Memphis football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Tigers, best players and season prediction.
Paxton Lynch is in Denver. Justin Fuente is in Blacksburg. Can Memphis build off its recent success without its two most influential figures?
The Tigers won 19 games over the past two seasons, even flirting with New Year’s Six bowl contention early last November. But the program’s unexpected success could also lead to a dip in production in the short-term.
Memphis was symbolic of an American Athletic Conference that was flush in upstarts in 2015. However, there’ll be new front men working to build upon what their predecessors started, head coach Mike Norvell and Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College transfer QB Riley Ferguson, whose career began across the state in Knoxville.
Norvell and Ferguson are aiming to be this year’s Fuente and Lynch, even if such a goal hasn’t been verbalized by the new tandem. And while the former coach and QB are extremely tough acts to follow, Memphis is pleased with how it’s handled the turnover so far. Norvell is just 34 years old, and he’s respected nationally for his offensive ingenuity. And many of the concerns surrounding the quarterback spot were addressed by Ferguson’s spring performance.
As long as Ferguson keeps evolving in August, the Tiger offense ought to still be pretty dangerous under Norvell and coordinator Chip Long. If the defense can pull a little more of the weight in 2016, Memphis might not slip as much as expected. While the Tiger D is experienced at every level, it really needs a couple of playmakers to step up and change the tempo of games. Junior LB Genard Avery is the most likely candidate, though coordinator Chris Ball needs more than just a single stud that’s surrounded by a collection of mediocrity.
While the offense and defense in Memphis face hurdles and question marks entering the new year, the special teams unit will rank among the cleanest in the country. PK Jake Elliott and P Spencer Smith are proven veterans coming off all-league seasons.
Memphis is a program on the rise, from improved results and recruiting classes to increased spending on facilities and potential interest from the Big 12. But staying the course is now in the hands of a pair of newcomers. While the Tigers have momentum, keeping it in 2016 will depend on how well Norvell and Ferguson traverse the most important seasons of their football lives.
What You Need to Know About the Memphis Offense
The two architects of last year’s high-powered, 40-point offense, head coach Justin Fuente and QB Paxton Lynch, are gone. But the Tigers are still planning on vexing opposing defenses with a physical, explosive attack that’s operates sans a huddle.
Former Tennessee Vol Riley Ferguson is in line to replace Lynch, while ballyhooed former Arizona State assistant Mike Norvell has succeeded Fuente. It’s not exactly as if the old band has reunited, but it’s a good place to start. Ferguson took the reins in the spring, building distance on redshirt freshman Brady Davis.
The session allowed Ferguson to gain a comfort level with the team’s best weapons, backs Dorland Dorceus and Jamarius Henderson, receivers Anthony Miller, Sam Craft and Phil Mayhue and TE Daniel Montiel.
Besides Ferguson, coordinator Chip Long will also be monitoring the development of an O-line that was experimenting with different looks in April. Sophomore Drew Kyser anchors from the middle, but there’s a wait-and-see approach to the rest of the unit.
Biggest Key To The Memphis Offense
Fluid situation up front. New line coach Ryan Silverfield spent the spring learning his personnel and shifting them around like pieces on a chess board. And he’s going to need the month of August to hammer out a two-deep and to develop chemistry in the trenches. Drew Kyser, a Rimington Trophy candidate, is the one certainty at the pivot. But the rest of the line is still up for grabs. Fingers are crossed that sophomore Trevon Tate can make a successful switch from right to left tackle, where Taylor Fallin performed at an all-league level in 2016.
What You Need to Know About the Memphis Defense
The Tigers are welcoming back plenty of veterans from 2015. It’ll be up to new defensive coordinator Chris Ball and his assistants to coach up the holdovers. Memphis was just average defensively a year ago, stuffing the weak offenses and bowing to the potent ones.
While not a single defender earned all-league, the Tigers hopes to evolve in a collaborative fashion. Ball will look for leadership from his veterans, primarily DBs Arthur Maulet and Dontrell Nelson, linebackers Genard Avery, Jackson Dillon and Shareef White and linemen Donald Pennington and Christian Johnson.
The staff’s biggest worry is a secondary that was soft in coverage a season ago. Maulet and Nelson will be helped by the emergence of sophomore CB Kam Prewitt and JUCO S Jonathan Cook, but what the pass defense needs most is more pressure from the front four. No Tiger had more than four sacks in 2015, and the team is still searching for a rusher who can consistently command double-teams.
Biggest Key To The Memphis Offense
Just Prewitt. Senior Arthur Maulet, a junior college transfer in 2015, has solidified his spot as the Tigers’ top cover corner. But sophomore Kam Prewitt has pushed hard this offseason to join him in the starting lineup. Yeah, Prewitt still makes of a young player. But the staff has been impressed by his intensity and his ball-hawking skills, which were on display in a two-pick spring game. Now that Reggis Ball is gone, Memphis needs someone to create turnovers out of the secondary.
Memphis Will Be Far Better If …
the pass defense makes strides. The secondary was arguably the weakest area of the 2015 team, allowing 22 touchdown passes and just below 14 yards a reception. Too often, the defensive backs bit on fakes and allowed opposing receivers to get behind them. Memphis ranked ninth in American pass defense, and the D as a whole struggled down the stretch, when the team closed the year with four losses in the final five games.
Best Offensive Player
Junior WR Anthony Miller. Memphis needed receivers to emerge in 2015, and Miller delivered by scoring five times and averaging almost 15 yards a catch. Now, he and his fellow pass-catchers must continue stretching defenses even though QB Paxton Lynch is a Denver Bronco. The new staff wants to create more touches for Miller, who plays like a running back with the ball in his hands, shedding tackles and always looking to pick up additional yards post-possession.
Best Defensive Player
Junior LB Genard Avery. The Tigers are very excited about the future of Avery, who they feel is on the verge of a monster junior season. He scratched the surface in 2015, showing a knack for making plays for minus yards. But now, after flirting with the idea of transferring to Ole Miss, he’s ready to become the emotional leader of the Memphis D. Avery is well-sized, versatile and motivated to use the upcoming season as an introduction to pro scouts.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Junior QB Riley Ferguson. The departure of Paxton Lynch leaves an enormous hole under center that Ferguson was brought aboard to fill. The success of Mike Norvell’s offense hinges squarely on the shoulders of the quarterback, so it’ll be up to Ferguson to orchestrate the attack with precision so that backs Dorland Dorceus and Jamarius Henderson and receivers Anthony Miller, Sam Craft and Phil Mayhue can make plays up to their potential.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Tigers finish above .500, while bowling for a third year in a row. Memphis is out to prove its recent prosperity didn’t leave with head coach Justin Fuente and QB Paxton Lynch. And remaining in the black at the end of the postseason would achieve that end. The Tigers open with three winnable homes games, Southeast Missouri State, Kansas and Bowling Green. But they’ll need to amass a cushion, because the regular season concludes with a tough trip to Cincinnati and visits from South Florida and Houston.
Nov. 12 vs. South Florida. Hosting the Bulls here represents the Tigers’ best shot of winning game over the final three weeks of the season. Hold serve against a tough visitor and Memphis’ odds of playing a bonus game in December improve appreciably. Lose it and the team could stumble to the finish line in upcoming matchups with Cincy and defending league champ Houston. The Tigers must topple at least one quality opponent to achieve bowl-eligibility in 2016, and beating USF would provide a head of steam when they need it most.
2015 Fun Stats
– Points per game: Memphis 40.1 – Opponents 27.3
– Sacks: Memphis 27 – Opponents 17
– Third-down%: Memphis 48.8% – Opponents 37.1%