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High Hopes

With perennial optimism, a young Tiger football team looks on the bright side.

by Dennis Freeland

t was no surprise that the Memphis football team was optimistic. It was Fan Day last Friday and a large crowd came out to see the 1998 Tigers. To a man, the players said they were looking forward to getting started. Well, as much as one can look forward to what is essentially two weeks of boot camp in the hot Memphis sun.

Every year since I began covering this program in 1992, Memphis players have expressed confidence at the start of the season. And every year the season would turn into a struggle. Injuries, mistakes, boycotts, something always happened and even the most talented teams (like the 1993 squad with Steve Matthews and Isaac Bruce) somehow found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard at places like Cincinnati and Lafayette, Louisiana.

Faith and optimism are the fuel of success. But let’s take a moment to realistically assess this Tiger team.

Strengths: Start with the defensive line, a deep, quick, talented mix of youngsters (Calvin Lewis, Jarvis Slaton, Tommy Vollmar) and veterans (Marquis Bowling, T.J. Frier, and Manny Santibanez). Memphis can easily play eight men regularly, which should keep the line fresh for late-game charges. The defensive line should provide the foundation for one of the best defenses in Conference USA.

The defensive backfield should also be strong and deep. Returning starters Mike McKenzie (who will miss the opener at Ole Miss due to a one-game suspension), Jeremy Stewart, and Keith Cobb form a solid nucleus. A couple of players need to step up. They will come from a promising group which includes true sophomore Fred Powell, redshirt sophomore Kosha Irby, redshirt freshman Idrees Bashir, true freshman Keydrin Ward from Melrose, and even two walk-ons, Reginald Howard (Kirby) and Michael Stone from Michigan.

On the offensive side, the strength is at wide receiver, where veterans Damien Dodson, Richie Floyd, and Boo Blevins are joined by redshirt junior Ken Coutain and redshirt sophomore Al Sermon. Throw in junior P.T. Jones and true freshman Derrick Harmon (East) and you have as good a receiving corps as the Tigers have had since the days of Ricky Rivas, Earnest Gray, and Keith Wright.

But good receivers are useless unless the quarterback can get them the ball, and the quarterback is limited by how much time he has to throw. That brings us to …

Question Marks: The quarterbacks are young and promising, but thoroughly untested. Redshirt sophomore Kenton Evans has matured greatly over the past two years. He seems ready now to lead this team. Evans will be pushed by Stephen Galbraith and Neil Suber, while true freshman Travis Anglin is confident, athletic, and anxious for a chance to prove himself. How head coach Rip Scherer handles this bunch will make an interesting story. The missing ingredient here is confidence and experience, not talent. Should Scherer go with one player and stick with him? Should he give each a chance to prove themselves on the field? A tough call for the coach.

The offensive line has improved every year since Scherer arrived in 1995. This year the line is deep but young. Left tackle Ron Sells is the veteran. He and fellow senior Chris Powers (converted from tight end to center) will anchor a line that is promising but unproven. How fast will huge DeCorye Hampton develop? Can redshirt freshman Atis Hicks handle a starting job so soon? What about Westwood’s Austin O’Dell, one of the five from Memphis who caused such a stir in the recruiting class of ’96? Is he ready to play? Last year, senior Dan Gomez anchored the line. He had played for four different line coaches in four seasons. Co-offensive coordinator David Magazu is in his second year grooming the offensive line. The job his troops do this year could well determine the fate of this Tiger team. If they block and protect the quarterback, giving him time to find the outstanding receivers, the offense could bloom. If not, the offense will continue to struggle. It’s that simple.

On defense the only real question mark is at linebacker. Kamal Shakir was named to the C-USA all-freshman team last season. He’s back along with junior Caspor Stiles and sophomore DeMorrio Shank. After that, a regular player or two must emerge from a group that includes converted receiver Ian Williams, who looked promising in the spring, junior Michael Boatman, juco transfer Corey Irby, and redshirt freshman Nick Tsatsaronis.

On balance this team faces considerably fewer question marks than the past three Rip Scherer teams. That, it seems to me, is a sign of progress. But the schedule, with three of the first four games away from home, is tougher.

Whether or not the pre-season optimism is justified is another, much tougher question.


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