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HEAD COACH: Justin Fuente, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Darrell Dickey | DEF. COORDINATOR: Barry Odom
First-year Memphis head coach Justin Fuente looks to begin the rebuilding process in Tigers' final season in C-USA.
Not only will Memphis be under a new coach in former TCU co-offensive coordinator Justin Fuente, but it will also open the season with a different starting quarterback for the fourth straight year. Taylor Reed had moved into the starting role last fall as a true freshman, but he asked for his release in the spring and will transfer. He’ll be replaced by Texas Tech transfer Jacob Karam, who joined the team for spring workouts and will be immediately eligible.
Fuente expresses confidence in Karam’s leadership abilities despite his inexperience. Karam played sparingly for the Red Raiders last season, completing 9-of-17 passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
The offensive line returns four of five starters, and injury-prone running back Jerrell Rhodes is back. Rhodes is clearly the team’s top option and, if healthy, will give the offense the necessary balance to implement Fuente’s vision.
At wide receiver, the Tigers boast veteran Marcus Rucker, who has all-league potential, and Kevin Wright, a sophomore with the skill set and body (6'4", 215) to become a big-play target. Fuente also expects to take advantage of tight ends in the up-tempo offense.
Memphis finished 115th in total defense in 2010 and 117th last fall, including 120th (last) in pass defense. Fuente brought in former Missouri assistant Barry Odom to coordinate the defense, and the early results appear promising.
Despite losing defensive tackle Dontari Poe to the NFL Draft, Fuente repeatedly praised the work of the defensive line in the spring. Terry Redden stepped in at nose tackle and proved to be a handful to block. Zach Gholson, a former Boise State Bronco, also had a productive spring.
Kenyata Johnson returns at linebacker, where he started all 12 games a year ago and finished as the team’s third-leading tackler. Charles Harris, a local prep standout, should move into a starting role after appearing in 12 games as a reserve in 2011.
Memphis must improve in the secondary. The Tigers allowed nearly 300 passing yards per game a year ago. Back is sophomore Bobby McCain, who gradually developed into a respectable cornerback, and veteran nickel back/linebacker Akeem Davis, playing for his third head coach in four years at Memphis.
Memphis should have one of the better special teams units in C-USA. Junior punter Tom Hornsey was an All-American as a freshman and has averaged at least 42 yards per kick in each of his two seasons. Placekicker Paulo Henriques, a senior, was 6-of-7 from inside 40 yards but struggled from 40 yards-plus, going 2-of-8.
A former quarterback at Oklahoma and Murray State, Fuente faces the challenging task of resurrecting a program that went to five bowls in six seasons under Tommy West but has won only five total games in the past three years. Fuente also has the added responsibility of bulking up a team that joins the Big East in 2013.
Fuente understands that he has taken command of a program in disrepair. The number of scholarship players is low, and depth is practically non-existent. But the first-year coach brings an innovative offensive mind and has put together a solid staff that includes former North Texas head coach Darrell Dickey as offensive coordinator. Fuente also will be helped by a forgiving schedule that makes winning four games a realistic goal.