VOL. 130 | NO. 250 | Thursday, December 24, 2015
The Press Box
Walking On in Memphis Is A Big Part of Tigers Turnaround
By Don Wade
They come from near and far, from Christian Brothers, Millington and Whitehaven high schools. From Atco, N.J., League City, Texas, and Newnan, Ga.
Walk-ons not aiming to get on the field for a just a play at a turn-it-into-a-movie school like Notre Dame (no Rudys in this group), but real football players. And determined to prove they can play.
Senior Alan Cross, the pass-catching and head-butting tight end from Millington, arrived as a long snapper back in the Larry Porter era.
In University of Memphis football lore, that’s B.J.F.: Before Justin Fuente.
Said Cross: “I feel as old as crap, man.”
And yet the time has passed quickly.
“I’m looking up and I only got one game left,” said senior wide receiver Mose Frazier, who had a short trip to the U of M campus from Whitehaven. “I want to go out with a win.”
As they all do. After going 10-3 last season and winning the Miami Beach Bowl over BYU, they are 9-3 and will play Auburn on Dec. 30 in the Birmingham Bowl.
“Back-to-back 10-win years – it’s never been done before in the history of Memphis,” Cross said.
About the Tigers’ recent history: It’s different without the walk-ons. Quarterback Paxton Lynch will be forever remembered as the superstar of this bunch and deservedly so.
Fuente will be recalled as the mastermind who changed everything and then smartly used it as a platform to jump to a Power Five job at Virginia Tech.
But look at who was catching all those passes from Lynch this season: Frazier led the team with 66 receptions for 750 yards. Sophomore Phil Mayhue (Atco, N.J.) was second with 47 catches for 644 yards, sophomore Anthony Miller (CBHS) was third with 44 receptions for 684 yards, Cross caught 24 passes for 229 yards, and senior Tevin Jones (League City, Texas) had 19 catches for 300 yards.
Combined, those five walk-ons reeled in 17 touchdown passes.
“It’s been a huge key to this program’s turnaround,” said interim coach Darrell Dickey, who will coach the Tigers in the bowl game while new head coach Mike Norvell keeps his focus on recruiting. “Without those guys, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
That matters going forward, too. At programs such as this, walk-ons who blossom into scholarship players, who ascend to becoming unforgettable players, are essential.
For they provide a clear message to future walk-ons: You will get your shot.
“Nothing else matters if you can play,” said sophomore punter Spencer Smith (Newnan, Ga.).
“It all goes back to coaching,” Mayhue said. “They’re gonna play who’s worthy of playing, who knows the plays, who they can trust.”
Coaches know something else, too: The walk-ons arrive with their motivation in overdrive. Mayhue was 9 years old when he watched his first college football game. Yeah, he admits with a laugh, the original goal was to play for Texas.
“This is just like a dream come true, to play Division 1 ball,” Mayhue said.
Frazier and Cross, of course, are down to the last game. Going forward, they speak of taking aim at the NFL. It might work out, it might not. This side of Paxton Lynch, the future is far less certain.
“I’ll remember everything – the hard times, the good times,” Frazier said.
So will Cross, who already has started working on his Plan B. He has spoken with Norvell and Fuente about his desire to coach and Cross says both have pledged to help with contacts.
It’s a long journey, as Norvell and Fuente both know. You start at the bottom of the coaching ladder and grind your way up one rung at a time, perhaps moving all over the country, and guaranteed nothing.
Sort of like being a walk-on.
“I’ve done it before,” Cross said with a grin. “I’ll do it again.”
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.