Yesterday, I discussed a Tulane program handing its team of once-interesting recruits (and awful performers) to an inexperienced head coach. Today, we discuss a program with perhaps even MORE interesting recruits, but handing the reins to an even less experienced coach.
From 2003-08, Memphis was a rock solid Conference USA program. They went to five bowls in six years, beat Ole Miss in 2003 and 2004, almost beat Tennessee in 2005, and briefly found themselves ranked in 2004. Even with a random 2-10 season in 2006, they averaged 6.5 wins per season in this span.
In the last three years, they have won a total of five games. The bottom fell out for longtime coach Tommy West in 2009; his Tigers went 2-10, and he was dumped. His replacement, Larry Porter, reeled in a series of choice recruits … and went 3-21. The Liberty Bowl is what I will politely call a well-seasoned venue that can get pretty loud and fun when given reason to be. In recent years, though, it has just looked empty and decrepit. To restore some semblance of energy to the program, especially with a big conference move on the horizon, the Tigers went young.
When I was in high school in Oklahoma, Justin Fuente was a hero. He was the state's player of the year in 1994 when he led an up-and-coming program named Tulsa Union (now one of the nation's more established high school programs) to offensive glory. He was considered a program savior when he signed with Howard Schnellenberger's Oklahoma Sooners. But over two seasons, he went just 4-7 as a starter, then transferred to Murray State and thrived. After six years of coaching at Illinois State and five at TCU (he was offensive co-coordinator from 2009-11), he was named Memphis' head coach at just 35. He took an all-defense team at TCU and made it a well-rounded power, and now he gets his chance to restore, well, something at the University of Memphis.
Fuente's staff is a fun mix of new and old. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom was a fellow Oklahoma high school star at the same time as Fuente and spent nearly the last decade on Gary Pinkel's staff at Missouri. Linebackers coach Galen Scott is a holdover from Porter's staff and still just 32. Receivers coach Holman Wiggins finished his reign as a three-year starting New Mexico running back just a decade ago. At the same time, however, Fuente also brought in offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey (who was not only North Texas' head coach from 1998-2006 but also Memphis' offensive coordinator from 1986-89), defensive line coach Tim Billings (who graduated from SE Oklahoma State before Wiggins was born), and offensive line coach Vance Vice (Fuente's offensive line coach at Murray State).
Like Tulane with Curtis Johnson, Memphis would have been silly not to take a chance with youth. After ranking 51st in F/+ in 2005, the Tigers have ranked 101st, 106th, 82nd, 108th, 118th and 117th since. They fell from bad to horrendous under Porter, and they needed a shot of energy more than perhaps any team in the country. Fuente is saying and doing the right things now, but as always, you eventually have to win. It's been a while now for the U of M.
Here's what I had to say about Memphis last April:
Talk about bad timing. EXPANSIONAPALOOZA™ got rolling last summer, the Big East is still potentially 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 here? Surely they're a strong candidate, right?
The Memphis football program has chosen a really bad time to crater. The Tigers have won three games in two seasons, and in last season's finale against Central Florida, they drew all of 6,000 people. … In a 60K-capacity Liberty Bowl Stadium. Ggh.
Also: the 2011 Memphis squad returns all of nine total starters (four on offense, five on defense) after a few semi-important players elected to flee the premises. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I guess (recent recruiting has been solid), but it does suggest that UM is not in line for a quick turnaround in coach Larry Porter's second year in charge. […]
To Memphis fans wondering what the hell happened to their football program, realize two things: 1) I, too, share your befuddlement, and 2) Really, you don't deserve a good football team. You've already got Dyer's, barbecue, Beale Street, barbecue, Silky's, barbecue, the Beale Street Music Festival (the lineup this year: outstanding), barbecue, Graceland, barbecue, barbecue, and barbecue. To ask for a good football team on top of that is just plain greedy.
General greed aside, Memphis fans most certainly didn't have a good football team to root for in 2011. They were protected from a winless season by a win over Austin Peay and a strangely easy road win over Tulane, but they started the season getting outscored by Mississippi State, Arkansas State and SMU by a combined 148-17 and finished with a 44-7 whipping at the hands of Southern Miss. They were rarely competitive (just three of their ten losses were by fewer than 18 points), and six years after averaging home attendance of nearly 40K per game, the Tigers averaged a home crowd of just 20,078. Rarely is it smart to dump a coach after just two seasons, but it was hard to justify giving Porter a third season. He probably didn't inherit much when he showed up, but … three wins in two years. Three wins in two years! And since Memphis got its Big East berth anyway, there was an extreme need here for both enthusiasm and competent football.
Fuente's first offense at Memphis will be run by what is, to say the least, an old hand. Darrell Dickey has been around, and he has shown some adaptability based on the personnel he finds. If he can get away with it, he will run and run and run; his 2006 North Texas offense ranked sixth in the country in Adj. Run Rate (69 percent on standard downs, 47 percent on passing downs), his 2007 Utah State offense ranked 11th in the same measure, and his 2011 Texas State offense ranked 23rd in the FCS in rushing yards per game, 106th in passing. This meshes rather well with the run-first tendencies of Fuente's increasingly effective TCU offenses.
At the same time, however, he has shown that he can do balance; Utah State ranked 45th in Adj. Run Rate in 2008, New Mexico 55th in 2010. And, strangely, his 2009 New Mexico offense ranked 112th. He seems to have run-friendly tendencies, but he will do what the personnel dictates.
So what does that mean for this Memphis team? Depends on Jerrell Rhodes and Artaves Gibson. Memphis was a "run on standard downs, pass on passing downs" type of team (not exactly an underdog-friendly strategy), but they were the least-efficient team in the country on standard downs, which meant they quickly saw a lot of passing downs (and stunk at them too). Rhodes, a three-star junior, has shown efficiency and decent explosiveness in his short career, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. Gibson, meanwhile, had a devastating, disappointing true freshman season last fall. A fellow three-star signee, he averaged just 3.0 yards per carry, 0.9 highlight yards per carry, and ended up with a minus-31.5 Adj. POE, which means that he was around five touchdowns worse than the average back given his carries and blocking. Even really good backs often struggle as true freshmen, but these are really bad numbers. And the line lost its only proven contributor, second-team all-conference guard Ron Leary. Six players with starting experience return, but a) they have combined for just 42 career starts, and b) the line was awful last year.
Fuente was not encouraged by what he saw from the backs in the spring (How's the running game? "It's not very good."), so tea leaves suggest quite a bit of passing is in order. It appears that sophomore quarterback Taylor Reed will be transferring after losing his starting job to Texas Tech transfer Jacob Karam -- he becomes approximately the 116th quarterback to leave Memphis in the last five years -- so if Memphis is going to surprise this fall, chances are "Karam to Wright" will be why. Six-foot-4 sophomore (and former three-star recruit) Kevin Wright caught a long pass from Karam in the spring game and heads into the fall as, easily, the No. 1 receiver. He is joined by mostly ineffective senior Marcus Rucker and a pair of talented, if amazingly inconsistent, sophomores: Reggie Travis (35 targets, 18 catches, 146 yards in 2011) and former four-star Alabama signee Keiwone Malone (27 targets, 12 catches, 155 yards), who was suspended for a portion of the spring.
Be it because of actual improvement or simply because it was taking advantage of an offense that was still quite bad, the Memphis defense had a leg up all spring. New coordinator Odom has earned rave reviews, both for the scheme he brought in and for the players who have thus far shown solid development. Lord knows there is almost nowhere to go but up for a unit that has ranked no better than 100th in Def. F/+ in any of the last five seasons and ranked 110th in 2011 despite soon-to-be first-round draft pick Dontari Poe occupying the middle (Poe was actually outpaced by junior-to-be Johnnie Farms in terms of production in 2011; if you are in the market for actual red flags for potential first rounders, instead of ridiculously fake ones, you have plenty to choose from with Poe.)
It appears the front seven could be a strength for Odom's first defense, though line depth is an issue. Farms was suspended this spring but should be back in the fall; he would be joined by three-star sophomore Terry Redden, who thrived this spring, and senior end Zach Gholson, who did the same. Still, the line ranked just 107th in Adj. Line Yards and 110th in Adj. Sack Rate and must replace not only Poe, but also four of its top five ends. It performed well this spring, but the ceiling is probably still limited. If the unit can just show improvement, however, it could help free up an interesting batch of linebackers. Aside from Farms, Akeem Davis is probably the best returning playmaker -- he registered 8.0 tackles for loss, defended seven passes (three picks), forced three fumbles and recovered four. Former three-star recruits Kenyata Johnson, Khiry Battle (once an Arkansas Razorback) and Charles Harris also still have time to make a difference.
For better or worse, just about every member of last year's secondary also returns. The pass defense was done no favors by an awful pass rush, but only two defensive backs managed to defend more than four passes: strong safety Cannon Smith (once a quarterback) and three-star sophomore corner Bobby McCain. There are star recruits about here, however: corner Taurean Nixon and free safety Lonnie Ballentine were each once three-star signees, as was incoming freshman Dion Witty. Now they just have to start playing like it.
When you have won three games in two years, it would probably behoove you not to set the bar too high. Memphis hosts three teams projected 111th or worse, and they get a visit from FCS' UT-Martin as well. Win those four (or lose one and pull an upset elsewhere), and you have cleared the bar with gusto.
Memphis has some individual players who are quite intriguing -- Jerrell Rhodes, Karam-to-Wright, offensive tackle Jordan Devey, Farms and Redden on defense, a few linebackers, etc. But this team was just SO bad over the last two years that even semi-significant progress would only mean so much. If Fuente is the right guy for the job, it will still take him two or three years to build the program back to what existed at the peak of the Tommy West era. The fewer the expectations, the better, for now.