The top 10 Memphis football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
WR Anthony Miller, Jr.
After breaking out in 2015, Miller will be one of the cornerstones of this year’s new-look passing game. Despite beginning the year with minimal expectations and track record, he flourished on the outside with 47 receptions for 694 yards and five touchdowns. Miller also ran for a pair of scores, showcasing outstanding jets and explosiveness. The 5-11, 190-pounder will again stretch defenses as one of the top long-ball threats in the American.
RB Doroland Dorceus, Jr.
Now that Paxton Lynch is NFL-bound, Dorceus is liable to assume an even greater role in the offense. The 5-10, 215-pound native of New Orleans showed flashed in 2015 by leading the team with 661 yards and eight scores on 155 carries. He also caught 11 passes for 217 yards and three additional touchdowns. While Dorceus doesn’t possess breakaway speed, he’s elusive with a penchant for making would-be tacklers whiff.
PK Jake Elliott, Jr.
In Elliott, the Tigers are welcoming back one of the nation’s most consistent placekickers. He’s a two-time All-AAC first-teamer, nailing all 144 of his extra point attempts and 60-of-68 field goal tries. Plus, he’s deadly accurate from long-range, holding the school record with a successful 56-yard field goal. Even better, Elliott ranked second nationally in kickoff distance, providing hidden support to the beleaguered Memphis D.
QB Riley Ferguson, Jr.
While the Tigers have yet to produce a depth chart, it’d be a shock if Ferguson wasn’t named the successor to Paxton Lynch behind center. The well-traveled Ferguson, whose career has included stops at Tennessee and Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College, seized control of the opening during the spring. He’s an agile 6-4, 190-pounder, with the right mix of physical tools and calm demeanor to flourish in Mike Norvell’s hurry-up system. It’ll be interesting to see how Ferguson handles his first major college snaps since arriving in Knoxville three years ago.
LB Genard Avery, Jr.
Avery will bring muscle and size to the second level of the Memphis defense this season. At 6-1 and 255 pounds, he’s bigger than some of the league’s defensive ends, with the quickness to make plays upfield. In just a part-time role in 2015, Avery flashed his big-play potential by making 53 stops, 6.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and three sacks.
WR Phil Mayhue, Jr.
Mayhue was one of the many beneficiaries of playing with Paxton Lynch last season. It’s now up to Mayhue to help elevate the play of Lynch’s successor. He ought to be up to the task. Mayhue is a big target, 6-3 and 210 pounds, with the sure hands to support a first-time starter behind center. In the most extensive action of his Tiger career, he ranked second on the team with 51 receptions for 670 yards and one touchdown.
P Spencer Smith, Jr.
Few programs have been better on special teams the past few seasons than Memphis, which has an all-star punter. The junior with the powerful leg averaged 47.2 yards in 2015, which would have ranked him No. 5 nationally had he qualified with enough attempts. His output was dramatically improved from the prior year, resulting in a second straight appearance on the All-AAC Second Team.
DT Donald Pennington, Sr.
Ever so quietly, Pennington carved out a solid junior season in the middle for the Tigers. Now, he wants to raise the bar a little higher in 2016. He’s an active and undersized 6-2, 295-pounder who’ll occupy blockers and bust through gaps to disrupt the backfield. Pennington made 34 tackles, five stops for loss and two sacks, and was an effective run stopper throughout the regular season.
LB Jackson Dillon, Sr.
No, Dillon did not play to expectations that erupted after a breakout bowl performance in 2014. Yes, the staff is still optimistic about his potential. Dillon is athletic and long, 6-6 and 245 pounds, which allows him to efficiently cover large chunks of ground. But his measurables were rarely reflected in his production. In fact, of his six tackles behind the line, not one was a sack, a trend that must be reversed in 2016.
LB Shareef White, Jr.
White made the most of his snaps in 2015. He finished third on the team with 63 tackles, seven for minus yards, despite starting only five games at weakside linebacker. He’s a stout 6-1, 235-pounder, at his best when defending the run. White, who fills lanes and wraps up well in space, could have a 90-tackle ceiling with more reps this season.
CB Dontrell Nelson, Sr.
If the Memphis pass D is going to improve in 2016, it’ll need players like Nelson and Chauncey Lanier to take the next step forward. Lanier started eight games a year ago, notching 47 tackles and a couple of interceptions. He has good length at 6-1 and 180 pounds, but, like his teammates, he must become more consistent when the ball is in the air.