The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 98 Memphis.
Previewing Memphis’ Offense for 2014
Can a 6'6" quarterback encounter growing pains? It seems that’s what Paxton Lynch went through last season as a redshirt freshman. Lynch was intercepted 10 times in 12 games and threw only nine touchdown passes. The strong-armed Florida native should be much more comfortable and productive this fall in an offense that is expected to play at an increased tempo. Lynch has worked on being more vocal and appears to have a firm grasp on an offense with returning starters throughout.
At running back, the Tigers will be led Brandon Hayes, who was granted a sixth year by the NCAA during the offseason. Hayes doesn’t possess breakaway speed, but he’s a candidate to approach 1,000 yards because of his gritty, hard-nosed running style. Sophomore Doroland Dorceus was the team’s third-leading rusher and will push Hayes for the starting job. He isn’t afraid to gain the punishing yards inside the tackles. Coach Justin Fuente also plans to give sophomore Sam Craft, mainly a receiver last fall, some additional carries. Craft, savvy beyond his years, tied Hayes for the team lead in rushing touchdowns (five) in 2013.
The receivers struggled to hang onto the football but should be improved. Joe Craig, Craft, Keiwone Malone and Tevin Jones — the team’s top four wideouts — are back. Craig, a former Clemson player, gave the unit much-needed speed to stretch the field, yet he averaged only 9.1 yards per reception. Malone, an ex-Alabama player, averaged 12.4 yards per catch and appears primed for a breakout. The Tigers are intrigued by the potential of 6'5" junior college transfer Greg McKillion, the tallest of the wideouts, and 26-year-old sophomore tight end Tyler Kolodny, a former minor league baseball player, although neither has cracked the two-deep.
Previewing Memphis’ Defense for 2014
Word is out on the coaching ability of defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who has been pursued by major conference programs the past two seasons. Yet, Odom has remained on the Memphis staff to continue molding this unit, lifting it from the depths three years ago (117th in total defense) to 39th last fall.
Odom will have to replace his starting safeties but returns a majority of the defense. Most of the key contributors in the front seven are back, including defensive ends Ricky Hunter and Martin Ifedi and linebackers Charles Harris, Ryan Coleman and Jackson Dillon. Ifedi ranked among the nation’s leaders in sacks, and he and Hunter should benefit from the hiring of defensive line coach Ricky Hunley, a former NFL player and assistant coach.
In the secondary, starting cornerbacks Bobby McCain and Andrew Gaines are back. McCain picked off six passes — the most in a single season at Memphis in 25 years — and returned two for touchdowns, including a 75-yarder against Duke.
Previewing Memphis’ Specialists for 2014
Memphis must replace a consensus All-America punter in Tom Hornsey, but the Tigers return sophomore kicker Jake Elliott, who made an impression as a rookie. Elliott connected on 16-of-18 field goal attempts, including a school-record 56-yarder in a league win at South Florida, and earned first-team all-conference honors. The return game should be solid. Malone averaged 6.4 yards per punt return, and Craig averaged 26.8 yards per kickoff return. Memphis hasn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 1996.
It appears all the elements are in place for the Tigers to make a move in the American Athletic Conference. Fuente has increased the tempo of his offense and has a quarterback who he believes can lead the charge. Defensively, the Tigers likely will improve further under the direction of Odom and make a run at bowl-eligibility for the first time since 2008.