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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 119: Memphis

Here’s an interesting scenario: If Tom Bowen had been named R.C. Johnson’s successor in December, when Memphis was conducting a national coaching search, would he have hired former T.C.U. co-offensive coordinator Justin Fuente? Bowen, formerly of San Jose State, was named Memphis’ athletic director on Monday; while the task of finding Larry Porter’s successor has been taken out of his hands, Bowen will continue to closely monitor the football program as it looks to rebuild in advance of next year’s move to the Big East. Bowen has been here before, back in 2005 while at San Jose State. The Spartans, rolling along at a level two steps below mediocrity, needed to find a solution for its football woes. Bowen’s solution? Dick Tomey — the anti-Justin Fuente, the anti-Larry Porter. History says that Bowen, if given the chance, would have hired a veteran, experienced and accomplished college head coach. Not a Fuente. What’s done is done: moving on.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Memphis

Nickname
Tigers

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 120

2011 record
(2-10 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 116

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Tenn.-Martin
  • Sept. 8
    at Arkansas State
  • Sept. 15
    Middle Tennessee St.
  • Sept. 22
    at Duke
  • Oct. 6
    Rice
  • Oct. 13
    at E.C.U.
  • Oct. 20
    U.C.F.
  • Oct. 27
    at S.M.U.
  • Nov. 3
    at Marshall
  • Nov. 10
    Tulane
  • Nov. 17
    at U.A.B.
  • Nov. 24
    Southern Miss.

Last year’s prediction

There’s painfully little to like about Memphis, thanks to an already-thin roster depleted further by departures; a coach who seems lost; a fan base largely apathetic to what occurs outside of basketball season; and a schedule that’s somewhat intimidating, with the most winnable games coming away from home. Could Memphis be better? Well, the Tigers can’t be worse, and there’s a chance that the offensive alterations yield immediate benefits. There’s also the chance that Porter knows what he’s doing, turning around Memphis much as Mike Haywood did at Miami (Ohio), but he’s shown nothing through one year in charge to deserve that kind of optimism. Worst in 2010, Memphis will again be at or near the bottom in 2011.

2011 recap

In a nutshell All the good news: Memphis beat a team from the F.B.S.; beat two teams altogether, tying the program’s high-water mark over the last three years; beat a team in conference play; lost three games by a touchdown or less; and are no longer coached by Larry Porter. The list of negative items is too long for this space, but suffice to say, Memphis football has hit rock bottom. That’s not a hope — a nighttime prayer that please, please don’t let it get worse — but reality: Memphis can’t get any worse than it has been over the last three years. And if you’re really optimistic, you begin to point to signs of increased competitiveness as evidence that the program is not too far from becoming a stronger presence in Conference USA play. Over a four-week span from late October through November, the Tigers won a game and lost two games by a combined six points. Not bad, right? Of course, that feel-good stretch sandwiched a 41-point loss. Again, moving on.

High point A 33-17 win over Tulane. The victory was Memphis’ first in conference play since Oct. 10, 2009, a span of 742 days. It was the program’s first win against an F.B.S. foe since the previous September, when it squeaked past Middle Tennessee State by a touchdown.

Low point I don’t know if Memphis will ever get any lower than it was on the second Saturday of last season, when it lost by 44 points to Arkansas State in Jonesboro. In all, the Tigers lost five games by at least 35 points: Mississippi State, Arkansas State, S.M.U., U.C.F. and Southern Mississippi.

Tidbit A carry-over tidbit from last summer. As I wrote last May: “[Freshman punter Tom] Hornsey, an Australian who had never played a down of football prior to last September, will shatter each significant program punting record before he’s through.” It didn’t take Hornsey long to enter the record books. As evidence of just how inept Memphis’ offense was last fall, take note: Hornsey set new program single-season records in punts (90) and punt yardage (3,993). As a freshman, Hornsey tied the school record with 80 punts. Memphis punted 96 times as a team last fall, or three times as many as Baylor, which punted 32 times, the fewest of any team in the F.B.S.

Tidbit (bad edition) Since the start of the 2009 season, Memphis is 1-3 against the Sun Belt, 0-4 against the SEC, 0-1 against the Big East and 2-22 in conference play. Memphis is 2-0 against F.C.S. foes, beating Tennessee-Martin — the season opener this year — in 2009 and Austin Peay last fall. Of the 22 Conference USA defeats, only four came by single digits.

Tidbit (fumbles edition) What’s one thing Memphis does well on offense? Since 2004, the Tigers’ running backs rank among the best in the country in protecting the football. Over the last eight years, Memphis running backs have accounted for only 17 lost fumbles in 2,699 carries. Nine of the 17 fumbles took place over the last two years, however.

Former players in the N.F.L.

7 DT Charlie Bryant (San Diego), K Stephen Gostkowski (New England), DT Kellen Heard (Buffalo), OG Artis Hicks (Miami), DT Clinton McDonald (Seattle), OG Wade Smith (Miami), RB DeAngelo Williams (Carolina).

Arbitrary top five list

First-year coaches with toughest rebuilding job
1. Bob Davie, New Mexico.
2. Terry Bowden, Akron.
3. Curtis Johnson, Tulane.
4. Garrick McGee, U.A.B.
5. Justin Fuente, Memphis.

Coaching

Justin Fuente (Murray State ‘99), entering his first season. Fuente comes to Memphis from T.C.U., where he spent the last five years as an assistant under Gary Patterson. From 2007-8, Fuente tutored the Horned Frogs’ running backs; beginning in 2009 and extending through last season, he shared offensive coordinator duties with Jarrett Anderson. After going 8-5 in 2007, the program’s least successful season since 2004, T.C.U. lost only five games over the last four seasons. The Horned Frogs won at least 11 games in each year from 2008-11, landing a B.C.S. berth in both 2009 and 2010 — winning the Rose Bowl in the latter season. While T.C.U. is known more for its defense, Fuente’s offense was consistently superb. The Horned Frogs scored at least 27 points in each of his last 31 games with the program; over the last three years, the offense averaged 226.8 yards per game through the air and 232.3 yards per game on the ground. Prior to being hired at T.C.U., Fuente spent six years as an assistant at Illinois State: the quarterbacks coach from 2001-3, he was also the Redbirds’ offensive coordinator from 2004-6. Fuente’s work with quarterbacks seemed like a logical step after his sterling playing career, which began at Oklahoma, where he started as a freshman, and ended at Murray State, where he set 11 school passing records. What did Memphis see in Fuente? A young, energetic and passionate coach with the knowledge of what it takes to win consistently on the F.B.S. level. If the Tigers feel secure in Fuente’s ability to win in a difficult situation, they’ll need to be patient while he works through his own learning curve as a first-time head coach.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Fuente did hire a coordinator, though he’ll remain very hands-on with this offense — it is his sped-up, quick-tempo scheme, after all. As his coordinator, Fuente reached out to Darrell Dickey, the former North Texas head coach who spent last season as Dennis Franchione’s coordinator at Texas State. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Dickey, who was Memphis’ coordinator under Charlie Bailey from 1986-89. The Tigers’ new defensive coordinator, former Missouri safeties coach Barry Odom, knows a thing or two about building consistent winners from the bottom up.

Players to watch

Much has changed since the end of last season, but one thing remains the same: Memphis lost another quarterback. Or two, in the case of this offseason. Soon after Porter’s dismissal, would-be junior Andy Summerlin opted to transfer to Samford, where he could conceivably be a two-year starter. Last week — in a move that wasn’t entirely surprising — would-be sophomore Taylor Reed left the program. Reed’s departure stings: he started nine games as a true freshman last fall, throwing for 1,690 yards and 10 scores against 4 interceptions. What’s the bottom line? Memphis has had a true freshman starter in each of the last two years; each quarterback left the program shortly thereafter, with Ryan Williams, now the potential starter at Miami (Fla.), doing so after the 2010 season.

Reed’s departure opens the starting role to Texas Tech transfer Jacob Karam, though Karam, who largely outplayed Reed during the spring, might have won the job outright during fall camp. Karam, who is eligible to play immediately after graduating early from Texas Tech, spent last season as Seth Doege’s backup; over two years in Lubbock, he completed 9 of 18 attempts for 104 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Even if Karam hits the ground running in Fuente’s system, Memphis has severe depth issues at the position. Wide receiver Wil Gilchrist is currently listed as Karam’s backup, meaning at least one of two incoming freshmen, Will Gross and Paxton Lynch, will need to be ready to play from day one. Gilchrist has taken snaps at quarterback in the past, but Memphis can’t feel secure about its depth behind Karam if one of the two freshman can’t grasp the offense from the start. And this ignores one question: Can Memphis feel secure about handing Karam the starting job?

Running the ball has been an issue at Memphis in each of the last two years. What the Tigers really need is a Curtis Steele-like infusion of talent; barring that — seeing that the roster will remain almost entirely the same — Fuente needs to rededicate this offense to running the football with consistency. Despite starting a true freshman at quarterback last fall, Memphis threw the ball more than 50 percent of the time. With the quarterback situation similarly unsettled heading into September, Fuente would be wise to get this team focused on running the ball to set up the pass, not vice versa.

The Tigers return a pair of backs with starting experience: Jerrell Rhodes (152 yards, 5.1 yards per carry) has been part of the mix in each of the last two years, starting once in 2011, while Artaves Gibson (316 yards) made a pair of starts last fall. When healthy — he played in only three games a year ago — Rhodes has flashed an ability to be the team’s lead back. If not, the Tigers will turn towards Gibson, sophomore Joe Price and redshirt freshman Carl Harris, a former walk-on. Memphis will add Jai Steib, a JUCO transfer, over the summer. He’ll have every opportunity to grab a major role in the running game.

Injuries stymied the offensive line last fall, slowing down the growth of a young and untested group, but that the Tigers needed to shuffle linemen in and out of the starting lineup has helped increase depth across the board in 2012. Not that Memphis has a starting five ready to roll come September: the two-deep remains a work in progress, though the group should, thanks in large part to last season’s experience, be one of the more improved groups in Conference USA. Though improvement, in this case, means Memphis won’t have the worst line in the conference, merely, say, the third-worst.

Gradually, slowly but surely, the line is acclimating to Fuente’s up-tempo system. Inexplicably, the skill positions receive the majority of attention whenever a coaching brings in a new offensive philosophy; in reality, the offensive line’s learning curve is just as important — and in most cases, it takes the line even longer to grasp the workings of a new system than it does a quarterback, running back or receiver. That’s the bad news: the Tigers’ front has another year of growing pains ahead. But with Al Bond, Chris Schuetz, Jordan Devey and Nick Chartain back in the fold — each started at least six games last fall — Fuente and offensive line coach Vance Vice have some experience at their disposal.

No position on this roster has greater depth, talent and potential than the receiver corps. While the Tigers lost Tannar Rehrer, last year’s leading receiver, the offense should get a full season out of senior Marcus Rucker, who missed four games due to injury last fall. When at 100 percent in 2010, Rucker led the Tigers in receptions (41), receiving yards (704) and touchdowns (8). The Tigers also return a borderline all-conference candidate in sophomore Kevin Wright (36 catches for 398), though his time at the forefront of Conference USA receivers is likely another year down the road. Also in the mix: Keiwone Malone (12 for 155), a former transfer from Alabama; Reggie Travis (18 for 146); and a slew of true and redshirt freshmen. It’s a deep group.

The Tigers’ defense has been so bad, for so long, that Odom needs to start from the beginning. “This is a football,” he’ll say, holding up a football. “The folks in the different-colored jerseys will be holding this, and we’re going to tackle them. The goal, in short, is to prevent the different-colored jerseys from matriculating” — only Hank Stram actually used the word matriculating — “the football down the field and into our end zone. You win football games by allowing less points, men. Take five, and when we return, we’re going to discuss something I call ‘picks.’ Grab some water.”

And scene. And it’s not that bad. It’s bad, mind you — just not to the point where Odom, who will also coach the safeties, will need to start from the very beginning. He’ll need to start nearly from scratch, however: the defensive line was dinged by graduation and attrition, the linebacker corps will have new duties and the secondary, one year after being mauled by injuries, must remain healthy. Odom’s not starting from scratch, no. But he has work to do, and don’t expect Memphis to make a significant climb up the defensive rankings in 2012.

Odom’s history of work with the secondary will come in handy, as will the six defensive backs Fuente signed in February. One, JUCO transfer Fritz Etienne, was on campus in time for spring ball; he’ll be a major factor at safety, where he could push returning contributors Lonnie Ballentine and Cannon Smith out the starting lineup. With Etienne, Ballentine, Smith and senior Mitch Huelsing in the fold, Memphis has options for Odom to work with at safety.

Cornerback is a bigger concern. What the Tigers really need is rapid improvement from the underclassmen, like sophomores Bobby McCain and Bakari Hollier, thrust into duty last fall. That trio joins last year’s nickel back, Akeem Davis (78 tackles, 8.0 for loss, team-best 3 interceptions), to form the top group at the position. Davis could also be used at weak side linebacker; he should be used there, in fact, though Memphis might need him at cornerback. You know what the Tigers could really use? A player like Mo Seisay, a starter as a true freshman in 2010 who transferred last May. After a year on the JUCO ranks, Seisay signed with Nebraska in February; he’s already turning heads in Lincoln.

There’s potential at linebacker, but not enough proven production. The only known quantity is senior Kenyatta Johnson (72 tackles), who will be the glue of this unit from his spot in the middle. If Davis steps over to cornerback, as expected, the Tigers will need to find a new starter on the strong side — where they lost Terrence Thomas — and the weak side. One option on the strong side is former Arkansas transfer Khiry Battle, a reserve last fall. Sophomore Charles Harris (33 tackles), who played well as a rookie, will take on an increased role. And the Tigers added a trio of newcomers during the spring: freshmen Reggie Ball and Kevin Green and JUCO transfer Bronterrious Jakes.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line Who’s gone: Frank Trotter, Tommy Walker and Dontari Poe, the latter a fast-rising interior lineman who should go within the top 16 picks in next week’s N.F.L. Draft. Who’s gone, temporarily: Johnnie Farms (42 tackles, 8.5 for loss) missed spring ball following a violation of team rules. So Memphis entered March with significant concerns about line play, and rightfully so. Surprisingly, Memphis left the spring feeling pretty good about its situation up front. Not great: pretty good. Remember that the Tigers, despite starting two seniors and a top draft pick, held only one F.B.S. opponent to less than 143 yards rushing last fall. Don’t expect the world, but improved technique alone should make this a more productive group.

Farms should return at some point over the summer, even if Fuente opts to suspend him for the first game or two of the regular season. In the meantime, Memphis could use more size along the interior of the line. The new staff is also high on sophomore Terry Redden, a part-time contributor as a freshman, so look for him to factor into the mix at tackle. Beyond that pair, however, the Tigers might need to dig deep: true freshman Donald Pennington, perhaps, or redshirt freshman Ricky Hunter. The situation is better at end, where Memphis will combine junior Corey Jones with senior Zach Gholson (24 tackles, 5.0 for loss); JUCO transfer Anthony Brown, on campus for spring ball, adds depth.

Game(s) to watch

There are winnable games here, especially in September. In fact, Memphis will play only one reigning bowl team, Arkansas State, before late October. If the Tigers can get on the same page with the new coaching staff, there’s a chance that this team can match last year’s win total at the midway point — a chance, though not a tremendous chance. If the Tigers want to win, say, five games, these are must-wins: Tennessee-Martin, Middle Tennessee State, Tulane and U.A.B.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Here’s what you see: hope. If not overriding, top-to-bottom hope, then more hope than was found during the Tigers’ run under Porter, when the program found its lowest point in decades. Fuente seems to have a nice grasp on how to build a winning product; he’s attacked the team’s losing mentality, hoping to reverse the sort of malaise that has gripped Memphis over the last three years. At some point — by the time the Tigers join the Big East, hopefully — Fuente might have Memphis playing a winning brand of football. For this year, the university should settle for increased competitiveness. There’s simply not enough talent here for Memphis to be more than an also-ran in the Conference USA East division, even if the division lacks a true leader heading into the summer. Once again, the Tigers will have a new starting quarterback. The running game, due to the lack of a lead back and offensive line concerns, is at least one year from being where Fuente needs it to be. The entire defense remains a looming concern — there’s simply not enough depth, let alone starting talent, for Memphis to make a drastic improvement. But the team will be better, even if that improvement doesn’t manifest itself in the standings. Fuente is an upgrade over his predecessor, though he has his own learning curve to address.

Dream season After starting 4-2, Memphis beats U.A.B. and Tulane down the stretch to earn its first bowl berth since 2008.

Nightmare season The year starts with a win over Tennessee-Martin, which is nice. But it deteriorates rapidly from there, ending with 11 straight losses and another last-place finish in Conference USA.

In case you were wondering

Where do Memphis fans congregate? More options than most, thanks to the university’s popular basketball program. Your choices include Memphis TigersMemphis RoarMemphis Scouts and Tiger Sports Report. For newspaper coverage of all Memphis-area sports, look no further than Kyle Veazey of the Commercial Appeal. You should also follow Kyle on Twitter.

Memphis’ all-name nominee LB Bronterrious Jakes.

Word Count

Through six teams 19,334.

Up Next

Who is No. 118? In 2011, 39 teams allowed fewer points than the total this team was outscored by on the season.

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Comments

  1. Joel says:

    The Akron Zips are next, outscored by 292 points on the year–the 40th-ranked scoring defense, Eastern Michigan, allowed 292 points. That’s a pretty sad stat for Akron.

    I remember when Tommy West left, he gave a pretty emotional speech criticizing the lack of institutional support from the Memphis AD and basically said that nobody could win there until there were serious structural changes. Do you think Tom Bowen marks a new investment in football in that respect? Memphis’s move to the Big East seems basketball-driven as much as anything.

  2. John says:

    People wonder why Syracuse and Pittsburgh left the Big East. I feel like Memphis is the poster child for what’s ailed that conference. Rather than being proactive to fix the football brand AND keep basketball dominant, they repeatedly did neither. Now, a mediocre version of the Tigers joins the league in basketball, and the league inherits arguably one of the worst teams in the country football-wise. What choice have departed Big East teams had, but to run screaming from this trainwreck?

  3. Hokieshibe says:

    I can’t believe this team is going to a BCS conference.

  4. Will says:

    IMO I think even UTM will give Memphis some fits. This UTM student thinks they have more talent than Memphis.

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