University of Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson has not one, but two artistic arms. The senior from Charlotte has adorned himself — shoulder to mid-forearm — with ink in various symbols, shapes, and swirls. But he has a favorite on his left (non-throwing) biceps. It's an ornate cross, surrounded by six words: "May your light shine over me." The art tugs at Ferguson's heart, as it pays tribute to a cousin he lost in 2016, shortly before his first season behind center for the Tigers. But there's a message, too, that Ferguson's school of choice — and its football team's growing fan base — might appreciate, for Ferguson himself has shone brightly since arriving on the U of M campus.
Tasked with a challenge no previous Tiger quarterback has faced — replacing a first-round NFL draft pick — Ferguson managed to break that quarterback's single-season touchdown record (he tossed 32), complete 63 percent of his passes, and compile 3,698 yards through the air (a figure topped only by Paxton Lynch, now a member of the Denver Broncos). Playing for a rookie coach (Mike Norvell), Ferguson turned a transition year into an 8-5 season, enough to give Memphis its most wins (27) over any three-year period in the program's history. For only the second time (the first being 2015), Memphis scored more than 500 points. All Ferguson has to do now is follow that success . . . and improve.
"We've been working on our chemistry," says Ferguson. "Everybody in the offense is way more comfortable than we were at this time last year. We were out there thinking last year, learning. Just like anything, the more you practice something, the better you get. It will be a huge advantage for us."
A quarterback is relentless in his work on mechanics: footwork, arm angle, release point, follow-through. But as his senior season approaches, Ferguson has focused more on the tool between his ears. "There's always room for improvement," he says. "Last year I was in the film room, but I need to get in there even more, to pick up anything I can from an opponent. Learning defenses, identifying keys."
When it comes to shining that fabled light, Ferguson emphasizes how comfortable he's become representing Memphis, both the school and community. "It's kind of a smaller Charlotte [his hometown] to me," says Ferguson. "The people here are great, and my teammates. I truly believe [coming here] is the best decision I've made in my life."
"If you look at the last month of [last] season," notes Norvell, "Riley was playing at a really high level. He needs to continue to progress from that. If he can go out and command this offense, make the right decisions, he's got some good playmakers around him."
Speaking of playmakers ...
Ferguson would not have compiled his gaudy numbers without one Anthony Miller. As a junior, the former walk-on (and graduate of Christian Brothers High School) broke single-season receiving records that had been held for more than two decades by Isaac Bruce, a man now on the cusp of election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Miller's 95 receptions shattered Bruce's 1993 standard of 74. His 1,434 receiving yards was 40 percent better than Bruce's mark of 1,054 (also in '93). He set a new Tiger record for receiving yards in one October game (250), then a new record for receptions in a November game (15). With 71 catches and 854 yards this season, Miller would break the Tiger career marks in only three seasons. (Miller missed his freshman season with a shoulder injury.)
"I look at those numbers [now]," says Miller, "and they look good. But when I look at the film, I had plenty of opportunities where I could have made those numbers grow. Dropped balls. Missed assignments. The wrong route. Things we can clean up this season."
Miller is now a focal point for any defense preparing to face the Tigers, this despite his name being left off the American Athletic Conference's all-league team after the 2016 season. He embraces the extra attention and doesn't shy from goal-setting standards beyond the reach of most human receivers. "Riley and I have this connection," stresses Miller. "He knows when it's crunch time, I'm the one to throw the ball to. But I'm not the only one on offense; we're full of weapons."
As for individual goals, take a deep breath: "Twenty touchdowns and 2,000 yards," says Miller. "We're just going to continue to work. We've got depth everywhere. People think they know the firepower we have, but I don't think they really understand."
When Miller speaks of weapons, he means a collection of skill-position players as adept and deep as any Memphis team has seen in years. Senior tailback Doroland Dorceus led the Tigers with 810 rushing yards last season and with a similar campaign this fall would move into second place on the Tigers' career chart, behind only DeAngelo Williams. But when Dorceus isn't carrying the ball, Ferguson may be handing it or tossing it to any of a trio of sophomores: Patrick Taylor (546 yards in '16), Darrell Henderson (482), or sophomore Tony Pollard, a graduate of Melrose High School who earned AAC Special Teams Player of the Year honors last year for his kick-return prowess.
The Tiger receiving corps is no less deep, with senior Phil Mayhue (677 receiving yards as a junior) supporting Miller as a downfield threat. Sophomore John "Pop" Williams and freshman Damonte Coxie impressed during training camp and hope to climb the depth chart as the season unfolds. (The unit took a hit during preseason camp when senior Sam Craft was lost for the year with a torn ACL in his left knee. Craft had been granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing most of the 2016 season with a back injury.)
"Our skill-position players are as good as I've had," says Norvell, who spent four seasons in the high-flying Pac-12 Conference as an assistant with Arizona State before taking the Memphis job. "Guys who understand this offense know they can get the ball on any play; you have to do your job to get open. If the defense does its job and takes someone away, it will leave one-on-one matchups for others. We're versatile and we create opportunities."
Can Miller actually improve on his record-breaking numbers from 2016? "Everyone can improve," says Norvell. "No one here is a finished product."
When asked about the offensive line entrusted with protecting Ferguson and opening holes for Dorceus, Taylor, and friends, Norvell says he's enjoyed watching the competition in camp. Despite the offensive production last season, the line graded out as serviceable, at best. Veterans like center Drew Kyser and right guard Gabe Kuhn are back, and in freshman Obinna Eze from Nashville, the Tigers have 283 of the highest-rated pounds in recent recruiting history.
(Norvell notes offensive linemen have the most challenging leap from high school to college football, so patience is urged on the Eze watch.) Norvell says another newcomer, massive juco transfer Roger Joseph (6'5", 317 lbs.), has a chance to make an impact up front.
The Tigers may have won eight games by averaging 38.8 points last season, but they lost five because they allowed 28.8 points per game (and a staggering 49.8 in the five defeats).
A completely revamped secondary will back a group of veterans at linebacker, the hope being measurable improvement in slowing opposing offenses. Senior linebacker Genard Avery — a first-team All-AAC honoree last fall — will be the face of the defense. Avery led the Tigers with 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage (including five sacks) and finished second on the team with 63 solo tackles.
It's the defensive backfield that proved most vulnerable for Memphis a year ago, and the unit has new blood. "I've been really impressed with the young guys in our secondary," says Norvell. "[Safeties] John Cook and Shaun Rupert have done a great job of providing leadership. [Freshman cornerback] T. J. Carter came in as a highly rated young man, and my favorite thing about him is his work ethic. He's come in to earn his position; he brings the right mentality every day at practice."
The return of pass-rusher Jackson Dillon, who missed the 2016 season with a knee injury, is the college equivalent of a major trade acquisition. The Oklahoma native had 20.5 career tackles for a loss in three seasons prior to his injury.
"He's a great leader," says Norvell, "and we have some guys on our defensive front who have played a good deal of football." Senior end Ernest Suttles and sophomore end Jonathan Wilson (three sacks last season) will lead the push on the line of scrimmage. Look for sophomore Austin Hall to be a playmaker at the STAR position (a hybrid linebacker/safety role). Hall started 11 games as a redshirt-freshman and had 7.5 tackles for loss. "We want to attack the football," emphasizes Norvell. "Whether we're playing a base defense or pressuring, we want to be impactful and make sure we're communicating."
The good news on special teams is that Pollard is back to return kicks along with all-AAC punter Spencer Smith. But the Tigers must replace placekicker Jake Elliott, a two-time AAC Special Teams Player of the Year and now a member of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals. Freshman Riley Patterson will be staring down uprights this season. (Patterson connected on a 54-yard field goal as a junior at Edwardsville High School in Illinois.)
The feeling around the Tiger program is one of general comfort and confidence, not what you'd necessarily expect under the command of a second-year head coach who turns 36 in October. Whether or not the U of M has become a "football school" remains debatable, but don't doubt a collective buy-in when it comes to the Norvell mission.
"Coach Norvell has continued the culture Justin Fuente started," says Miller, who spent his first three seasons (including a redshirt year) under Norvell's predecessor. "There were players here not willing to work, and [Fuente] got rid of those guys. Those of us who stayed, when you work hard, it doesn't go unnoticed. I've tried to continue that. We were brought in as soon as [Norvell] got here. When coaches come in, it can be hard for players to adjust. But his offense is effective, and he's one of the greatest football masterminds I've been around."
Merely five seasons removed from a two-season train wreck during which the Tigers won three of 24 games, Memphis is favored to win the American Athletic Conference's West Division. The Tigers even received votes in the Top 25 Amway Coaches Poll. "Nothing changes for us," says Norvell. "It's about staying focused on today, the steps in front of us. Preseason recognition is a great compliment, but at the end of the day, we've got to get it done. It shows a level of respect for our program, not just where we are but where we're going. But we gotta go out there and get it."
The 2017 SCHEDULE
The Tigers have a favorable schedule, one without the likes of USF (favored in the media poll to win the league crown), Temple, or Cincinnati. Their three East Division foes are UCF and a pair of teams expected to finish near the bottom of the standings (East Carolina and UConn). A September 16th visit from UCLA and one of the country's top quarterbacks, sophomore Josh Rosen, will highlight the home schedule. (*AAC game)
August 31 (Thursday) — LOUISIANA-MONROE
September 9 — at UCF*
September 16 — UCLA
September 23 — SOUTHERN ILLINOIS
September 30 — at Georgia State
October 6 (Friday) — at UConn*
October 14 — NAVY*
October 19 (Thursday) — at Houston*
October 27 (Friday) — TULANE*
November 3 (Friday) — at Tulsa*
November 18 — SMU*
November 25 — EAST CAROLINA*