If you've been looking for an indication that the 2007 Memphis Tiger football season might unfold a little differently (read: much better) than the 2-10 campaign of a year ago, you should have been at the squad's early-morning practice on August 17th. Tiger head coach Tommy West devoted the last hour of practice in the soupy haze to special teams. Carrying the "defensive oriented" tag since he arrived in Memphis seven years ago (to be, of course, Rip Scherer's defensive coordinator), West has overseen the two finest offensive players in school history (DeAngelo Williams and Danny Wimprine), but maintains a steadfast eye for what makes or breaks a special-teams unit.
When the team shifted from punting to kickoff coverage, West saw something amiss in the track an inside player was taking toward the ball carrier. So the coach -- 18 months removed from heart surgery -- sprinted downfield and showed how to seal a coverage gap. When I asked him after practice if his doctors would have allowed such a display a year ago, West shook his head slightly . . . but with a smile.
Count this as a certainty: no one suffered the 2006 Tiger football season more than Tommy West. The combination of physical and mental woes combined to make it the most challenging season in his 28-year coaching career. Having built a program to the point it reached an unprecedented three straight bowl games, West saw last year's team lose nine straight games and give up an average of 30 points per game. You don't need to be "defensive oriented" to grow weary of such performances.
Starting with the midseason dismissal of defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn last September, West has overhauled his staff like a president with ankle-high approval ratings. (Well, like a president with ankle-high approval ratings should overhaul his staff.) The new (and generally younger) coaches -- six of nine are wearing blue and gray for the first time -- have energized West and his program, but the boss insists there's no tail wagging this dog.
"I had to impress upon them," noted West after that active practice, "you're not coming into a program that hasn't won. We're not here to get on your page; you need to get on our page. We've been to more bowl games than all of them."
It's a truth of modern Memphis football history that a season's fortunes are either tremendously boosted or dramatically drained on or before Labor Day. For the fourth straight year (and sixth out of the last ten), the Tigers will open against the Ole Miss Rebels, a regional rival -- at least from the U of M perspective -- that serves as a barometer for just how narrow (or large) the gap remains between a team fighting for Conference USA supremacy and a team aiming to break from SEC mediocrity. (Among the most heated bar debates in the Mid-South is over this question: is there more for Memphis to gain or the Rebels to lose in a Tiger victory?) Having lost the last two contests by a total of seven points, the Tigers see the gap as one to be closed by merely two or three big plays, be they from the offense or defense. Or special teams.
With big plays the recipe for success, a big-time receiver commands the spotlight once so dominated by Heisman-winning tailbacks. So starting this week against Ole Miss, and (hopefully) over the next three seasons, keep your eyes downfield on the Tigers' Duke Calhoun. Cut from the mold that made Roy Williams (Texas), Larry Fitzgerald (Pitt), and Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech) first-round NFL draft picks, Calhoun is in place to rewrite the program's receiving record book as Williams did the rushing section and Wimprine the passing chapter.
Calhoun had best run his routes as they're drawn up, though. If not, there's a certain coach ready -- and now able -- to show him how.