The Tigers rank No. 51 in Athlon’s Top 130 for 2017
Memphis has played in three straight bowls as Mike Norvell maintained the success the Tigers had under previous head coach Justin Fuente. Now in his second season, Norvell has 14 starters returning and an eye on a potential American Athletic Conference championship. Memphis’ offense should remain among the nation’s most productive but how far this Tigers team goes this fall will likely come down the performance of the defense.
Previewing Memphis Football’s Offense for 2017
In his first season as a head coach, Mike Norvell directed Memphis to its third straight bowl game. Riley Ferguson is back for his senior season after passing for 3,698 yards and 32 touchdowns after transferring from junior college.
Those numbers could improve as the Tigers return eight starters on offense, including one of the league’s top receivers — Anthony Miller, who came to the program as a walk-on and set the school record with 1,434 receiving yards in 2016. Miller will be joined by another reliable former walk-on in Phil Mayhue, a senior who was the team’s second-leading receiver. Mayhue averaged 16.1 yards per catch.
The running back position, headlined by senior Doroland Dorceus, will be deep. If Dorceus matches last season’s total (810 yards), he’ll finish as the program’s second-leading rusher behind DeAngelo Williams. Patrick Taylor, a powerful runner who averaged 5.9 per carry, and Darrell Henderson, the fastest player on the team, will get plenty of carries. Tony Pollard is a weapon both rushing and receiving.
The offensive line will be bolstered by Harneet Gill, a former Missouri signee who is expected to take over at left tackle. Trevon Tate, last year’s left tackle, will move to the right side. The interior positions will be manned by returning starters.
Previewing Memphis Football’s Defense for 2017
Coordinator Chris Ball has reduced the defensive package to allow his unit to play fast. The Tigers ranked in the bottom half nationally in several categories, including sacks and tackles for a loss, and Ball would like to correct the shortcomings.
Improved play up front would be a start. Only 11 of the team’s 23 sacks in 2016 came from the defensive line. Linebacker will be the team’s strength, and Jackson Dillon’s return is among the reasons why. Dillon, who will play the hybrid outside linebacker/end position, played only eight snaps last season due to injury. Curtis Akins, at middle linebacker, was forced into the starting lineup in mid-October and blossomed. Genard Avery, at the other linebacker spot, will be one of the league’s best after leading the team with 11 tackles for a loss and five sacks.
Ball’s emphasis will be on finding replacements for six of his top eight defensive backs. Two former Oklahoma players — cornerbacks Tito Windham and Marcus Green — are poised to contribute. Although he’s only 5'9", Windham is a punishing tackler who took first-team reps in the spring. Green is rangy and athletic and has the size (6'2", 190) to match up against the elite wideouts in the AAC. Safety Jonathan Cook, an ex-Alabama player, had 88 tackles to lead the team.
Previewing Memphis Football’s Specialists for 2017
Memphis must replace Jake Elliott, one of the most successful kickers in the program’s history. Riley Patterson, rated among the nation’s top 10 kickers by 247Sports, is next in line. After going 20 years without returning a kickoff for a touchdown, the Tigers returned three in 2016 — two by Pollard, one of the nation’s best.
Norvell picked up where Justin Fuente — who guided the Tigers to back-to-back bowl games before departing for Virginia Tech — left off. Memphis ranked 14th nationally in passing offense (304.4 ypg), 15th in scoring offense (38.8 ppg) and 28th in total offense (463.7 ypg) and played in a third straight bowl game.
The Tigers should set a school record by playing in a fourth straight postseason game as Norvell returns eight starters on offense with multiple weapons at running back and receiver. The defense will be a question mark, particularly with an overhaul in the secondary. But keep this in mind: Memphis won 17 games over the past two years with a defense that ranked in the bottom half of the AAC.
National Ranking: 51
AAC West Prediction: 1
(Riley Ferguson photo courtesy of Memphis Athletics)