In a conference that’s become synonymous with coaching upheaval its impressive how much of that Memphis continues to absorb without seemingly any kind of drop off.
To wit, Tigers head coach Mike Norvell is now on his 4th offensive coordinator in as many years because Notre Dame, Texas A&M and most recently Auburn decided they liked what they saw. Yet even with this instability the Tigers have won 2 AAC West championships and performed admirably in 2 close losses to UCF for the league title.
Truly the last 5 years have been ‘glory days’ for a program with shockingly few of them in its long history. The long shadow of the SEC, a sometimes-incompetent athletic department that prioritized hoops and iffy fan interest prevented all but the occasional breakout season from Tiger football.
But Justin Fuente and now Norvell went after talented kids the SEC schools overlooked in their footprint and made periodic forays into states like Texas, Georgia and Louisiana while smartly taking JC’s and D1 transfers. What I noticed in putting together this preview is Memphis football is no longer simply living on smart evaluation and D1 bounce backs.
No, at present time they are starting to beat SEC and other ‘power conference’ schools head to head for recruits. Considering when they were invited to the AAC most of their sports history began and ended with hoops, this is good news for the continued strength of the league’s football product.
Something else has developed too since Memphis joined the AAC, specifically between the Tigers and Houston.
My time as a Cougar fan doesn’t stretch as far back as some, but I don’t recall the Tigers and Cougars having memorable games when both were members of Conference USA. Houston often was not good in the league’s first 8-9 seasons (Memphis was only somewhat better) and Memphis wasn’t very good for the last 7-8 years when UH finally figured things out with some consistency.
Except for a brutally hot 2013 UH win at a 75% empty BBVA Compass stadium every game these 2 teams have played as AAC members has been quite compelling:
· 2014: Houston hands Memphis their only conference loss of the season: 28-24 at the Liberty Bowl, with a converted receiver named Greg Ward Jr making his first career start at QB for the Cougars.
· 2015: What looked like a disaster of a game with Ward Jr going out injured and the Tigers holding a 34-14 lead in the early 4th quarter set the stage for a manic comeback by backup QB Kyle Postma and the Coogs. That the game ended on a missed field goal by future NFL kicker Jake Elliott may have been only the 3rd craziest thing from a 35-34 Cougar win.
· 2016: On the day after Thanksgiving Memphis unceremoniously ended the Tom Herman era at Houston with a 48-44 shootout win, capped by an Anthony Miller game-winning TD reception with 19 seconds left.
· 2017: In what ended up being the de facto AAC West title game, Memphis shook off a first half where they scored 0 points by outscoring the Coogs 42-21 in the 2nd half. The Tigers capitalized on an unfathomably bad Major Applewhite decision to punt on 4th & short with a game-winning drive capped by a Sean Dykes TD reception with 1:28 left for a 42-38 Tiger win.
· 2018: Of all the games here, this was the least dramatic. But for the 2nd year in a row it ended up deciding the AAC West crown. With Ed Oliver suiting up and playing hurt/out of position, the Coogs’ run defense kept Memphis in check and went into the half up 21-17. With Oliver sidelined in the 2nd half, Memphis ran wild for what ended up being 401 rush yards, a 52-31 victory and the AAC West division title for a 2nd straight year.
If I had to guess, there’s a good chance the 2019 game between these two teams will decide the West once again.
This is a Memphis team that’s easily the most talented and experienced group Norvell has had and that’s not great news for the rest of the conference.
The Tigers Offense:
That Norvell quickly solved the problem of replacing Paxton Lynch, to that point the best QB in Memphis history, was a sign of how skilled the Tigers’ head coach is at evaluating the position.
Lynch’s successor: Riley Ferguson, ended up having at least an equally successful 2 years as starting QB and set the bar almost impossibly high for the next guy.
The next guy ended up being junior Brady White who was recruited by Norvell to Arizona State where he played from 2015-17. White redshirted in 2015 and then missed most of 2016-17 with injuries and somehow was a redshirt sophomore grad transfer for the Tigers last year. This August, White will complete his master’s degree from Memphis. Does that mean he’ll be taking snaps this fall as a doctoral student?
White’s season numbers (3,296 passing yards, 24 TD, 9 INT, 8.4 yds/attempt) were quite solid considering how much ‘rust’ he had to shake off from years of not playing. If you exclude a soft 2018 non-conference schedule and league opener vs UConn, White’s numbers are a bit less impressive (2,138 pass yds, 13 TD, 9 INT).
Last year’s best offensive weapon by a large margin, running back Darrell Henderson, left early for the pros. It’s easy to see why Henderson left, despite only averaging 16.5 carries per game he was just 91 rushing yards short of a 2,000-yard season. The Tigers also lost Tony Pollard who was invaluable as an offensive ‘swiss army knife’ and one of the best kick returners in college football history.
In Henderson’s new absence the Tigers return last year’s #2 back senior Patrick Taylor Jr (from nearby Atascocita HS) who rushed for 1,122 yards and 16 TDs last season. Taylor Jr also had over 1,400 yards between his freshman and sophomore seasons, both years finishing 2nd on the team. He’s less explosive than Henderson but does the between the tackles running as well as anyone in this conference.
There’s little experience behind Taylor Jr, but redshirt freshman Kenneth Gainwell turned heads with his ability to break off big runs at the Tigers’ ‘Friday Night Stripes’ spring game.
Arguably the biggest surprise on last year’s offense was junior Da’Monte Coxie, who improved from a solid freshman season to be the most reliable receiver on the team. Coxie led the Tigers in receptions (72), receiving yards (1,174) and TD receptions (7). With a more experienced QB now throwing him the ball, Coxie could certainly be among the league’s top receivers.
If Coxie is the deep threat, senior Pop Williams is the classic undersized ‘move the sticks’ slot receiver. Williams had 33 receptions and 2 TDs last year and was also the league’s top-rated punt returner.
Multi-year starting tight end senior Joey Magnifico is back after having nearly 25% of his receptions go for touchdowns (5 out of 21) last year. Magnifico also led the Tigers in yards per reception, which is certainly not something you see often from a tight end. Like Coxie, I expect Magnifico’s numbers to get a boost this fall with an improvement in the passing game.
Offensive line is the big question mark for the Tigers as 3 multi-year starters, including All-AAC left tackle Trevon Tate, graduated. This is in stark contrast to last year when the Tigers started the same 5 guys for all 14 games, and not coincidentally had an elite rushing attack.
Anything I saw written about how the Tigers looked in spring mentioned that there were growing pains with new faces and guys playing in new positions on the line.
The most experienced returning starter, senior Dustin Woodard, is moving from guard to center with the graduation of 4-year starter Drew Kyser. The other returning starter is sophomore Dylan Parham, who played nearly 95% of all offensive snaps at left guard.
Outside of Woodard and Parham, no other lineman on the Tiger roster has started a Division 1 game. Massive (listed 6’8” & 303 lbs.) sophomore Obinna Eze, a 4-star recruit, got the first crack at being the new left tackle and it went poorly at times in the ‘Friday Night Stripes’ game. The staff also brought in JC offensive tackles John Dale (Jones County JC) and Brian Thomas (Hutchinson CC) as insurance if some of the returning guys aren’t ready to play.
If the Tigers can get a talented, but inexperienced, group of offensive linemen to gel then this could easily be the AAC’s best offense. That ‘if’ is not a small one though.
The Tigers Defense:
Other than doing a slightly above average job creating negative plays the Tiger defense hasn’t been very good the last 2 years and the team’s overall recent success is more in spite of the defense. The previous defensive coordinator left to be Northern Arizona’s head coach, allowing Norvell to do what he’s done so well on offense and replace a coordinator.
On paper, new defensive coordinator Adam Fuller is a home run hire. When he was finally given a chance to run the Marshall defense last year it was one the best run defenses in college football and was the Thundering Herd’s best defense period in decades. Fuller’s excellent track record as a position coach, special teams coordinator and lower level DC should only serve to strengthen the case of him being an excellent hire.
Even though they weren’t that great last year, the Tigers’ defense was at least unbelievably young in all areas. That kind of youth at least gives you hope for those players figuring things out and coalescing into a good unit.
The main schematic change seems to be moving from a 3-man front to 4-man and having the best pass rushers mainly work as defensive ends.
One of those new ends is senior Bryce Huff who led the Tigers in TFLs (19.0), sacks (9.5) and tied for best on the team in QB hits (7) while being named 2nd team All-AAC. Former walk-on junior Joseph Dorceus led all Tiger defensive linemen in tackles last year (50 total, 30 solo) and tied with Huff for the team lead in QB hits. Since Dorceus was less of a natural pass rusher, I’ll be interested to see if he moves to one of the interior line spots.
There is also a healthy amount of returning experience on the interior. Junior O’Bryan Goodson started 23 games in his first 2 seasons and over 1/3 of his tackles last year were TFLs. That kind of number is even more impressive considering he was an interior lineman in a 3-4 scheme. Junior John Tate IV also played a fair amount as a rotation lineman and like Goodson created negative plays on a high percentage of the snaps he played.
Out of all the returning linemen, the wild card is redshirt freshman Kayode Oladele, a 4-star recruit from Miami. Oladele came to the US from Nigeria in 2015 and was only able to play 1 year of high school football, but still had offers from half the SEC and a laundry list of P5 schools.
In addition to all the talent back from last year, the staff also brought in a pair of JC defensive ends who participated in spring practice: Wardalis Ducksworth (Jones County JC) and Everitt Cunningham (East Mississippi CC). I saw both guys mentioned by name in summaries of the spring game.
And if that wasn’t enough, 3 of the Tigers’ top 4 rated high school recruits are listed as defensive ends including top-rated recruit Cole Mashburn who enrolled in January.
The most notable loss on defense came from the linebacker group with the graduation of Curtis Akins, who led the team in tackles last year.
One of the team’s most interesting stories: walk-on turned 4-year starter senior Austin Hall, played a linebacker/safety hybrid position last year and is now listed as just a linebacker on the latest roster. Hall had 64 total tackles, 9 TFLs and a team-best 2 fumble recoveries in 2018.
They also return last year’s primary starter at the weakside (‘Will’) linebacker position: junior JJ Russell, who had 8.5 TFLs and 3 sacks in 13 starts. The best candidate to replace Akins as the starting strongside (‘Sam’) linebacker is junior Tim Hart who has started 13 games the last 2 years.
Another returning starter adding to the crowd at linebacker is junior Josh Perry who is now listed as a linebacker after spending last year as the primary starter at Nickel back.
The Tiger secondary was probably the youngest position group on the entire time last year as 8 of their top 9 tacklers were freshmen or sophomores a year ago. That kind of youth can be painful in the short term, but the picture is a lot rosier now with nearly every player back.
Junior TJ Carter was the team’s top cover corner last year and despite being avoided by most opponents, he still led the team with 12 pass breakups and 2 interceptions. Incredibly, Carter was also 2nd on the team in solo tackles (58) and 3rd in total tackles (68). He was named 2nd team All-AAC each of the last 2 seasons as well.
Both primary starting safeties, junior Tyrez Lindsey (71 total tackles- 2nd on team) and sophomore Sanchez Blake Jr. (47 total tackles, 3 pass breakups) are also back.
Someone to watch will be sophomore Calito Gonzalez, a one-time Auburn signee and high 3-star recruit who played a bunch the 2nd half of 2017 but missed most of last year. Another name I saw come up a bunch in write-ups about the Tigers spring was junior Chris Claybrooks, another cornerback competing for more playing time.
Just because a lot of the same guys from last year’s defense are a year older, it doesn’t mean this will automatically transform into a good defense. But to be useful for this Memphis team they just need to be around average.
I think it’s very realistic that this returning talent plus what I believe is a good coordinator hire can produce at least an average defense.
The Tigers Special Teams:
After losing the previous special teams coordinator to Penn State, Norvell plucked Rice’s ST coordinator Pete Lembo. The background of Lembo isn’t exactly typical, as he won 100+ games as a head coach between Lehigh, Elon and Ball State before spending the last 3 years as an ST coordinator at Maryland and Rice.
In his lone year at Rice, the Owls may have been the nation’s most improved special teams group, highlighted by All-American punter Jack Fox.
As I mentioned earlier the Tigers lose an elite kick returner in Tony Pollard and his 7 career kick return touchdowns (another big shout out to Major Applewhite for kicking to him in 2017). But the good news is basically everyone returns except Pollard.
Sophomore Adam Williams had a 43.2 yds/punt average, which was top 5 in the conference and had 22 punts downed inside opponents’ 20. Junior Riley Patterson was an overall solid 15-20 on field goals last year but missed 3 extra points and 2 kicks of less than 40 yards, so there’s room for growth.
As inexperienced as the kick return game is, the AAC’s top punt returner senior Pop Williams is back after averaging 10.8 yards per return with 1 punt return TD and earning 1st team All-AAC honors in 2018.
The schedule features a decent challenge out of the gate in local rival Ole Miss. I expect a large and hostile pro-Memphis crowd at the Liberty Bowl on the opening Saturday for that one. The Tigers should be favorites here, although they’ll get tested by a good Rebel offense coordinated by Rich Rodriguez.
After that though the schedule is remarkably friendly, with maybe the exception of a roadie to Temple. The only other solid teams in the stretch after Ole Miss are Tulane and SMU, who the Tigers also will face at home.
The November 16th road trip to Houston will likely be the stiffest test the Tigers get between the opener and hosting Cincinnati in the regular season finale.
Memphis isn’t just a hot pick to win the AAC West because of their returning talent (which is a compelling reason enough) but they have a schedule almost tailor-made for a 3rd straight conference title game appearance.
Matching Up with Houston:
Projecting how this game will look is getting more and more difficult as I go into this preview series. We’re talking about a game that’ll occur almost 4 months from now. How the Cougars and Tigers will look in November is probably different than how they look in September, which I am also basically making educated guesses about.
Last time these teams faced off the Coogs used an effective run game in the 1st half to get a lead and the Tigers used theirs to pummel the Coogs mercilessly in the 2nd half. It was one of former Cougar OC Kendal Briles’ most bizarrely-called games. Specifically, true freshman Clayton Tune was asked to drop back almost 50 times in his first career start in bad weather and Patrick Carr only got 12 carries the entire game, despite averaging almost 7 yards per carry.
Both teams’ offenses will be a bit more pass-happy than they were a year ago owing to UH’s coaching change and Memphis losing Henderson. I expect both teams’ offenses will be well above average, if not around the top 15-20 nationally.
The difference will be which team and 1st year coordinator has figured out the defensive side of the ball more. Memphis returns so much experience and the new Houston staff has turned heads with how aggressively they brought in talented defensive transfers. Which one will jell when the games start counting for real is the ‘million-dollar question’?
In preseason projections the Tigers are somewhere around a touchdown favorite, but a lot of things can and will change in a few months’ time…