Entering his first season at the helm of the Memphis Tigers football program in 2012, head coach Justin Fuente inherited a program that had posted an abysmal 5-31 record in the previous three seasons. Some questioned the hire at first as many fans had never heard of him. However, Fuente immediately impressed at his first press conference and through summer workouts, exuding confidence and a knowledge of the game not seen around the Liberty Bowl in some time.
Last year started rough for Fuente and his Tigers, as they worked to get acclimated to changes on defense and offense. But as the season progressed, so did the Tigers, finishing on a three-game winning streak and a 4-8 record. This year Memphis looks to build off of last season’s success and surprise some people in the AAC. Here, we take a look at the 2013 Tigers on offense, defense and a final analysis of the team.
Memphis had trouble last season moving the ball but got better towards the end. Offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey has six starters returning from last year’s squad that averaged 24.4 points per game (86th nationally), 151.8 yards per game rushing (69th), 166.6 ypg passing (109th) and 318.3 ypg of total offense (110th). Returning under center is senior-leader Jacob Karam, who transferred from Texas Tech. Karam was named the starter before last season and posted 1,895 yards passing with 14 touchdowns and just three picks. During the Tigers’ three-game winning streak, Karam completed 40-52 passes for seven scores and one interception. Karam is a leader on and off the field and should post even better numbers this year. Memphis also has two viable backups in 6’6″ redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch, who is the quarterback of the future, and dual-threat Eric Mathews, who the Tigers used in the Wildcat formation many times last season.
Senior Brandon Hayes emerged at the end of last season as the go-to running back for the Tigers and is back, as is senior Jai Steib. Hayes was once a walk-on but impressed the coaching staff enough last year to earn the starting spot towards the end, rushing for over 100 yards in the final two games. Steib rushed for 427 yards in 2012 and will see plenty of touches backing up Hayes. Challenging Hayes and Steib for touches are a slew of backs, including senior Jaquise Cook and newcomers Robert Davis,Doroland Dorceus, Tearris Wallace and Marquis Warford. Warford owns the most impressive stats of the new faces, having rushed for 2,322 yards for an average of 11.9 yards per carry last fall for his high school in Texas.
The receiving corps returns former Alabama player Keiwone Malone, who became Karam’s go-to guy in 2012 hauling in 44 catches for 476 yards. The Tigers lose leading receiver Marcus Rucker but look to fill his shoes with speedy Clemson transfer Joe Craig. Memphis also adds local standout Sam Craft, who is an athlete with good speed that will get touches in multiple ways. Also returning are Tevin Jones, Reggie Travis and Alan Cross, who was a walk-on that became one of Karam’s more dependable targets.
Defensive Coordinator Barry Odom arguably did the best job in the country last year, leading a unit that finished almost dead last in the in ypg allowed in 2011 to ranking No.50 nationally (383.6 ypg) in 2012. The defense ranked first in C-USA games in total defense and garnered the respect of many opponents. The defense returns eights starters and several key contributors, including nose tackle Terry Redden, linebacker Charles Harris and defensive end Martin Ifedi. Harris led the team with 79 tackles and Ifedi ranked first with 7.5 sacks.
Redden will start, but fellow senior Johnnie Farms, who NFL scouts have shown interest in, will also get significant reps. Also returning at linebacker are starters Anthony Brown and Wynton McManis, who will probably back up junior college transfer Ryan Coleman. The secondary loses two starters, but cornerback Bobby McCain and safety Lonnie Ballentine, who led the team with three picks, return. Ballentine, at 6’3″, is a physical specimen who will also draw interest from NFL teams. The defensive line, which returns three of four starters, will be the anchor of the defense after allowing just 138.0 ypg rushing last year ranking No.32 in the country.
The Tigers may have a hard time besting last year’s 4-8 record after a league upgrade, but this team drastically improved in Fuente’s first year. Though the schedule will be tougher, Memphis has a chance to surprise even more in 2013. With many key players returning, a six-win season is not unfathomable.