Justin Fuente pulled off one of the best rebuilds in recent college football history, taking over a program that went 5-31 in a three-year span before he arrived. By his third season, Memphis won 10 games and then nine games in his fourth. With Fuente gone to Virginia Tech, Memphis faces a task perhaps as tough as the one Fuente inherited back in 2012 — sustaining the program without him. To do this, the Tigers turned to another young offensive coordinator in Mike Norvell.
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Previewing Memphis’ Offense for 2016
First-year head coach Mike Norvell, who replaces Justin Fuente, assumes the reins of a team that must replace its record-setting quarterback. NFL Draft pick Paxton Lynch passed for a school-record 3,776 yards and 28 touchdowns as a junior, then announced his departure about a month after Fuente announced his for Virginia Tech.
Norvell quickly targeted ex-Tennessee quarterback Riley Ferguson, a 6'4" transfer from Coffeyville Community College, during recruiting. Ferguson is smaller than Lynch, but he possesses impressive credentials. Ferguson, redshirt freshman Brady Davis and senior Jason Stewart shared snaps with the No. 1 offense in the spring.
Whoever emerges may be able to ease into the role. The Tigers will rely heavily on a running game that returns its top three backs: Doroland Dorceus, Sam Craft and Jamarius Henderson. Expect new offensive coordinator Chip Long to utilize two-back sets to accentuate that depth.
Craft, a multi-purpose talent, once again could line up in the backfield or at receiver. He will be joined in that role by sophomore Tony Pollard, who had an impressive spring and is Craft’s likely successor. The receiving corps lost top wideout Mose Frazier, but Anthony Miller, Roderick Proctor and Phil Mayhue are reliable playmakers. Miller is the top big-play threat.
New offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield has multiple returnees, but they may end up at different spots. Former right tackle Trevon Tate, perhaps the group’s best lineman, is a strong candidate to move to left tackle.
Previewing Memphis’ Defense for 2016
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Coordinator Chris Ball, yet another assistant joining Norvell from Arizona State, has several returnees to anchor the defense. Veterans Latarius Brady and Ernest Suttles return to anchor the ends with Donald Pennington at tackle, backed by emerging playmaker Jared Gentry, a deceptively quick inside presence at 325 pounds.
At linebacker Jackson Dillon, a punishing tackler, is another familiar face. He had six tackles for a loss and a team-best two fumble recoveries last year. Also returning at linebacker is Genard Avery, a junior who briefly considered transferring to his home-state school, Ole Miss, before spring practice. High school teammate Shareef White will line up alongside Avery and may be the most athletic at the position.
The Tigers lost their most productive member of the secondary, safety Reggis Ball, but newcomer Jonathan Cook may fill the void. Cook began his career at Alabama, where he played two seasons before transferring to junior college. He was a playmaker in spring scrimmages. Cornerbacks Arthur Maulet and Dontrell Nelson each had two picks last season.
Previewing Memphis’ Specialists for 2016
There may not be a better kicking game in the conference. Placekicker Jake Elliott is back for his senior season after twice being named the league’s Special Teams Player of the Year. Elliott led the nation’s kickers in scoring last season with 132 points and made 23-of-28 field goals. Punter Spencer Smith returns after averaging 47.2 yards. The Tigers have gone 20 years without returning a kickoff for a touchdown.
Fuente went 19–7 his final two seasons — the school’s best two-year mark in a decade — before handing off to Norvell, who will be making his debut as a head coach. He won’t be the only newcomer — neither Ferguson nor Davis, the top two candidates in the QB derby, has taken a snap at the FBS level. That creates a challenge trying to match last year’s win total. Fuente had the Tigers in the New Year’s Six Bowls discussion at midseason as they made a rare appearance in the top 20. There isn’t likely to be the same buzz around Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium this fall, but another winning season is likely.