Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 27, 2017 at 8:00 AM

The Memphis program's kick-return desert has been transformed into the Tony Pollard Garden of Paydirt. After going two decades without a kickoff returned for a touchdown, Memphis has watched Pollard return four(!) in the last 12 games. No other player in the history of the program (dating back to 1912) has returned as many as two kickoffs to the end zone. Pollard is only a sophomore (he redshirted in 2015). After last Saturday's win over Southern Illinois, I asked Pollard if there's an extra gear he feels (or any kind of energy surge) when he recognizes the kind of opening that yields a 90-plus-yard return. "Once I see the end zone," explained Pollard, "I try to just look at the scoreboard [video]. I want to race myself. You have to have that second gear. You want to run full speed when you catch the ball, but you have to find another gear to kick in when you get through the crowd."
click to enlarge Jake Elliott
  • Jake Elliott

Jake Elliott may be the most humble Tiger football player I've interviewed. Kickers are a different breed, of course. When they walk in a room, you don't think, "Football Player." When Jake Elliott walks in a room, minus his jersey and shoulder pads, you might think, "Tennis Player." And you'd be right. Elliott was an exceptional high school player in Illinois. He attributes his mental strength — the singular focus required for success as a placekicker — to his days on a tennis court. That singular focus, along with the prodigious strength of his right leg, was on display last Sunday when Elliott connected on a 61-yard field goal as time expired to give his Philadelphia Eagles a victory over the New York Giants. In just the second professional game of his career, the 22-year-old holder of virtually every U of M kicking record won a game with a kick just three yards shy of the NFL record. It was especially gratifying to see the humble "kid" I knew for four seasons in Memphis being carried off the field by players 100 pounds heavier, but light as a feather for the breathtaking moment their rookie teammate had just delivered.

This Saturday's game (finally) with UCF could get away from the Tigers. Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton is an early-season candidate for American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He leads the AAC in pass efficiency and is second with an average of 269.0 yards per game. In UCF's beating (38-10) of Maryland last week, Milton ran for 94 yards on just six carries. Based on what I've seen the last two weeks (I missed the Harvey Bowl to open the season), the Tiger defense has gaps to fill. Memphis ranks 10th in the AAC (out of 12 teams) in pass defense, allowing an average of 344.0 yards per game. They've been opportunistic, though, the two game-shifting interceptions against UCLA being the prime examples to date. The Tigers will need to force some turnovers in Orlando, it would seem, to gain a possession advantage against Milton and friends.(With defensive backs Tito Windham and Shaun Rupert nursing injuries, we'll learn a lot about depth on the Tiger D this Saturday.) But the UCF defense (second in the AAC, allowing 266.0 yards per game) must stop Riley Ferguson, Anthony Miller, Darrell Henderson, Joey Magnifico, and Patrick Taylor, to name just five offensive threats in blue. And let's remember: whenever the Knights score, they must kick off. Which means Tony Pollard Time.
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