Five angles to consider as the Memphis Tigers (and Mississippi State Bulldogs) open the college football season Thursday night.
• Catch 22 — If there’s a single uniform number to watch Thursday night (and beyond), it would be that of sophomore tailback Jerrell Rhodes. A football team minus a running game is like a car minus its radials. Last season, Memphis rushed for a total of 1,099 yards (91.6 per game), the second-lowest total in the program’s history. There were countless second-and-longs for the Tigers a year ago. Worse, the Tigers scored exactly five rushing touchdowns in 12 games.
Rhodes will be the guy this season. He carried the ball 116 times as a freshman for 469 yards (second on the team to the departed Greg Ray). His carries should at least double this fall, even with the presence of freshmen Carl Harris and Artaves Gibson (Mitchell High School). Rhodes nursed some minor injuries through training camp, but there was a telling image late in practice two weeks ago. As the rest of the running backs worked through drills a few yards away, Rhodes performed a shuffle and ball-catching exercise with a personal instructor: head coach Larry Porter.
• He’s got the look — Say this about Andy Summerlin: He looks like a quarterback. The 23-year-old sophomore stands 6’5” and weighs 220 pounds. (Peyton Manning is 6’5”, 230.) Working through drills alongside Skylar Jones (6’1”, 190) and Taylor Reed (6’3”, 215), Summerlin looks like a lead dog. Whether or not he earns the responsibility of the offense’s most important position will come down to how many mistakes he makes. Since taking over the program, Porter has emphasized his quarterback will be the player who is (1) consistent and (2) mistake-free. The job, in Porter’s eyes, is getting the ball into the hands of playmakers . . . and keeping it out of the hands of the defense. About as basic a job description as any signal-caller could ask. It will be compelling to see how quick Porter’s hook will be should Summerlin falter. Reed appears game-ready himself.
• Size matters . . . — Rhodes and his ball-carrying buddies will go nowhere without a few gaping holes opened by the Tiger offensive line. Three starters must be replaced from the 2010 unit (and if you look at those rushing numbers, this isn’t a bad thing). A pair of gargantuan newcomers — Jordan Devey (6-7, 315) and Nick Chartain (6-5, 320) — may start as early as the opener Thursday night. Senior Ron Leary (6-3, 325) returns and should man the critical left-tackle position. The Antonescu brothers (A.J. and Michael) will also play significant roles in the trenches.
• . . . and so does speed — You can see size in practice. Matter of fact, you can see Jordan Devey’s size in a meeting room. But speed? You can’t tell if a team has speed until it lines up against an opponent and the ball is snapped. The 2010 Tigers were woefully short in the speed department. Linebackers were outrun by ball carriers. Defensive backs were outrun by receivers. And on the offensive side of the ball, there was little separation between Tiger ball carriers and opposing tacklers. It’s an ugly shortcoming to recognize, but doesn’t take long. Memphis must close this gap (literally) to win more games this season.
• Larry Porter 2.0 — Is this the warm-and-fuzzy Coach Porter Memphis has been waiting for? Hosting radio programs, lunch meetings with local businesses, whistling on his way to work. You’d almost call his disposition sunny. After enduring a 1-11 season as a first-year coach, what gives?
Here’s a theory on why Porter was so reserved this time last year, why he ruffled some media feathers by shutting off freshmen and assistant coaches: he knew what was coming. Tiger fans have to hope that the program bottomed out in 2010. A single win and very few games competitive by halftime. It was a team with no strengths (possible exception: an emerging kicking game). Had Porter, as a first-year coach, chosen to pontificate about the hopes, dreams, and possibilities of his squad, he would have looked foolish by October. The guess here is that he knew that. So we (in the media) got the reserved treatment.
Now, by opening up and embracing the public-relations side of his job, is Porter forecasting a successful 2011? When you consider a record of 2-10 would be, by relative measure, a successful campaign, I think he is. There will be more Porter recruits on the field this fall. His staff has a sense of how game week will unfold. Any decent coach will learn from mistakes . . . but he has to make them (as the head man) first. This is a new variable for a second-year coach. Larry Porter may never be warm and fuzzy, but the version we see this season will be closer to the one around which the U of M football program must be built.