Taking into account the program's rocky history, a summary of the Memphis Tigers' 2014 football season reads like the overexcited birthday wishes of a 6-year-old fan who doesn't know better.
• Ten wins. (Happened once before in Tiger history.)
• A conference championship. (Last happened in 1971, a year the Tigers finished 5-6.)
• A bowl victory. (Four of these prior to 2014, the last one in 2005.)
• And the capper: a Top-25 ranking — the kind of wish that, in these parts, elicits a pat on the head and a patronizing, "I wish that, too."
It all happened. In just the third season under coach Justin Fuente, the U of M went 10-3, shared the American Athletic Conference (AAC) title with Cincinnati and UCF, beat BYU (in overtime!) to win the Miami Beach Bowl, and secured the final slot in the year-end Associated Press Top 25 poll. Our proverbial birthday boy didn't merely blow his candles out. He blew the cake to smithereens.
The 2014 season looks nice on a wall or record book, but here we are at the dawn of the 2015 campaign, year four of what we can now — without irony — call the Justin Fuente Era in Memphis. How does a program follow up on a season unlike any other in its history? What kind of motivating tools will a coaching staff use to, somehow, improve on a season no Memphis football fan will ever forget?
"We've got to focus on ourselves," Fuente emphasizes. "I like our kids. I like the way they've worked. But we're not as mature a team as we were a year ago. We have a younger group. I like them, and I think they have a chance to play well. It's a delicate balance. They can't worry about the group that came in front of them, but they have to remember how those guys went about their business and emulate them the best they can while still being themselves. As coaches, we can't beat them over the head with the guys who came before them but hold [the departed players] up as examples to follow in their own way. We'll have a great challenge this year."
The Tiger defense — eight senior starters in particular — became the backbone of the 2014 team. Cornerback Bobby McCain and defensive end Martin Ifedi (each drafted by NFL teams last spring) had distinct memories of the 2-10 season they endured as freshmen, before Fuente arrived. The year-round leadership they brought the program cannot be cut-and-pasted, nor can the impact of another departed senior, linebacker Tank Jakes, the AAC's 2014 Defensive Player of the Year. But Fuente is convinced the players groomed to succeed such stars are capable of big things this fall under new coordinator Galen Scott. (Barry Odom took the same job at Missouri.)
"It's possible to build on the tradition we've established," Fuente says. "We're not ready yet, from an accountability standpoint. Can we do things the right way, time after time, on that side of the ball with guys who haven't done it yet? Can we get these younger guys to that discipline level? As far as guys who can run, play, tackle ... you watch that part of it, and you get pretty optimistic."
No Memphis defensive player earned so much as second-team all-conference recognition in the AAC's preseason poll. Dawg linebacker Jackson Dillon (a junior) was a third-team selection, based on his 43 tackles (nine for lost yardage) in 2014, the most of any returning Tiger. Sophomore end Ernest Suttles will aim to fill some of the void left by Ifedi, and senior Leonard Pegues moves into the middle-linebacker position vacated by Jakes. With six starts last season, senior Wynton McManis will bring some experience to the linebacker position.
"[Sophomores] Shareef White and Genard Avery are two young linebackers that I think have a chance to help this team," Fuente says. "When you play a 3-4 and you're moving guys in and out, you need quite a bit of depth there. Dillon has a presence; he looks better than he's ever looked. He gained weight and is running better than he's ever run. It will be interesting to see how all those pieces fit together. It's up to us as coaches to tweak our scheme to what fits those strengths. What can [linebacker] Noah Robinson do? What can our corners and safeties handle? Playing to those strengths may be different from what we've done in recent years."
Fuente believes in playing a 50 defense, a setup similar to a 3-4, but with an emphasis on stopping the running game (five men crowding the line of scrimmage). The philosophy has meant recruiting speed first, with an emphasis on length at certain positions, particularly the boundary linebackers and defensive ends. "We haven't been incredibly fast," Fuente says. "When [opponents] get behind us, we haven't been able to catch them. I hope we can continue to run better as we continue to recruit."
The Tiger offense will have more familiar faces than the defense, with eight starters back, including record-setting junior quarterback Paxton Lynch. Senior tight end Alan Cross (from Millington High School) was named preseason first-team All-AAC, and senior tackle Taylor Fallin made the second team. Mose Frazier (47 receptions in 2014), Tevin Jones (33), and Roderick Proctor (27) are part of a deep receiving corps. And while last year's starter at tailback, Brandon Hayes, has graduated, the Tigers appear to have depth in the backfield. Considering last year's team set a program record by scoring 471 points (36.2 per game), these veterans offer a comfort level not felt by the local fan base since DeAngelo Williams was in uniform a decade ago.
"I still don't see a star [on offense]," Fuente says. He means this to be the unit's best and most important compliment. "I see a guy who drives the bus, but I still don't see a star. They have to continue to realize that. They had a taste of success last year for the first time, and they have to maintain the hunger. They know what it's like to not play well. Don't worry about who's on the billboards."
Most followers of the program would make the case for Lynch, actually, as the team's star. As a third-year sophomore in 2014, Lynch passed for 3,031 yards (third-highest single-season total in Memphis history) and accounted for a school-record 35 touchdowns (22 passing, 13 rushing). He went six straight games last season without tossing an interception before throwing three in the Miami Beach Bowl (where he threw four touchdown passes and ran for three more scores). A mobile quarterback who stands 6' 7" will have NFL scouts gawking, whether or not the player has a star above his locker.
"There's nobody I've ever coached that's like him," Fuente says. "I've never been around a guy who was so underdeveloped, but had so much upside. It wasn't that [Lynch] wasn't intelligent [when he arrived in Memphis], but some of the stuff he'd never seen before. If he continues to work hard, he'll have the opportunity to be very, very good. I'd like him to be a little bigger, a little stronger." (Lynch was up to 246 pounds in mid-summer.)
The quarterback relishes his 2014 season, particularly the bowl win, but has charted areas to improve this fall. "I can always improve my accuracy," Lynch says. "Getting faster, working on my stride, getting in the film room." As for the added bulk, Lynch emphasizes the durability he feels the extra muscle will provide. "Whenever you have a bigger quarterback, you're able to take more hits in the pocket, and it's harder for you to go down," he says. "And when you run the ball, it's a lot more bruising on defensive players." Lynch is more excited at the prospect of "bruising" tacklers than his teammates or coaches, but his 321 yards on the ground last fall suggest Lynch's legs will be supplemental weapons to his right arm. "I've always looked up to dual-threat quarterbacks," Lynch says. "When things break down [in the pocket], they can turn a negative play into a positive play. I feel I can do anything [expected of a] dual-threat quarterback."
Lynch will have an abundance of targets for his passes this fall, a reminder that resistance to the spotlight will be especially healthy when it comes to the Memphis receiving unit. Nine Tigers caught at least 15 passes last season, but no one caught more than Frazier's 47. "Mose and Alan are tough, hard-nosed football players who have been leaders for us," Fuente says. "Phil Mayhue and Proctor are sophomores who had really good summers; role players last year, but with bright futures."
A new force downfield for the Tigers could be Anthony Miller, yet another sophomore who missed last season with an injury. Fuente describes the former Christian Brothers High School receiver as "different from anyone else we have."
"Every receiver we have is unique in the skill sets he has," says Lynch. "This corps is the best we've ever had. We've been pushing each other. The younger guys who've been watching the last few years have got to grow up. But our older guys — Jones, Frazier, Cross — do a great job of leading the group. Mose is basically out there [on the practice field] like a coach."
If the Tiger running game can reflect the passing attack — depth over star quality — that season scoring record could be threatened. The versatile Sam Craft (Olive Branch High) returns and will be complemented by sophomores Jarvis Cooper and Doroland Dorceus. The latter ran for 86 yards on 13 carries against UCLA last year before missing the season's final nine games with a right-knee injury.
Fuente and his offensive coordinators (Darrell Dickey and Brad Cornelsen) must determine when and how best to utilize their talented trio of tailbacks beyond a simple platoon system for an even distribution of carries. "Sam can provide some things from a mismatch standpoint, and motioning out from the backfield," Fuente says. "Jarvis is a bigger player, and stands to make the most strides playing without the ball. If he can be a dependable blocker, he adds value to the team. Doroland is the best runner with the football that we have. The key for him is staying healthy."
"We're all excited to see Doroland come back," Lynch adds. "He's been working harder than I've ever seen him work, and he's also put on weight."
Running the ball will set up the pass for this team (not vice versa), so success will be rooted in an offensive line that welcomes back four starters: Fallin at tackle, Tyler Uselton and Michael Stannard at guard, and Gabe Kuhn at center. The Tigers averaged 190.5 yards per game last season and, if healthy, could top 200 yards per game on the ground for the first time since Williams' senior season of 2005. "We're getting more athletic and stronger [on the line]," Fuente says. "It's such a developmental position. It takes time to develop those guys."
Lynch describes his blockers as a "mix" of personalities who have blended nicely into a cohesive, familiar unit. "Gabe is laid back," Lynch says, "but he gets the job done, whatever he needs to do. Fallin is messing around, but whenever it's time to work, they lock it in and get the job done. They're ready to protect me, and I'm ready to make them look good."
Fuente and his staff sit down before every season and rank the team's skill players, a method for shaping the Tiger offensive attack, while also identifying holes that may need filling. Before the 2014 season, the top three players on the list were Dorceus, Craft, and Miller. All three missed significant time to injury last year. Yet the Tigers marched along to an historic season. Fuente likes to call this "competent depth."
One more significant returnee is junior placekicker Jake Elliott, the 2014 AAC Special Teams Player of the Year. Elliott connected on 21 of 32 field-goal attempts last season (including a 54-yarder in overtime of the Miami Beach Bowl) and set a single-season Tiger record for kickers with 120 points. Elliott and punters Spencer Smith and Nick Jacobs (34 combined punts dropped inside the opponent's 20-yard-line last fall) give the Tigers three impact players on fourth down. "We emphasize it," Fuente says. "We've got to have more offensive players on special teams. It can't just fall to our defensive guys. Guys are going to go down. We need depth."
As for Elliott, Fuente sees his success on the field as a direct product of his work ethic between games. "Jake has always been prepared," Fuente says. "If he makes it or misses it, it's never been an issue of not being ready. When you watch him work out, you understand. He's a really good athlete. He can run with our skill group."
The Tiger schedule will be highlighted by home games against Cincinnati (a Thursday-night affair) and Navy (the first time the programs have ever met). But the hardest ticket to land will be for the Ole Miss game October 17th at the Liberty Bowl, the first visit to Memphis by an SEC team since 2011. The U of M, it should be noted, has lost 26 of 28 games against SEC competition since beating Tennessee in 1996.
"I don't care if they're from the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten, or the Big 12," says Fuente. "I'm all for playing one of those games a year. It doesn't concern me whether it's an SEC team. We don't want to make a habit of playing multiple games like that. Ole Miss is a natural fit, for their fans to come up here. I understand that. But playing UCLA as the big game is fine. To me, those games are no pressure: take a shot. Those aren't the games I worry about."
The 39-year-old coach has become one of college football's golden boys, mentioned in discussions of job openings in power conferences, including the SEC. For now, though, Fuente considers himself on a learning curve, balancing a head coach's obligations to offense and defense, representing the face (and voice) of a program unaccustomed to sustained success. And he likes the challenge.
"We'll be judged every week," says Funte. "It's gonna be a work in progress. Part of the reason Houston kicked our tail [at home last year] is that we listened to how good we were after the Cincinnati game. How we handle all that [praise] will be paramount to our success. Who are we? That 10-win team is gone. Can we be hungry to get that done? Can we handle the grind? Are we really a mentally tough football team? That's why I'm so excited, because every year is different. You don't know."
U of M 2015 SCHEDULE
Sept. 5 — Missouri State
Sept. 12 — @ Kansas
Sept. 19 — @Bowling Green
Sept. 24 (Th.) — Cincinnati
Oct. 2 (Fr.) — @ USF
Oct. 17 — Ole Miss
Oct. 23 (Fr.) — @ Tulsa
Oct. 31 — Tulane
Nov. 7 — Navy
Nov. 14 — @ Houston
Nov. 21 — @ Temple
Nov. 28 — SMU