Justin Fuente has quickly changed the mindset of the Memphis program. This team was competitive against big-time competition last year and claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference championship. The offense should be solid with seven starters back, but Fuente has to replace eight starters and a coordinator on the defensive side of the ball. If things fall into place quickly, this team is a top challenger in the AAC once again.
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Previewing Memphis’ Offense for 2015
When he named Paxton Lynch, a 6'7" freshman, his starting quarterback before the start of the 2013 season, Memphis coach Justin Fuente encountered mild criticism. Fuente never wavered in his belief that Lynch could develop into one of the American Athletic Conference’s top quarterbacks. After struggling his freshman season, Lynch blossomed last fall. He passed for 3,031 yards — becoming only the third Tigers quarterback to surpass 3,000 yards in a season — to lead the program to its first 10-win season since 1938 and its first bowl game since 2008.
At running back, the Tigers lost veteran Brandon Hayes, who finished just shy of 1,000 yards, but return Doroland Dorceus, who missed most of the season and spring practice with a knee injury. Sophomore Jarvis Cooper is a punishing 250-pounder who possesses deceptive speed. He should be a first option in goal-line situations. Junior Sam Craft is a multi-purpose talent who could line up in the backfield or at receiver.
Memphis returns leading receiver Mose Frazier, more efficient than flashy operating out of the slot. In all, four of the team’s top six receivers are back, including tight end Alan Cross, who was a first-team all-league selection last year.
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Previewing Memphis’ Defense for 2015
One of the league’s top defensive units was hit hard by losses as it must replace eight starters. Plus, highly regarded coordinator Barry Odom left to return to Missouri, his alma mater, in the same role. Associate head coach and linebackers coach Galen Scott steps into Odom’s position.
Scott has to find three new starting linebackers, three new starting defensive backs and two new starting defensive linemen. Cornerback Bobby McCain was a four-year starter, and defensive end Martin Ifedi was the school’s career sacks leader. Linebacker Tank Jakes was the league’s co-Defensive Player of the Year.
In their places, Scott could insert Dontrell Nelson at cornerback, Latarius Brady at defensive end and Wynton McManis at linebacker. All played extensively as reserves with Nelson returning an interception 58 yards for a touchdown.
The top defensive returnee will be end/linebacker Jackson Dillon, a rangy, hard-hitting player who forced two fumbles and had nine tackles for a loss. Nelson and junior Chauncey Lanier are the leading candidates to start at cornerback. Free safety Reggis Ball is the lone returning starter in the secondary.
Previewing Memphis’ Specialists for 2015
Memphis returns the league’s top kicker and reigning conference Special Teams Player of Year in Jake Elliott, whose season included a dramatic 54-yard, game-tying field goal in the first overtime of the Tigers’ win over BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl. He has made 37-of-50 field goals in his first two seasons, including the game-winner in the closing seconds at Temple last year that made the Tigers bowl-eligible. The punting game is solid behind sophomores Spencer Smith and Nick Jacobs. On kickoffs, the Tigers will attempt to snap what is believed to be nation’s longest drought. Memphis has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 1996.
After going 10–3 last season and claiming a share of the AAC title, the Tigers are poised to repeat those successes. With Lynch at quarterback, the Tigers will possess a potent offense, one capable of overcoming whatever a rebuilding defense allows. A running game featuring two physical, punishing backs could be potent. Defensively, the Tigers will have to find replacements for eight players, including two — McCain and Ifedi — who will be playing in the NFL. How quickly the secondary develops in a pass-oriented conference could determine the team’s ability to repeat as league champs.