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How Justin Fuente turned an underdog among underdogs into the Memphis that beat Ole Miss

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With an NFL-caliber QB and a scheme built to spread the ball around, there are no easy answers to stop the Tigers.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when TCU switched its offense to the air raid last year? That was more an attempt to return to form than the revolution it was presented as at the time. Under offensive coordinator Justin Fuente, the Frogs had one of the more cleverly designed spread offenses in the country in the Andy Dalton era and when Casey Pachall led TCU to an 11-2 2011 and No. 13 ranking in offensive S&P+.

Then disaster struck. Fuente left for Memphis, Pachall had personal problems emerge and TCU's offense collapsed while it upgraded to Big 12 competition. It stayed down until air raiders Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie came and righted the ship.

Fuente took his spread designs to Memphis and slowly turned the Tigers into an offensive force before achieving a defining victory against then-No. 13 Ole Miss, the program that relies heavily on the Tigers' city for recruiting.

The Fuente era at Memphis has been a fantastic chronicle of the patience required to build a winner. Despite running a spread system designed to create easy advantages against more athletic opponents, it took Fuente until this season to get the Tigers offense humming.

Record Offensive S&P+ rank Defensive S&P+ rank
2012 4-8 117 85
2013 3-9 102 49
2014 10-3 78 23
2015 (current) 6-0 14 95

As Fuente told Bill Connelly before that 2014 campaign, Memphis had serious depth problems that needed to be resolved when he took over.

The first thing we needed were some numbers. Our roster had been decimated. We just didn't have people in the program. And through some of the legislation passed through the NCAA, it's a little more difficult to build that back up. You can't just go out and sign 40 guys. We had to figure out a way to develop our walk-on program just to increase our numbers.

In the meantime, he oversaw the development of a top-30 defense that helped Memphis achieve a breakthrough 2014 until third-year starting QB Paxton Lynch was ready to carry the Tigers.

Fuente's discovery and deployment of Lynch now has Memphis No. 18 in the AP Poll, with an interesting case for consideration at the end of the year if it reigns as undefeated American Athletic Conference champions.


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Paxton Lynch and the process of finding star QBs

The greatest market inefficiencies in college football exist at the quarterback position, which just happens to be the most important position. This is particularly evident when you look at two previously overlooked high school QBs whom NFL scouts now have eyes on.

North Dakota State's Carson Wentz is one, a 6'5, 223-pound, cannon-armed signal caller who's one of the better athletes among the prototypical, big QBs in the upcoming draft.

College programs prefer to recruit QBs early, even before their junior seasons are complete, relying heavily on sophomore tape and performance in summer camps to evaluate future leaders. Well, a 5'10 sophomore in Bismarck, North Dakota isn't going to generate a lot of attention, and if he happens to bloom into a giant by the time he's a senior, it's usually too late for him to get much attention from major programs. Compounding this problem, Wentz suffered a hand injury as a high school junior that prevented him from putting together film at QB until he was a senior.

Lynch has a different story, one in which Memphis was his only real suitor, despite his 6'5 frame and pro-caliber arm strength. The claims are that many schools were worried Florida would offer and win him over easily (Lynch lived only two hours away) or that an injury in his senior season led him to be overlooked. But the kid's only other Division I offers were from FAMU and UCF, which suggests everyone just plain missed on him somehow.

After recruiting Lynch and seeing his "arm talent" firsthand, Fuente chose to start him as a freshman over returning starter Jacob Karam, to the chagrin of Memphis fans.

While examples like Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston have made fans stir-crazy for the immediate-impact QB recruit, the common experience for spread QBs is to learn how to make lightning-quick decisions and throws over a longer period of development before becoming masters as upperclassmen.

Fuente waited for his guy to develop. Lynch threw for 5.9 yards per attempt with 10 interceptions as a freshman, 7.3 and nine as a sophomore and now 9.6 with only one interception thus far as a junior.

As a reward for Fuente's diligence in searching for a QB and patience in developing him, Memphis is now led by a QB who knows how to operate a spread offense and can throw the legendary field comeback route, as seen in this clip:

Lynch in the Memphis spread

With Lynch at the helm, two parts of the Memphis offense have a multiplier effect on the whole system, making this one of the more deadly spread passing attacks in the country.

The first is the Fuente system, which is already designed to use normal spread tricks like spacing and dual-side concepts to create advantages for receivers and options for the QB.

Not every school has a WR who can force a double team and be a matchup nightmare for an opposing secondary. But the effect of the spread is it can put any WR in a lot of space with a lot of options for getting open. That can make good receivers look fantastic.

One of Fuente's favorite ways to accomplish this is by overloading the boundary with receivers in order to free up space to the wider, "field" side with concepts like this:

Here's another example of this concept.

Memphis Porsche vs Rebel blitz

Memphis loves to move "tight end" Alan Cross, a 6'1, 235-pound former walk-on, around and have him run option "hunt" routes like this one, where he's looking to find space against linebackers in zone. Even though Cross is hardly one of the more dangerous Tiger receivers, the only way to defend this is to shift numbers to the boundary, which leaves two better receivers in open grass with one-on-one matchups to the other side.

By moving people around, Fuente is able to use spacing and numbers to create opportunities. Currently, the top three Memphis receivers are former walk-ons, as are five of the top six, but that wasn't apparent on Saturday.

The Tigers definitely have athletes, but the receivers who torched Ole Miss for 384 passing yards don't include many players any powers were chasing out of high school. Anthony Miller, Mose Frazier and Cross -- Memphis-area natives who put a combined 256 yards on the blue-chip Rebels -- were unrated recruits. Jarvis Cooper, who ran for 76, was a West Memphis linebacker prospect whose only other offer was from Arkansas State.

As he told Steven Godfrey after the Tigers' win against Cincinnati, Fuente helps overcome talent issues at the skill positions through rotation.

Our trust factor with Paxton is high right now, and we have a bunch of other guys that have played really well. We don't have a single receiver or running back. We shuffle all those guys in, and when they have opportunities, they make it. That's just the way we are. If we had a receiver that was head and shoulders above everyone else, it would be different. We feel like we're pretty interchangeable, and that creates competition.

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The other multiplier comes from Lynch's ability to hit every route on the tree. When you have receivers working in optimal spacing with the ability to run any route and a QB that can deliver strikes, college defensive backs are put in serious binds.

Here's another example of Lynch nailing another field comeback route, a throw college coverages are designed to concede with the expectation that amateur QBs can't execute them consistently enough.

If my refreshed understanding of the Pythagorean theorem is accurate, that's a perfectly timed, 47-yard frozen rope.

Memphis might eventually play an opponent that will plan with enough detail to sell out to stop the pass. But its run game is good enough to punish an undermanned front, and Lynch is an active participant in regaining numbers advantages with the QB option. He's rushed about seven times a game in his career, and while he rarely breaks big gains, he forces many AAC defenders to tackle a quarterback about their same size.

There are no easy answers for a well-designed spread with a future pro at QB.