O’Bryan Goodson is uncommonly experienced for an interior linemen, with 38 career starts in his first 3 seasons. Goodson’s job is still primary to occupy multiple blockers and allow the linebackers to occupy run lanes, but still managed an impressive 7 TFLs in 2019.
This group does lose 2 primary starters from 2019: Bryce Huff (now on the New York Jets) and Jonathan Wilson. Huff led the Tigers in both sacks, QB hurries and TFLs last year.
Senior Joseph Dorceus finished just behind Huff last year in sacks and TFLs, finishing with 5 and 14.5 respectively in those categories. Dorceus is actually one of 8 Texans on the Tigers' spring 2020 roster.
In rotation roles senior Morris Joseph and sophomore Jalil Clemmons also saw a fair amount of action last year and could play bigger roles up front. Clemmons could slot into the spot vacated by Huff. His playing time decreased last year, but senior John Tate IV has also seen a fair amount of game action over his career.
The Tigers linebacker group also lost a key multi-year starter: Austin Hall, who started 51 career games and led the team last year in total tackles, pass breakups and fumble recoveries. But after Hall, the Tigers return their next 5 leading tacklers from 2019 and a few of them are in this linebacker group.
Junior Zay Cullens finished 2nd on the team in total tackles, while rotating with senior Thomas Pickens at strongside linebacker. Both guys now transition from being first-time starters to experienced upperclassmen leaders on this defense.
Senior middle linebacker JJ Russell returns after starting nearly all of the last 2 seasons and had 58 total tackles and 5.5 TFLs last year.
The worst snub from last year’s AAC all-conference football teams, outside of Josh Jones being 2nd team, was Tiger senior cornerback TJ Carter not being on either the 1st or 2nd team. Granted, Carter was a 2nd team selection in both 2017 and 2018.
The fact that Carter finished 2019 with 7 pass breakups (2nd on the team) is impressive when you consider basically every Memphis opponent is game planning around avoiding throwing to his side of the field.
Carter’s opposite side of the field counterpart: senior Jacobi Francis, who started all 14 games and led the team with 8 pass breakups, along with 35 total tackles and an interception.
Despite missing 4 games, junior strong safety Sanchez Blake Jr finished with a team-high 49 solo tackles and tied for the team lead with 2 interceptions. Fellow junior free safety La’Andre Thomas finished just behind Blake with 47 solo tackles, while starting all 14 games.
In Blake’s absence, sophomore Quindell Johnson started 4 games at strong safety (including the Houston game), finished the season with 58 total tackles and tied Hall and Blake with 2 interceptions of his own.
I don’t want to hand waive the significance of replacing multi-year starters from last year’s group like Huff and Hall, but MacIntyre brings an impressive resume and I think the Tigers will continue to have one of the AAC’s better defenses.
For the last 5-6 years, corresponding with the Tigers’ rise in overall fortunes, they have featured truly excellent special teams.
Current Philadelphia Eagles kicker Jake Elliott made at least 80% of his field goals 3 of the 4 years he was at Memphis and Tony Pollard returned 7 career kick returns for a touchdown from 2016-18.
Elliott’s successor, senior Riley Patterson hit an incredible 23 of 25 field goal attempts last year and has made 80.3% of his career kicks (49-61).
If you want to know how important special teams were to this team last year, all 3 of the Tigers’ 2019 kick return TDs came in relatively close wins (Navy, SMU and the first Cincy game). Every one of those games becomes a tossup without a return TD.
The bad news for the Tigers is their top 2 kick returners and punt returns have graduated. I don’t know who the new staff plans to use, but it seems inevitable they’ll find somebody who's a burner and scoring threat. I have no idea if they’ll even use him there, but Kenneth Gainwell in the open field on returns is a terrifying thought.
Back to the good news though, the Tigers return junior punter Adam Williams, who has a career 43.9 yards/punt average and primary long snapper junior Treysen Neal.
I was impressed when Silverfield retained special teams coordinator Pete Lembo who oversaw an excellent group in 2019 and in 2018 oversaw a Rice group that was top-30 nationally in special teams SP+. Lembo also brings over a decade of head coaching experience (Ball State, Elon, Lehigh) and the value of that can’t be overstated on a team led by a first-time head coach.
Matching Up with the Coogs:
With respect to Rice and Washington State, Memphis in week 3 is going to be a real gut check for this Cougar defense.
No matter how optimistic I am about the 2020 Cougar defense, they’ll be facing an offense with most of their key players back and more coaching continuity than you usually see after a head coaching change.
What made the 2019 game so discouraging was how quickly the Tiger offense snuffed all hope out of the Coogs and more than any other game that season things looked like the dismal 2nd half of 2018 defense (without the explosive 2018 offense).
But I do like the idea of Damarion Williams, who had arguably his worst game of 2019 against Memphis, coming back for revenge after struggling with Damonte Coxie last year. That game clearly lit a fire under Williams and he had his best game of 2019 the very next week against Tulsa and I’m positive he’s itching for a rematch.
And if Williams can sometimes shut down Coxie, I kind of like the matchup of other Cougar corners like Marcus Jones, Kelvin Clemmons, Art Green or Colin Samuel against the unproven receivers behind Coxie.
There’s no way I can spin it, Kenneth Gainwell is going to be an extremely difficult player to defend. He’s going to frustrate all or nearly all of the defenses that face Memphis next season.
If you want a mildly encouraging sign, the Cougar defense held the Tigers to well under their season rushing average and to a modest 4.2 yards/carry when they faced off last season.
If nothing else, Gainwell will be a good test of how much improvement we’ll see from what should be a veteran Cougar defensive front.
Another critical test will be how well Clayton Tune can get the ball to Marquez Stevenson, Keith Corbin and the like while facing a Tiger secondary that returns everyone.
Stevenson had his moments last time out against the Tigers, catching a 53-yard TD on the game’s opening drive and leading the Coogs in receiving yards. The real test will be whether any other Cougar can make plays, because Stevenson will get his win or lose.
The one area where the Coogs may have a favorable match-up is in the run game. The Tigers lose a few key, multi-year starters and I’m bullish on the Cougar rushing offense going into 2020. Its worth noting, other than a 65-yard Tune TD run the Tigers suffocated the Cougar run game last season.
I am slightly more optimistic about the Cougars’ chances in week 3 at Memphis than when I started this preview. But make no mistake the Tigers will be a big favorite and the Coogs will need to play mistake free football to get their first win at the Liberty Bowl since 2014.