‘Eager’ Tigers Ready to Begin Hopeful Season

By Don Wade

By now, pretty much anyone with an interest in University of Memphis football knows there will be concerts on Tiger Lane and that this season’s slogan is “Wait ’Til This Year.”

The time for marketing slogans and talk is drawing to an end as the University of Memphis opens the season on Aug. 30.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

Those same people, be they the program’s diehard core, or the fringe group that will monitor the football team’s fortunes until they decide it’s no longer worth their time, know that slogans and concerts don’t win games.

So the time finally has come for the Tigers to take the field for a 6 p.m. game Saturday, Aug. 30, vs. Austin Peay at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

“We’re very eager,” said senior linebacker Charles Harris. “We’ve been in camp for a long time. We’re looking forward to seeing how far we’ve come.”

While the schedule that follows must keep third-year Tigers coach Justin Fuente up nights – road games at No. 7 UCLA and No. 18 Ole Miss in September – the first game is a virtual gift. Austin Peay plays in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Ohio Valley Conference. The Governors were 0-12 in 2013 and scored more than 14 points in a game just once.

“I’m anxious to see us play and I expect us to play really well,” Fuente said.

Redshirt sophomore Paxton Lynch is slated to be the first quarterback to start back-to-back seasons for the Tigers since Arkelon Hall started the openers in 2008 and 2009. Lynch passed for 2,056 yards last season with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He showed promise, but failed to deliver consistency.

Fuente plans for the Tigers to run a more up-tempo offense – going hurry-up when possible – and to spread the ball around to an assortment of wide receivers with the backfield anchored by sixth-year senior running back Brandon Hayes (860 rushing yards in 2013).

“It’s a function of efficiency,” Fuente said of the offense. “There’s no hurry-up at second-and-18. … We will not do it to the detriment of the other side of the football.”

The defense was the Tigers’ strength last season, keeping them in games with the likes of Louisville, Cincinnati and UCF. But the Tigers faded at season’s end, losing lopsided games to Temple and Connecticut for a 3-9 record.

“We couldn’t hold the rope any longer,” Fuente said, adding that “fantastic defense” is what gave them a shot in the other games.

Fuente is stressing to his sophomore quarterback, and to everyone else, that, “We don’t have to be over our heads or out of our minds” to be competitive and win games. “We have to play at a level of making the routine play.”

Hayes cites both turnovers and penalties as Tiger-killers last season.

“We have to play clean games,” Hayes said. “Especially for games like the Ole Misses and UCLAs. Not that we’re looking into the future, but we’re definitely gonna have to come out on our ‘A’ game.

“I can’t fumble the ball the first series. We can’t throw an interception for a pick-six the first quarter. We can’t play great for three quarters and then the fourth quarter everything just goes down the drain.”

With Austin Peay the first opponent, there is a chance to not only win but win big. There’s a chance for Lynch and the offense to light up the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium scoreboard. That would at least deliver on the marketing slogan in the short-term.

“How great would it be if we scored a bunch of points, is that what you’re asking,” Fuente said with a smile. “That’d be pretty cool.”