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VOL. 128 | NO. 155 | Friday, August 09, 2013

 

Optimism Reigns as Tigers Prep for Season

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

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There is no reliable way to determine if a losing football program is on the precipice of becoming a winning football program. If there was, we’d all be getting rich betting the games.

But there is something to be said about change starting at the top. Second-year University of Memphis coach Justin Fuente and several players – all members of the team’s Leadership Council – met with the media on Wednesday, Aug. 7, the official reporting date; the first of four helmet-and-shorts practices was to begin the next day, and then on Tuesday, Aug. 13, the first practice in full pads.

The season opener, Sept. 7 vs. Duke at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, was exactly a month away, and it seems only right to say that anything said at a preseason luncheon should be, well, taken with a grain of salt. Still, Fuente, 37, provided reassurance to the extent possible when he acknowledged what many coaches won’t: Everybody begins with unchallenged optimism.

Second-year head coach Justin Fuente and the Memphis Tigers hope to build on the late success in the 2012 season when the team went on a roll to finish the season 4-8.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

“There are a lot of people across the country that are going to have a great team meeting today, or (had one) three days ago when they started camp,” he said.

It is what happens after that, of course, that determines where a team might go. Fuente uses the word “building” when discussing the job at hand. He could say “rebuilding,” but that would infer the goal was to reach a previously achieved height, and that is definitely not the case here.

Everyone understands the 2010-2011 seasons (3-21) under Larry Porter were landmark disasters, even for Memphis football. But Fuente is taking a longer view, which is wise on several levels. Last year’s team was 4-8 and 4-4 in Conference USA. Of course, the Tigers are now in a BCS league, the American Athletic Conference. The competition is better. And deeper.

Not surprisingly, the Tigers were picked to finish last in the American by a vote of the league’s media members.

“It doesn’t start with them. It starts with us,” said senior center Antonio Foster.

“I understand they got us picked last,” added junior nose tackle Terry Redden, “but it’s just a pick.”

And that’s just what you want your players to say, too – that it’s just an outside opinion more rooted in past team failures than what might happen this year. The Tigers, recall, finished the 2012 season on a three-game winning streak in which they outscored opponents 125-56.

Redshirt senior Jacob Karam returns at quarterback after completing 64.2 percent of his passes for 1,895 yards with 14 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions. He is expected to receive legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch, who, at 6-6, is a half-foot taller than Karam and an intriguing possibility for spot situations even if he doesn’t beat out Karam for the starting job.

Among the returning statistical leaders on offense: running back Brandon Hayes, who rushed for 576 yards (4.9 average), and receiver Keiwone Malone (44 catches for 476 yards). Five freshmen appear on the offense’s two-deep, and JUCO transfer Joe Craig, a 5-11, 175-pound receiver who played his freshman season at Clemson and has world-class speed, is a potential immediate impact player.

Among the returning statistical leaders on defense: linebacker Anthony Brown (71 tackles), defensive end Martin Ifedi (7.5 sacks) and safety Lonnie Ballentine (3 interceptions and 5 pass breakups). Ten of the 11 projected starters are juniors and seniors.

“We’re an older and more mature team defensively,” Fuente said.

While Fuente believes the team gained a new level of confidence at the end of last season, he also came to believe at a point this spring that some players were too happy with the program’s improvement from the old regime.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said. “There are several more steps to take.”

If the task seems daunting, consider Fuente’s family history for a moment: His great-grandfather came from Spain, a stowaway on a ship, and made his living in the Northeast as a wrestler: Jack Fuente, alias the Spanish Red Devil. His son (Justin’s grandfather) dreamed of being an airline pilot but adjusted on the fly, as it were, and became an airline mechanic when his colorblindness kept him out of the cockpit. The coach’s dad is a stockbroker.

Justin Fuente now enters year two at Memphis intent on making his own success story, albeit on his own time schedule.

“We’re going to build the program, and it’ll come,” Fuente said, confidence and realism standing together in perfect balance. “I can’t worry that it won’t happen immediately.”

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