There's a question University of Memphis football coach Tommy West doesn't exactly relish answering: "Is the Tiger program where it should be?" West isn't the squirming type, but after eight years at the helm of a football program still seeking its first Conference USA championship, the question forces this otherwise decisive man to deliberate, at least mildly.
"I don't know if you're ever satisfied as a coach," West says, coming off a 6-7 campaign that saw his Tigers lose to South Florida in the St. Petersburg Bowl. "You always want more. I'm proud of what we've accomplished here. It had been 27 years since we'd had a 7-win season, and we've had four of them in the last six years. And you can't take bowl appearances for granted, because I'll tell you who hasn't been to five in the last six years: Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee. So we're doing something that not everyone else is.
"The next step is to compete for a championship. I wanted to be a consistent bowl team first, and we are. I started two years ago, trying to prepare to compete for a [conference] championship. It's a dog fight."
Among the primary challenges in steering a college-football ship is the sheer number of moving parts. A roster that includes around 100 athletes must be divided into cohesive units (offensive line, linebackers, secondary, etc.) that must then cohere in the larger units (offense, defense, special teams) that determine the course the ship will take over three months and 12 games. Examining the 2009 Memphis Tigers, West is convinced his units — measured individually — are as strong as he's had. But can they win consistently with a schedule as tough as any in recent memory? West provides a forecast, one unit at a time.
If West has a chief concern entering this Sunday's opener against Ole Miss, it's an offensive line that must replace four of five starters from 2008. Junior Dominik Riley — a preseason all-conference selection who can play guard or center — will anchor the line, but the rest of the unit will be forced to grow together and on the job.
"I'm not overly concerned," West says, "because we've been here before. This is a chemistry position, and we have to get all five of them playing together. [Offensive line coach] Rick Mallory does a really good job of getting them all on the same page. We are very inexperienced.
"Dominik will be the leader of the line, no question. Malcom Rawls has played some, so he has to be a good player for us. Brad Paul has to be a contributor. We moved Joel McCleod from defense to guard. Ron Leary is our right tackle, and he's probably the most talented of all of them. He's a big, strong guy." West is looking for an extra dose of athleticism among candidates for left tackle, to handle speed rushers.
If West isn't worried about his starting five this fall, their substitutes do have him scratching his head. "This is a place where we need to stay healthy," West says. "The depth is going to be very inexperienced."
"We're faster and stronger than we've ever been," West says of his pass-catching corps. "It's funny how it works. At Clemson, I couldn't get a tall receiver. But here, we've just had an abundance of big, tall wideouts. I said when I took this job, that it's a skill job. There are a lot of skilled players around us; linemen, now, are hard to get."
Barring injury, Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton will finish their senior season as the most accomplished receivers in Tiger history. Calhoun needs four receptions and 66 yards to establish new U of M records, while Singleton needs 23 catches and 266 yards to pass the same standards. Add to the mix 6'-3" freshman Marcus Rucker — MVP of the Tigers' spring game — and the Tigers will stretch the field with the best of them in C-USA, if not the entire country. Of Rucker, West says he has "tremendous ball skills at going up and coming down with the ball." If there's a new face to watch, it's freshman Marcus Hightower from Whitehaven High School, who was redshirted last season.
Tiger fans can be excused for considering 2009 the "Year IV A.D." (After DeAngelo Williams). While Williams, the reigning NFL touchdown champion, has the Tiger fight song on his phone, his successors are starting to earn their own stripes. Senior Curtis Steele — another preseason all-conference pick — is coming off a campaign in which he rushed for more yardage (1,223) than anyone in the history of the program not named DeAngelo. And West is excited about the flexibility the Tigers will have at the position with the arrival of Wisconsin transfer Lance Smith.
"This is a talented group," West says. "Curtis had a really good year, and I expect him to have another one. Lance is our second back. He's a bit more shifty; he can take it 70. I hope T.J. Pitts continues to grow. He's a tough guy who can run the ball inside. The combination of those three can be really good."
Will there be enough carries to keep the trio happy? Says West, "I talk to those guys about yards per carry. It's not how many carries you get, but how many yards you get with each carry. They're good guys, unselfish."
"Consistency." Ask West about what Arkelon Hall must do to improve behind center and he offers a single word. The big (225 pounds) quarterback had games last year when he was in command of the offensive flow (four touchdown passes in a win at UAB) and other games where he was searching for an elusive rhythm (15 completions in 35 attempts in a home loss to UCF). West is hoping Hall displays the same improvement entering his senior season that Martin Hankins showed during the 2007 campaign.
West emphasizes the importance of his quarterback not forcing things, particularly with all the offensive weapons around him. "We're not asking our quarterback to win games for us," West says. "We're asking him to get the ball into the hands of people who can win the game for us. I think Arkelon understands this now. A year ago, he just wanted to compete like crazy and win the game. But you have to have more poise about it and let the game come to you, pick your spots to take chances. You have to protect the ball in the red zone. Effort doesn't win games; intelligent effort wins games.
"I think the competition will help him," West adds. Brett Toney, Tyler Bass, and freshman Will Gilchrist will keep their arms warm should Hall stumble.
Seniors Jada Brown, Greg Terrell, and Steven Turner have combined to play in 106 games (with 43 starts). As green as the offensive line may be, the defensive front is just as seasoned, with a potential star arriving in the form of juco transfer Justin Thompson (6'-4", 290).
"I feel the best I've ever felt about our front seven," West says. "We're bigger. We've got some new guys who can get after it. We need to teach them to play to their roles. When you throw Justin, Tim McGee, and Dontari Poe into the mix, we look like what we're supposed to."
According to West, the Tigers will situationally substitute this season in ways they haven't been able to in years past, thanks to the depth up front. "We'll have some third-down guys," he says. "Not as much as the NFL does, but we'll do it some. We haven't been able to pressure people with four rushers, so we've had to bring more, and that's affected the entire defense. I think with the bigger guys we have up front, we can push the pocket."
West confesses to having overlooked the linebacker position on the recruiting trail in recent years. "That's been our Achilles' heel," he says. "We haven't been good enough at linebacker since the days of Coot Terry (2003). We had a couple of years recruiting when we just didn't get enough guys at linebacker. But Winston Bowens has been here awhile now. Jeremy Longstreet is coming into his own. Greg Jackson [another preseason all-conference honoree] is the best player on our defense. When you throw in [LSU transfer] Derrick Odom and [Mississippi State transfer] Jamon Hughes, you've got a pretty solid group. Again, we're talented enough, but we've got to play as a group."
West shakes his head when asked if the arrival of former SEC players influence his returning players. "I don't see it that way," he says. "Regardless of what your credentials are, you've got to earn your spurs. It doesn't matter where you signed; it's how well you play."
Senior safety Alton Starr led the Tigers in tackles last year (90), but missed spring practice while rehabbing from knee surgery. If the offensive line is West's chief concern when the Tigers have the ball, his defensive backs are the biggest question mark when the opponent is driving.
"The key to the defense is how well they play," he stresses. "We play a lot of man coverage. Deante' Lamar is back at one corner, and Torenzo Quinn will compete with Lavaris Edwards at the other corner. D.A. Griffin will play our nickelback ... you play five defensive backs all the time in our league. He may be the free safety if we use just four."
West will rely on Kenny Ingram — his fourth defensive coordinator in as many years — to mix and match a variety of personalities on the defensive side of the ball and in such a way that looks more stable than a unit under its fourth coordinator in four years. "That's a scary deal, because every time you change, it sets you back," West says. "Consistency is how you get good. That's why I stayed in-house [in promoting Ingram]. Kenny is not a roller-coaster personality. He's a tough-love guy. I call him an Old Testament guy; don't spare the rod. And I think that's what this defense needs. We have a lot of characters, some wild-horse riders. You have to know when to jerk the reins back."
Not to be overlooked are special teams, and West feels like a vast improvement could come in kickoff coverage, where Memphis last year allowed its opponent to start, on average, at the 37-yard-line. "We've got more defensive players," West says, "and that's what makes special teams better. They've got to be able to run and change directions. The addition of [kicker] Paulo Henriques is going to help. He can kick the ball 70 yards. Matt Reagan's our field-goal guy, and I'm going to add punting to his plate, so I'd like to take kickoff duties away." –FM
The last time the Memphis Tigers opened their football season against a Top 10 foe was 1969 (a few short weeks after Woodstock), when they lost to Archie Manning and the eighth-ranked Ole Miss Rebels, 28-3. Over the last 40 years, Memphis has opened with the Rebs 18 more times, winning only four (1976, '83, '87, and '04). History 1, Tigers 0.
Over the same 40 years, the Tigers have played 15 games against teams ranked in the Top 10 (though none since 2001). Memphis has won two of those: over seventh-ranked Auburn in 1975 and sixth-ranked Tennessee in 1996. Houston Nutt's Rebels will enter the Liberty Bowl Sunday ranked 8th in the AP poll and 10th in the coaches' poll. History 2, Tigers 0.
The biggest hazard for Ole Miss may be an inflated sense of self, otherwise known as overconfidence. Quarterback Jevan Snead and center Daverin Geralds appeared recently on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They are considered favorites (with Alabama) for the SEC's Western Division title. Among the dates circled on calendars in and around Oxford: October 10th (Alabama), October 24th (Arkansas, Nutt's former stomping grounds), November 14th (Tennessee), and November 21st (LSU). September 6th? Sunday games are for tune-ups, right? Nothing bites quite like an overlooked underdog.
History and ranking, of course, only go so far. Every member of Tiger coach Tommy West's squad knows Sunday's crowd will be the largest they see this season. Seniors like wideouts Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton have lost three openers to Ole Miss. Serial drubbings will do wonders for an athlete's motivation. The keys for Memphis will be how an inexperienced offensive line handles the Ole Miss blitz packages and how tightly an untested Tiger secondary can contain the Rebel passing game. Early touchdowns by the visitors or a few long-distance connections before halftime could be devastating for the Tigers.
If you pick one player to watch Sunday, go with Memphis starting quarterback Arkelon Hall. If Hall takes every snap, the Tigers will be in the game, with a chance to win in the fourth quarter. If West calls on a relief pitcher — Tyler Bass? Will Gilchrist? — the Tigers will be far enough behind for some experimentation with the most important offensive position. If you're rooting for Memphis, you're hoping Hall is dripping with sweat as he leaves the field.
PREDICTION: History aside, this is a loaded Rebel team. Ole Miss 34, Memphis 20. –FM
What a Day!
by John Branston
The first weekend in September. After months of waiting, every red-blooded Southern man is so excited he can't wait to don the colors and pack up the pickup truck. There's truly nothing like opening weekend of ... dove season.
Just kidding. The really big story involves man's best friend making his first appearance at a University of Memphis home football game. Practically took an act of Congress to make it happen, but it should pack the old stadium. Gimme a BEER STAND!
Just kidding again. The really big story is the clash of a couple of regional powers — the U of M administration, which was divided on beer sales, and the city of Memphis, which hopes to make more than $200,000 this year from suds in cups.
Still kidding. The really, really big story is about a crafty veteran signal caller who's under fire and hoping to save his job and his reputation with a big game on Sunday to erase, at least temporarily, a shaky preseason performance. I'm talking, of course, about U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson.
Ha! No more kidding. The overriding story Sunday is Sunday. College football and Sunday afternoon go together like church and roller derby. So now we have beer and college football on the day of rest and holy reflection. Does anyone remember when the word "blue" went with "laws" and not uniforms? Such is the power of television. Dangle enough money in front of two hungry college football programs and you could play this game at 10 a.m. in front of 12,000 people.
Oh, wait, that could seriously happen, the attendance part anyway, especially if Memphis loses. After Ole Miss, there are no more Southeastern Conference teams on the 2009 home schedule.
So many story lines are converging on Sunday afternoon. Will all the sighing and moaning about the inadequacy of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium result in any actual fan-friendly improvements? Will the city of Memphis get anything for the $5 million approved this year for stadium improvements? Will Memphis ever get into a BCS conference, live down its basketball outlaw reputation, or build an on-campus stadium? Will the Ole Miss Picnic in the Grove crowd party on the pavement? Can Tommy West or anyone else truly make Memphians get over Coach Cal?
And there's going to be a football game, too.