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1. What now?
According to Sports Reference's SRS ratings, the four Memphis teams that took the field between 2009 and 2012 were among the Tigers' six worst since joining what is now FBS in the mid-1950s.
The Tigers' descent began in Tommy West's final season and picked up velocity during the brief, costly Larry Porter tenure (2010-11).
The squad Justin Fuente inherited in 2012 was dreadful and demoralized. From last summer's Blueprint for a Rebuild:
An FBS team is allotted 85 scholarships. Fuente inherited a team that had 50. His first offense returned three starters, but that's probably just as well, because the offense was atrocious.
'We had a long way to go from a physical standpoint. The overall health of our squad, from the emotional health to the physical health, it just didn't give us a chance. I felt like if I created a list of things to improve and presented it to the team, it would overwhelm them. And we needed to develop some trust with our kids. We had players who had had different position coaches every year through their time in the program.
'We hired good coaches, tried to bring in guys who I had some familiarity with. I tried to paint as realistic a picture as possible as to what the task was in front of us.'
When painting said "realistic picture," I doubt Fuente was telling prospective assistants, "We're going to move up to a bigger conference, and we're going to win that conference in our third year." Nothing about that sounds realistic. But the Tigers did it anyway.
According to the same SRS ratings, Memphis' 2014 squad was its best since 1983 and its second best since the 1960s. In 2011, Memphis' offense ranked 119th in S&P+, and the defense ranked 117th in S&P+. In 2014, those units ranked 78th and 23rd. The special teams unit was the second-best in the country. Memphis had the second-best field position margin in the country behind TCU; the Tigers tilted the field, pounced on offensive mistakes, and won 10 games for the first time.
Memphis! Memphis did this! The team about which I wrote this in 2011 ...
Talk about bad timing. EXPANSIONAPALOOZA™ got rolling last summer, the Big East is looking at expansion, and look! Memphis is available! Their basketball program is still on solid footing, they've got FedEx money at their disposal ... what could go wrong? Surely they're a strong candidate, right?
And this in 2012 ...
When an old stadium is hosting a winning team, it is "historical" and "well-seasoned." When it is two-thirds empty and hosting a depressing team, it is just decrepit.
... won 10 games and the AAC in 2014.
So now what? How do you follow up on this? Thanks to the departure of defensive coordinator Barry Odom and most of the first string from last year's stellar D, Memphis' personality might change. The second era of Fuente's tenure might be much more reliant on offense. The talent is as high as it's been in quite a while, and the depth at the skill positions is intriguing. But one would assume this is a bit of a reloading year.
Still, a potential AAC title game appearance isn't out of reach. Navy visits the Liberty Bowl, and a retooled Houston might not be completely operational yet. Another top-45 F/+ rating might be too much, but Memphis still has expectations that would have seemed patently ridiculous as recently as two years ago.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 41|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|27-Sep||at Ole Miss||5||3-24||L||4%||-40.4||0%|
|Points Per Game||36.2||22||19.5||11|
2. Two bad quarters
In the first 15 minutes against a UCLA team that won 10 games, Memphis punted twice, allowed a long touchdown drive and a 62-yard touchdown pass, and fell behind, 13-7. In the final 15 minutes against an Ole Miss team that was the best in the country for the first two months of the year, the Tigers got outscored, 17-0. In the other six quarters of those two games, Memphis was outscored by just a 36-31 margin.
Thanks to two quarters, these were the only two games in which the Tigers played beneath a 40th-percentile level. They fell victim to turnovers in an upset loss to Houston, and they needed help from an inept Temple offense to survive a trip to Philadelphia, but they established a high baseline for much of the season, and that baseline only rose.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 4 games): 53% (yards per play: Opp 5.1, Memphis 5.1)
- Average Percentile Performance (next 5 games): 61% (yards per play: Memphis 5.9, Opp 4.7)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 4 games): 69% (yards per play: Memphis 5.4, Opp 4.5)
The offense was hit-or-miss, but a good defense just got better, even including a 55-48 bowl win.
Of course, that emphasizes how important defense was. We'll see what happens after an offseason of retooling.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||39.7%||90||Succ. Rt. +||91.1||105|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||26.7||7||Def. FP+||103.0||33|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.6||44||Redzone S&P+||97.7||70|
|Q1 Rk||59||1st Down Rk||66|
|Q2 Rk||39||2nd Down Rk||43|
|Q3 Rk||89||3rd Down Rk||52|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Paxton Lynch||6'7, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7900||259||413||3031||22||9||62.7%||15||3.5%||6.8|
|Jason Stewart||6'3, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7757||3||4||45||1||0||75.0%||1||20.0%||6.6|
|Clay Holgorsen||6'1, 190||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8201|
|Brady Davis||6'4, 200||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8451|
3. Just a little bit of maturation away
Paxton Lynch's full-season numbers were solid. The big quarterback from Florida, one of Fuente's first commits, combined accuracy (63 percent completion rate, 2.2 percent interception rate, 3.5 percent sack rate) with enough mobility (4.6 yards per non-sack carry) to force defenses to account for him. Considering he was just a sophomore, and considering he wasn't getting a ton of help from the run, it's hard to complain.
The next step for Lynch is moving past mistakes -- he rarely made just one. Against Ole Miss, he went 13-for-31 with a pick and four sacks. Against Houston, he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. And against BYU, he threw three picks (including one of the worst pick sixes you'll ever see) and fumbled twice.
Take out those three games, and his completion rate rises to 66 percent while his interception rate falls to 0.7 percent. Granted, take out any quarterback's worst performances, and his numbers improve, but the difference between these three and the other 10 was stark. His median performance was high, but he was still capable of falling into a rut.
With the Memphis defense likely to regress, Lynch's offense must be consistent. That means more from the run, and that means quicker bouncebacks from Lynch.
|Paxton Lynch||QB||6'7, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7900||98||446||13||4.6||4.0||35.7%||7||4|
|Sam Craft||ATH||6'0, 210||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8220||89||331||3||3.7||2.5||40.4%||1||0|
|Jarvis Cooper||RB||6'1, 250||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8386||75||378||4||5.0||3.9||44.0%||2||2|
|Doroland Dorceus||RB||5'10, 205||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7994||47||237||4||5.0||4.7||42.6%||2||0|
|Tearris Wallace||RB||5'10, 215||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7556||14||53||0||3.8||0.9||50.0%||0||0|
|Mose Frazier||WR||5'11, 185||Sr.||NR||NR||11||68||0||6.2||8.3||36.4%||0||0|
|Robert Davis||RB||5'9, 175||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7906||10||81||1||8.1||8.1||50.0%||0||0|
|Roderick Proctor||WR||5'11, 165||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8153||7||-16||0||-2.3||N/A||0.0%||0||0|
|Jason Stewart||QB||6'3, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7757||5||35||0||7.0||3.3||60.0%||0||0|
|Jamarius Henderson||RB||5'11, 215||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8451|
|Darrell Henderson||RB||5'9, 190||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8059|
|Mechane Slade||RB||5'8, 160||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7973|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Mose Frazier||WR||5'11, 185||Sr.||NR||NR||62||47||506||75.8%||15.5%||58.1%||8.2||-46||8.2||61.1|
|Tevin Jones||WR||6'2, 218||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||54||33||442||61.1%||13.5%||66.7%||8.2||39||7.8||53.4|
|Alan Cross||TE||6'1, 245||Sr.||NR||NR||40||28||373||70.0%||10.0%||65.0%||9.3||40||9.6||45.0|
|Roderick Proctor||WR||5'11, 165||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8153||36||27||259||75.0%||9.0%||55.6%||7.2||-59||7.3||31.3|
|Phil Mayhue||WR||6'3, 205||So.||NR||0.7000||28||15||242||53.6%||7.0%||71.4%||8.6||54||8.4||29.2|
|Sam Craft||ATH||6'0, 210||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8220||28||15||83||53.6%||7.0%||50.0%||3.0||-105||3.0||10.0|
|Daniel Montiel||TE||6'3, 235||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7585||16||8||124||50.0%||4.0%||68.8%||7.8||22||8.1||15.0|
|Anthony Miller||WR||5'11, 190||So.||NR||0.7900|
|Daniel Hurd||WR||6'2, 215||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7600|
|Robby Young||TE||6'4, 255||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333|
|Tyler Kolodny||TE||6'3, 235||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7733|
|Greg McKillion||WR||6'5, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8141|
|Jae'Lon Oglesby||WR||5'11, 175||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8950|
|Tre Hamilton||WR||6'3, 197||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8140|
|Tony Pollard||WR||5'11, 196||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8094|
4. Got big plays?
The numbers are in Memphis' favor. Leading rusher Brandon Hayes is gone, but every other running back who touched the ball is back, and according to the 247Sports Composite, Memphis signed three three-star freshman backs, including Jamarius Henderson, one of the highest-rated players in Memphis' haul.
Hayes had nice explosiveness but didn't find the open field often; his backups, all freshmen and sophomores in 2014, lacked explosiveness. Memphis now boasts seven former three-stars at RB, and one assumes the potential depth is good enough to produce standouts. But there's plenty to prove.
If the run is semi-strong, the pass could be spectacular. Four of Lynch's top five targets return, and averaged at least 8.2 yards per target. Mose Frazier is one of the nation's better possession receivers, and while the loss of Keiwone Malone, the most explosive in the corps, could hurt, players like Frazier, Tevin Jones, Roderick Proctor, and tight end Alan Cross should assure that Memphis is able to stretch defenses from sideline to sideline.
Fuente landed four-star former Clemson commit Jae'Lon Oglesby in February, along with two other three-stars and a pair of big JUCO options. Sophomore Anthony Miller, injured in 2014, was the star of the spring game.
There is depth and efficiency, and the potential for explosiveness is there. But the big plays are all theoretical; a couple of guys still need to emerge for this offense to improve.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Al Bond||RT||42||2014 1st All-AAC|
|Taylor Fallin||LT||6'6, 325||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7593||24|
|Ryan Mack (Louisville)||OL||6'5, 305||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8335||19|
|Tyler Uselton||LG||6'3, 310||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7583||13|
|Gabe Kuhn||C||6'4, 290||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333||13|
|Micah Simmons||C||6'3, 295||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8060||8|
|Michael Stannard||RG||6'2, 280||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||7|
|Tony Mays II||RG||6'4, 305||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7957||6|
|Zach Collins||RG||6'4, 285||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7644||2|
|Christopher Roberson||LT||6'7, 325||Jr.||NR||NR||0|
|Patrick Winfield||LG||6'5, 280||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7633||0|
|Jace Neville||OL||6'6, 275||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7713||0|
|Tyler Jones||OL||6'5, 290||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8059|
|Trevon Tate||OL||6'4, 280||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8117|
|Drew Kyser||OL||6'5, 299||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8348|
5. Wanted: continuity (and quality)
Thanks in part to a lot of quick passing, Memphis' sack rates were solid. But there were few redeeming stats when it came to Memphis' run game. The line allowed defenders into the backfield with regularity and didn't create enough opportunities to offset that. This put Lynch into uncomfortable down-and-distance situations.
Thanks to a couple of years of shuffling, Memphis finished 2014 with 10 players with starting experience. The Tigers lost three, including all-conference tackle Al Bond, who signed a UDFA deal with the Detroit Lions. But they do return seven more, and they added an eighth in Louisville graduate transfer Ryan Mack, who brings the line's career starts total to 92.
If Mack's presence and less shuffling lead to more opportunities for the backs, and if the backs are capable of taking advantage, the run will produce enough for the pass to thrive. Memphis might have a chance to account for defensive regression.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||35.4%||10||Succ. Rt. +||103.6||52|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||35.9||2||Off. FP+||107.9||9|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.7||18||Redzone S&P+||94.6||87|
|Q1 Rk||63||1st Down Rk||35|
|Q2 Rk||51||2nd Down Rk||44|
|Q3 Rk||22||3rd Down Rk||33|
6. Shoes to fill everywhere
In Barry Odom's final season as Memphis' defensive coordinator, his Tiger defense pulled off a rare combination of havoc and big-play prevention. They allowed 48 gains of 20-plus yards (23rd-best in the country) but still recorded 87 tackles for loss (30th) and 70 passes defensed (19th). They defended the run well on standard downs, then used a creative pass rush to pressure the quarterback while preventing big gains on passing downs. They were sound and exciting.
They were also experienced; experienced players run out of eligibility. Gone are two of the top three linemen, three of the top five linebackers, and the top four tacklers in the secondary.
Odom played a lot of players last year, and there are still solid upperclassmen in each unit -- senior end Ricky Hunter, junior end/OLB Jackson Dillon, senior linebacker Leonard Pegues, junior safety Chris Morley, and junior corner Dontrell Nelson have proved themselves. But you will struggle to maintain form when you lose eight starters and your coordinator.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jackson Dillon||DAWG||6'6, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7656||13||38.0||5.6%||9.0||3.5||0||2||2||0|
|Latarius Brady||DE||6'2, 275||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8094||13||23.0||3.4%||1.5||1.0||0||2||1||0|
|Ricky Hunter||DE||6'3, 275||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7519||13||16.0||2.3%||7.5||3.5||0||2||0||0|
|Donald Pennington||DT||6'2, 295||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7804||12||13.5||2.0%||1.5||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Ernest Suttles||DE||6'5, 250||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8325||13||11.0||1.6%||4.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Cortez Crosby||NT||6'1, 275||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7752||13||7.0||1.0%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Isadore Outing||DE||6'4, 255||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8169|
|Mike Edwards||DT||6'2, 300||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8081|
|DeMarco Montgomery||DE||6'2, 270||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7694|
|Jared Gentry||DT||6'2, 323||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8348|
|Emmanuel Cooper||DE||6'1, 250||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8156|
|Peyton Jones||DE||6'6, 236||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8038|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Leonard Pegues||MLB||5'11, 240||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7500||13||31.5||4.6%||6.0||2.0||0||0||1||0|
|Noah Robinson||LB||6'4, 235||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7882||13||21.5||3.2%||2.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Shareef White||LB||6'1, 226||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8458||12||16.0||2.3%||0.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Genard Avery||LB||6'1, 245||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7785||13||16.0||2.3%||6.0||5.0||0||1||0||0|
|Wynton McManis||WLB||6'1, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7500||10||16.0||2.3%||1.5||0.0||0||2||1||0|
|Curtis Akins||LB||6'2, 210||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8291|
|Darian Porter||LB||6'3, 220||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7733|
|Joseph Prevost||LB||6'1, 220||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8216|
7. Still some attacking options
The new coordinator isn't exactly new. Galen Scott has spent the last six seasons in Memphis; he was Larry Porter's defensive co-coordinator in 2011, and he was most recently Fuente's linebackers coach and associate head coach. He and Fuente have worked together for quite a few years, and he brings a unique level of both experience and familiarity. Plus, the promotion allowed Fuente to bring on another experienced hand: former Utah State head coach and Tulsa coordinator Brent Guy is the safeties coach.
We'll see how much Scott changes, but if he wants to be retain Odom's front-seven aggressiveness, he'll have plenty of options. Sophomore Ernest Suttles was a three-star recruit and managed to record four tackles for loss in minimal action. Sophomore tackle Cortez Crosby and sophomore linebacker Noah Robinson hinted at disruption, and sophomore linebacker Genard Avery is a potential all-conference missile -- he had only 16 tackles, but five were sacks.
There is a potential depth issue at tackle, but there are a couple intriguing newcomers there, too.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Reggis Ball||FS||5'11, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||NR||13||31.5||4.6%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|DaShaughn Terry||DB||6'0, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7889||13||19.0||2.8%||1||0||1||2||1||0|
|Chris Morley||SS||5'11, 192||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7100||10||14.0||2.1%||1||0||0||4||0||0|
|Dontrell Nelson||CB||6'1, 170||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7873||12||8.0||1.2%||2||1||1||2||0||0|
|Dion Witty||DB||5'10, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.7600||11||5.5||0.8%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Anthony Young||FS||6'0, 195||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7811||7||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Phillip Sumpter||DB||5'11, 195||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7894||2||2.0||0.3%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jamil Collins||CB||5'11, 170||So.||NR||0.7900|
|Tyler Charrette||DB||6'1, 200||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8159|
|Arthur Maulet||DB||5'11, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8059|
|Ty Northern||DB||6'1, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000|
8. A blank slate ... sort of
Because of preference and a small handful of injuries, Memphis utilized a deep rotation. Eight linemen, nine linebackers, and eight defensive backs recorded at least 7 tackles (for comparison's sake: UCF, another strong defensive team, had six such linemen, seven linebackers, and eight DBs).
That at least slightly lightens the impact of losing eight starters, and it could make a world of difference in the secondary. Safety Fritz Etienne and three strong corners (Bobby McCain, Bakari Hollier, and Andrew Gaines combined for nine INTs, 20 PBUs, and 3.5 TFLs) are gone, but free safety Reggis Bell return, as do four other experienced juniors and seniors, all of whom made a few plays in limited action.
Plus, to shore up bets a bit, UM signed three JUCO defensive backs as well.
The Memphis defense appears loaded with potential, and there is just enough proven production to suggest that there will be no post-Odom nosedive. The key, of course, is balance: assuming the offense improves, the defense must limit its regression to the level of offensive improvement.
|Spencer Smith||6'1, 175||So.||58||40.3||1||27||18||77.6%|
|Nick Jacobs||6'1, 190||So.||16||33.2||0||8||16||150.0%|
|Jake Elliott||5'10, 165||Jr.||87||64.0||50||3||57.5%|
|Jake Elliott||5'10, 165||Jr.||57-57||15-16||93.8%||6-16||37.5%|
|Spencer Smith||6'1, 175||So.||1-1||0-0||N/A||0-0||N/A|
|Special Teams F/+||2|
|Field Goal Efficiency||54|
|Punt Return Efficiency||6|
|Kick Return Efficiency||34|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||9|
9. Some devastating legs
Good special teams can cover up problems. Some problems might shift from offense to defense, but a fantastic set of legs -- punter Spencer Smith, situational punter Nick Jacobs, and big-legged place-kicker Jake Elliott -- might be able to make sure that a glitchier defense is still working with long fields.
There is a desperate need for return men, which will make it difficult for Memphis to repeat its No. 2 performance in Special Teams Efficiency, but with this kicking game, special teams will still be a strength.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|19-Sep||at Bowling Green||98|
|2-Oct||at South Florida||123|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-24.5% (104)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||85 / 89|
|2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||11 / 8.3|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+1.0|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||11 (8, 3)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||10.1 (-0.1)|
10. The kings until proven otherwise
When one unit (defense) is superior to the other, then loses nearly three-quarters of its starters and its coordinator, it is pretty easy to assume a stark drop-off. I don't see Memphis replicating last year's No. 41 F/+ ranking in 2015. (2016? Different story.)
But the offense has enough experience, quarterback talent, and skill position depth to believe that improvement can offset a good amount of regression. And with a schedule that features last year's three best opponents (and two best conference opponents) coming to the Liberty Bowl, you can talk yourself into Fuente making a run at the first AAC title game.
Fuente's name got mentioned a lot during the winter coaching carousel, and if he continues to thrive, he will end up coaching a power-conference team soon. But he's back in Memphis for a fourth year, and every good season serves as infrastructure for what happens following his departure. The life of a mid-major is frustrating -- make a good hire, and your reward is having to make another good hire -- but after a brutal slide, Memphis knocked the Fuente hire out of the park.
Make another good choice, and the Tigers' turnaround could be sustained. The recruiting area is fertile, the facilities are improving, and if or when Fuente leaves, he's going to leave a tough, fast, disciplined team behind.
Fuente's not gone yet, though. He should field a team loaded with potential and athleticism, and this offense should be his best since he left TCU. Instead of suffering a post-surge hangover, Memphis has enough talent to play a serious role in the conference title race.