No. 120: Memphis
By Paul Myerberg // May 2, 2011
I’ve heard — and we’ve seen the evidence — that college football is cyclical, meaning success ebbs and flows, powers come and go, one replacing another from decade to decade and from year to year, with the state of Alabama as our most recent guide. The message has not been passed along to Memphis, which is at best consistent in its mediocrity, at worst disappointing in its inability to take advantage of the recruiting hotbed lying in its own backyard. In fact, one might say that Memphis football is not cyclical but reciprocal, in the mathematical sense of the word: after ending last season ranked dead last in the nation, the Tigers begin 2011 in the same spot.
Conference USA, East
9 (4 offense, 5 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 10
at Arkansas State
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 1
at Middle Tennessee
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 12
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
at Southern Miss
Last year’s prediction
Past success is not always a strong indicator of future success, nor do a previous year’s struggles automatically spell trouble for a coming season. With one caveat: when a team is as bad as Memphis was in 2009, when it has such issues doing even the most simple of things — and it then decides to make widespread changes on its coaching staff, things typically don’t go well in that new staff’s first season. Simply put, the combination of a tough schedule and a weak roster leaves me skeptical as to how the Tigers will win more than three games; three games might even be pushing it. The roster needs to be overhauled and major improvements need to be made on defense before Memphis can think about reaching bowl eligibility, let alone challenging for a Conference USA title.
In a nutshell Rebuilding jobs take time, and they oftentimes — especially at the lower-tier stops throughout the F.B.S. — find a program hitting rock-bottom before a true rebuilding process can occur. One can only hope that last season saw Memphis find this nadir; one can only hope that things can’t really get worse, that the news that Porter had already lost this team were unfounded, that 2011 will see these Tigers begin the process of returning to Conference USA competitiveness. There was little to take from last season in a positive way, from the ineptitude on the field to the rumors of players already tuning out a first-year coach, and the negativity boiled over after several starters, including would-be sophomore quarterback Ryan Williams, opted to leave the program altogether rather than return for the 2011 season. It’s been an ugly start for Porter, pure and simple. Did I mention how terrible Memphis was on the field last fall?
High point That one win, which with conjunction with a three-point loss to UTEP on the following Saturday left Memphis at an altogether satisfying 1-3 mark through September — if there is such a thing. The bottom dropped out shortly thereafter, as we all saw.
Low point The Tigers only got within 15 points of one conference foe, UTEP, and dropped its remaining conference games by 42, 22 — twice — 38, 15, 16 and 20 points. It’s one thing to be bad, another thing to be terrible, another thing to be outright uncompetitive. That last term is putting it lightly, and nicely.
Tidbit Memphis went 0-8 from Oct. 2 through the end of the regular season, dropping two months worth of games by the average final score of 43.4-12.8. The Tigers allowed five opponents to gain at least 500 yards of total offense over this span, including a whopping 651-yard performance to Houston; gave up at least 233 rushing yards four times; allowed 29 passing touchdowns against only three interceptions; and only twice held a lead at any point — for a little more than five minutes in the first quarter against Southern Mississippi and for the first 38 minutes against Marshall, though the Thundering Herd ended the game on a 28-3 run.
Tidbit (damning statistic edition) For evidence of Memphis’s ineptitude last fall, take note of how the Tigers fared on punt returns. Twelve games, 11 punt returns — so, in essence, Memphis was returning less than one punt per game, which is feeble. Those 11 returns garnered all of five yards, leaving Memphis with an average of 0.45 yards per return, by leaps and bounds the worst total in the country. In fact, that average was roughly 500% worse than the next-worst team in the country, New Mexico, which averaged 2.3 yards per punt return.
Former players in the N.F.L.
10 DT Tony Brown (Tennessee), WR Duke Calhoun (New York Giants), K Stephen Gostkowski (New England), DT Kellen Heard (Buffalo), OG Artis Hicks (Washington), CB Brandon McDonald (Detroit), DT Clinton McDonald (Cincinnati), OT Wade Smith (Houston), RB Curtis Steele (Baltimore), RB DeAngelo Williams (Carolina).
Arbitrary top five list
Cities of ancient Egypt
Larry Porter (Memphis ’96), 1-11 after a single season at his alma mater. Not the finest start in the world for Porter, on and off the field, even if we all knew it would take some time for him to turn things around after replacing Tommy West, who bottomed out at 2-10 in his final season. Porter’s most recent stop prior to Memphis was at L.S.U., where he served from 2005-9 as the team’s running back and assistant head coach. In addition to his task, Porter was tabbed as the program’s lead recruiter; obviously, he was very successful at his job. While the success he had as a recruiter is what put Porter’s name at the forefront, he also did a solid job leading the team’s powerful running attack. L.S.U. ranked among the top rushing teams in the SEC in each of his five seasons, most notably during the team’s national championship-winning season in 2007. Prior to landing at L.S.U., Porter spent three years as the running backs coach at Oklahoma State; he coached a 1,000-yard rusher in each season. His first coaching position on the F.B.S. level came at Arkansas State, where, from 1999-2001, he again coached the running backs. So how did Porter land an F.B.S. head coach position without having any coordinator experience? I already touched on his recruiting acumen, which surely played an enormous role. However, like Doc Holliday at Marshall – another coach without coordinator experience – Porter also brings extensive experience at major programs under a coach, Les Miles, who knows how to both bring in high-level talent and, by and large, coach players up to their best potential. Whether he translates the lessons he learned as an assistant to his new position remains to be seen, and he can’t afford another 1-11 season.
Tidbit (coaching edition) A few changes on the Memphis coaching staff; one addition, multiple new assignments. Jerry Mack, late of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, will coach the wide receivers, leaving offensive coordinator Eric Hopson with running backs coach responsibilities. Hopson will continue to carry the coordinator title while not calling plays, duties that will now fall to assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach Kevin McGiven, who will be charged with implementing a new spread offense. One would think that Porter would have looked outside his incumbent staff, particularly with the scheme change, but he opted otherwise.
Players to watch
The team’s biggest weapon on either side of the ball is probably sophomore punter Tom Hornsey, a freshman all-American in his debut season. Here’s a guarantee: 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. He punted 80 times last fall — tying a school record — booting 17 more than 50 yards, putting 24 inside the 20-yard line and allowing only 30 percent of his punts to be returned, which makes him one of the most productive punters in the country.
Maybe Hornsey won’t punt 80 times in 2011; he might punt 75 times, however. The offense is undergoing that transition to the spread offense, which sounds nice on paper, but will sorely miss Ryan Williams, who started as a true freshman for Larry Porter but left the program in March. That leaves a void under center, as one would expect, with sophomore Andy Summerlin his likely replacement. One thing to watch: Summerlin missed all of last season following shoulder surgery, though he was cleared to throw last November and was pain-free during the spring. Summerlin might put up nice numbers, but losing a quarterback like Williams hurts — even if he might not have been the best fit for a spread attack.
Depth is at a premium at running back, where Jerrell Rhodes is the only back on the roster with any game experience, but having a handful of proven receivers will help Summerlin ease into his new position. Junior Martin Rucker is one: he led Memphis in receptions (41), receiving yards (704) and touchdowns (eight) last fall, serving as Williams’ favorite target. The Tigers also return Curtis Johnson (22 receptions for 230 yards), Travis Rehrer (23 for 284) and Billy Foster (14 for 175), with this quartet leading the way at the position heading out of the spring.
Keep an eye on the development of the offensive line, which was abysmal in 2010 and must know get on the same page with the new offensive system. Sometimes this type of change can do a group good, giving each linemen a fresh start and a newfound sense of confidence — this is me playing psychologist. If there is a sure thing up front — and not saying there is — it would be senior left tackle Ronald Leary, who started each game in 2010; he and Rucker were the only offensive players to do so. He’ll anchor the line, but question marks abound elsewhere. Can converted defensive lineman D’Angelo McCray help in the run game? Can JUCO transfer Jordan Devey make an immediate impact? With Michael Antonescu at center, will his brother A.J., an undersized sophomore, break into the lineup at left guard?
Memphis wasn’t terrible against the run last fall. The numbers — 84th nationally, allowing 179.2 yards on the ground per game — are skewed by the fact that the Tigers trailed by such significant margins in the second half of games; teams ran the ball down the stretch to kill the clock, which negatively affected how Memphis fared statistically. In other words, the defensive line might be a strength, not a weakness, though it would be nice if this group could get to the quarterback with a big more regularity.
Seniors lead the way up front: Daniel Thomas at end, Frank Trotter in the middle. Trotter is particularly disruptive, as illustrated by his 16.5 tackles for loss a year ago. Trotter is extremely small for an interior spot along the line — he clocks in at 265 pounds on the roster, so he’s probably a bit smaller than that in reality — but makes for his lack of girth with a quick first step, as you’d expect. If you’re looking for size along the defensive line, check out nose tackle Dontari Poe; he’s listed at 350, meaning he’s probably weighing in at quite a bit more than that. The combination of Poe and Trotter, the Laurel and Hardy of Conference USA, isn’t a bad one.
Memphis will miss linebacker Jamon Hughes, who took advantage of the opposition’s penchant for running the ball with a team-best 147 tackles, five for loss. There’s still some experience on this second level, as the Tigers return a 10-game starter in DeRon Furr (58 tackles, 7 for loss) and a pair of 2010 reserves in Khiry Battle and Terrence Thomas. Memphis might want to feature Thomas in a more prominent role: he made plays when called upon last fall, finishing second on the team in tackles for loss and tying for the team lead with three sacks. Keep an eye on JUCO transfer Kenyata Johnson, who arrived on campus during the spring. He’s a contender to replace Hughes in the middle; if he did so, Furr would move outside.
Position battles to watch
Secondary Also under consideration: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker. And not merely because of a lack of depth and proven talent, though that is certainly an issue; it’s also due to the fact that after a 1-11 season, no job is truly safe — much is open to debate, though some positions have larger issues to address than others. The secondary is a fine example: there is competition at cornerback, where the Tigers have three sophomores battling for starting roles, while at safety, Memphis must replace starters Marcus Ball and Darius Davis. What’s the bottom line? Memphis had the nation’s worst pass defense last fall, and it doesn’t look like it will be much better in 2011. However, the secondary’s youth is intriguing. Sophomore cornerback Mohammad Seisay started all 12 games last fall while fellow sophomores Taurean Nixon and Lonnie Ballentine stepped into larger roles down the stretch. The Tigers look weak at safety, but at least junior free safety Mitch Huelsing made a few starts in November — in other words, Memphis could be more inexperienced back there, though not by much.
Game(s) to watch
Road games against the weaker teams on the schedule: Arkansas State, Rice and Tulane. Memphis would rather have those games at home, even if fans stayed away in droves during Porter’s debut season.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell 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. As of today, the games Memphis seems most able to win are those listed above, each of which come on the road. Yeah, U.A.B. and Marshall are beatable — though each beat the Tigers in Memphis last fall — but also as of today, the Tigers don’t have much of a chance against Mississippi State, S.M.U. or East Carolina, nor against U.C.F. or Southern Mississippi. So prepare for the worst; prepare for ugly losses, prepare for fewer fans in the seats and more vitriol from the press, prepare for a double-digit loss season. 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.
Dream season Memphis doesn’t exactly compete, dropping games by substantial margins against the better teams on its schedule, but the Tigers squeak out five wins thanks to narrow victories over the weaker teams in conference play.
Nightmare season What’s more disappointing than a 1-11 season? Well, 0-12 would be worse, but with Austin Peay on the schedule, Memphis should win at least one game. Another 1-11 finish, with only that F.C.S. win, however, would put Larry Porter in Mike Locksley territory; that wouldn’t be good.
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 Roar, Memphis Scouts and Tiger Sports Report. I will say it now, I’ll say it tomorrow and I’ll say it all summer: additional options should be listed below. Any and all — as long as they are college football-centric — will be included in this section.
Through one team 2,586.
Who is No. 119? One down, 119 to go. The next university’s soccer, track and field, baseball and softball teams play in a complex named after the captain of the football program’s first winning team of the 20th century.
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Tags: Andy Summerlin, Conference USA, Frank Trotter, Larry Porter, Memphis, Ryan Williams, Tom Hornsey
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