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VOL. 129 | NO. 154 | Friday, August 08, 2014

 

Tigers Players, Coaches Say Time is Now for Football Success

By Don Wade

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Two years ago, the University of Memphis football season began with the unthinkable: a 20-17 home loss to UT Martin.

Amid all the buzz about new head coach Justin Fuente, the floor dropped from beneath the Tigers after they had won just three games total in the previous two seasons under Larry Porter.

“Aw, man, it was terrible,” senior running back Brandon Hayes said of the UT Martin debacle. “Just everybody’s demeanor. The thing about losing to teams you’re supposed to beat, it carries on to the next week. ‘Man, we lost to UT Martin.’”

University of Memphis defensive end Martin Ifedi will be part of a defense that is hoping to lead the Tigers to better things this season.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Yet as Fuente prepares for the start of his third season here, after going 4-8 in 2012 and 3-9 in 2013, he doesn’t remember that first loss to Big UT’s branch office the same way.

“To be honest, they were better than we were,” Fuente said. “That wasn’t a shock. It took all the things that happened for us to lose that game, but it was a very real possibility from the start when you look at what they had out there and what we had out there.”

When Fuente took on this massive rebuilding job – emphasis on massive – he had only 50 scholarships at his disposal and four of those were for kicking specialists. Today, the Tigers are much closer to the limit of 85 and they have reserves that are more ready to play than some of the starters Fuente trotted out for his first game in 2012.

“We still have quite a bit of work to do,” he said of the team’s depth, “but it is tons better than where we started and a little better than last year.”

For sure, this year’s team is more experienced with eight seniors projected to start on defense and three or four on offense; five juniors also are running first on the offense’s two-deep.

At quarterback, sophomore Paxton Lynch returns after completing 58 percent of his passes for 2,056 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a freshman. Lynch showed flashes of his potential but never appeared to truly settle in to the job. Fuente senses a change there.

“I think he’s more comfortable in his own skin,” said the coach, himself a former college quarterback.

Fuente has wanted the offense to play at a faster clip, but to this point the players haven’t shown they were ready. Going into the season, which begins on Aug. 30 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium against Austin Peay, the offense has been trying to push the pace.

“That’s all we’ve been doing is getting faster,” said senior offensive lineman Nykiren Wellington, who started 11 games last season. “Tempo, tempo, tempo – running fast, getting to the ball and snapping it again.”

The success or failure of the offense will have much to say about the final results this season if the defense equals or improves upon its 2013 season in which it was ranked 39th nationally in total defense and 12th against the run.

“We have a nasty defense from D-Line all the way back to corner,” Hayes said.

Senior Martin Ifedi anchors that defensive line and, given what happened two years ago, he says it is important not just to open with a victory over Austin Peay but to do so in dominating fashion.

“It would do something for our confidence and also send a message to the next team for what our mindset is for the season,” Ifedi said.

The “next team” he referred to is preseason No. 7 UCLA. On the road.

The U of M’s four games after Austin Peay will be challenging: at UCLA, home against Middle Tennessee State (a 17-15 road loss last year), at No. 19 Ole Miss, and at preseason American Athletic Conference favorite Cincinnati.

The Tigers also have a challenging slogan: “Wait ‘Til This Year.” It could prove to be prophecy or a tagline that will live in infamy.

“That’s the marketing people’s slogan,” Fuente said. “We approved it. But we’re not gonna talk about it as a team.”

What they will talk about is the belief this team is different than the last two, or for that matter the last five (including one under Tommy West and two under Porter).

“This is my sixth year and third coach so I’ve seen everything,” Hayes said. “The morale in the locker room is good. I couldn’t say the same thing three, four years ago. People just dreaded coming to football, no matter if it was the game or a practice, it was just terrible.

“Now we’re excited to go work, excited to go grind.”

As the marketing people and Tigers fans would agree, there’s no time like the present.

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