COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25
American Athletic PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Justin Fuente, 4-8 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Darrell Dickey | DEF. COORDINATOR: Barry Odom
Second-year coach Justin Fuente enters his first season in the American Athletic Conference, formerly known as the Big East, with a better offense. Fuente returns starting quarterback Jacob Karam, the Texas Tech transfer who ended the season by leading the struggling program to three straight wins. Karam, now a senior, completed 40-of-52 passes for seven touchdowns with only one interception during the streak. As good as Karam was, 6'6" redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch, a Florida native with a strong arm, could be better. He had a solid spring, as did Eric Mathews, a dual-threat QB who served as Karam’s backup last fall and has improved substantially as a thrower.
At running back, Fuente returns starter Brandon Hayes and reserve Jai Steib, who put together respectable seasons and helped the Tigers nearly double their rushing average from the previous year. Hayes, a walk-on, had back-to-back 100-yard games to end the year. Hayes and Steib will have to hold off challenges from Marquis Warford, Doroland Dorceus, Robert Davis and Tearris Wallace, four running backs from the 2013 recruiting class. Warford rushed for 2,322 yards and averaged 11.9 yards per carry in high school last fall.
The receiving corps got a boost from the addition of former Clemson wideout Joe Craig, who gives the Tigers the speed they lacked at the position a year ago. Craig joins a group that includes highly regarded local prospect Sam Craft, who might also play basketball at Memphis, along with returnees Keiwone Malone, Tevin Jones and Reggie Travis. Tight end Alan Cross, also a walk-on, was a dependable target for Karam.
Although the offensive line lost all-conference tackle Jordan Devey, three others return to give the unit a foundation on which to operate during its first season in a new league. Taylor Fallin (6'6", 330) is expected to move into Devey’s left tackle slot.
Former Missouri assistant Barry Odom led a remarkable turnaround as defensive coordinator. He transformed what was one of the worst units in the FBS into a respectable group. In its eight conference games, the U of M ranked first in its former league — Conference USA — in total defense. Odom returns several key players, including former high school teammates Terry Redden and Charles Harris, and end Martin Ifedi, who had 7.5 sacks last year.
Joining Redden up front will be Johnnie Farms, who has the ability to play at the next level. Farms, a 6'2", 300-pound senior, is a prototypical run-stopper. Two linebackers who emerged as playmakers last season — Anthony Brown and Tank Jakes — are back.
In the secondary, which lost two starters, cornerback Bobby McCain and safety Lonnie Ballentine return. McCain, a junior, is the vocal leader of the group, and Ballentine, a 6'3" senior, is likely to draw interest from pro scouts.
The defense should get a significant boost from junior college transfers Ryan Coleman (linebacker) and Kewan Alfred (defensive tackle).
Punter Tom Hornsey, beginning his third season with the Tigers, should establish himself as one of the new league’s best. Memphis, however, will have to find a new placekicker. In an effort to address the shortcoming, the Tigers added two kickers in their last signing class. The punt return unit should be capable with Malone and Craig.
Fuente made significant strides in his first season, and this year’s team should show similar improvement. A big key will be continuity: Fuente was able to retain each member of his coaching staff even though several received job offers from bigger programs. Still, the Tigers will be playing in a more difficult league and may not be able to better last year’s record of 4–8 despite an upgrade in talent.