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The Elusive Tailback

When it comes to running backs, the Tiger football team keeps its fingers crossed.

by Dennis Freeland

ne couldn’t blame U of M head

football coach Rip Scherer for

thinking his tailback position is jinxed. Back in the spring of 1997, Scherer entered practice hoping that Jeff “Sugar” Sanders, a talented running back from Florida, would become eligible in time to play in the fall.

Sanders didn’t make it, but Scherer found a surprise during spring drills. A former non-scholarship player, Gerard Arnold from Lexington, Tennessee, grabbed the tailback job and held onto the position throughout the spring and into pre-season practice.

But Arnold went down with a knee injury before the opening game at Mississippi State. Scherer played a couple of inexperienced players – P.T. Jones and true freshman Fred Powell – before bringing in sophomore Teofilo Riley late in the game. Later, when Arnold made his way back to the starting lineup and rushed for 613 yards over the final seven games, it became obvious that not having the 5-8 running back at Starkville might have been the difference in that game.

Sanders enrolled in school last January and showed promise during spring practice. He looked like a solid backup for Arnold. However, Sanders injured his knee recently while working out at his Coral Springs, Florida, home and is scheduled to have surgery when he arrives in Memphis for the beginning of the second summer session later this month. Doctors think Sanders has an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear, and Scherer explains that the delay between the injury and the operation is not unusual for this injury. It will allow the swelling to subside before surgery.

Meanwhile, Scherer landed one of the top running backs in the region when he signed Dernice Wherry from Munford High School. Wherry may have more potential than any running back the school has signed in 20 years. Not only did Wherry put up sensational numbers at Munford (he averaged 134 yards per game as a senior and rushed for an incredible 333 yards in a state playoff game against Germantown), but the kid has style and charisma, a real star in the making.

But, as with Sanders last summer, Scherer is anxiously awaiting word on Wherry’s eligibility. With Sanders not expected to play in ’98, Wherry could see lots of time at a position that is vulnerable to injuries. The consensus around the U of M football program is that Wherry will be eligible to play this year, but at a school where the tailback position sometimes seems to have a cloud hanging over it, the coaches are holding their breath.

Scherer said this week that the 60-odd players who are in Memphis participating in daily conditioning workouts “have the best attitude and work ethic of any group I’ve ever been around.”

It’s been a struggle for Scherer to build a team that buys into his system, but except for a few fifth-year seniors, all these players were recruited by the current staff, and that has contributed to increased team unity. Scherer says that in hour-long individual conferences he held with the players after last season, many pointed to a crucial, early turning point in the 1997 season – the 53-yard Brian Hazlewood field goal in the last second of the opener at Mississippi State. That long kick beat Memphis 13-10 and according to Scherer took more wind out of his team than he had known before those individual post-season meetings.

The challenge for Scherer and his staff entering the 1998 season is to convince the players that they can compete against the teams on the schedule. Unfortunately for Scherer, that schedule opens with three out of the first four games on the road, against Mississippi, Minnesota, and Houston. The second game is at home, against longtime SEC nemesis Mississippi State.

Both the season opener at Ole Miss and the Mississippi State game will be played in the middle of the day. The temperature will almost certainly be high, but Scherer professes no concerns.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” he says. “We have a lot more depth this year and in a way these early games will force us to play a lot of people and develop that depth even more.”

The games were moved to accommodate TV. Let’s hope that the notorious late-summer heat and humidity do not cause health problems for the players and fans. That would be a huge price to pay for a little TV exposure.

Penny’s New Shaq

The NBA lockout may put fear in the hearts of young players like Memphians Chris Garner and Cory Beck. It could cause players chosen in the recent draft to put off that spending frenzy for a while. But the lockout doesn’t worry a veteran all-star like the Orlando Magic’s Anfernee Hardaway. The former University of Memphis star just purchased a fabulous house on the Island at Southwind, the most swanky section of a very upscale neighborhood. The 6,330-square-foot brick house is the closest to the clubhouse and has a spectacular view of the 18th hole at the Tournament Players Club at Southwind, site of the FedEx St. Jude Classic. Penny’s new digs feature a pool, three fireplaces, a three-car garage, five bedrooms, five baths, and a whirlpool. Sale price: $702,000. Hardaway will pay $1,950 in annual association fees. Got to keep the neighborhood up.
It might not do much for his game on the court, but such close proximity to the best golf course in Memphis could help Penny the next time he faces Sir Charles or Michael on the links.

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