VOL. 130 | NO. 177 | Friday, September 11, 2015
Fuente, Tigers Now Nitpick Imperfections as Winning Continues
By Don Wade
As season openers go, it had just about everything: a big crowd, with more than 41,000 showing up at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium; spirited tailgating on Tiger Lane; and really cool replica rings given out to the first 3,500 fans in celebration of the team’s 10-win season, share of the American Athletic Conference title and victory in the Miami Beach Bowl.
And then, just to ensure everyone went home as happy as they were upon arrival, a 63-7 beatdown of outmanned Missouri State.
It was difficult to find a quibble – unless you were a player or University of Memphis head coach Justin Fuente.
“It’s nice to win like that,” said linebacker Wynton McManis, “though I wanted that goose egg.”
As for the coach, he pointed to the nine penalties for 92 yards and deemed them “too many,” knowing full well that at another time and place those mistakes could cost the Tigers a victory.
As happens in blowouts such as this, the Tigers went well down the depth chart. Fuente called that a “good thing,” but was less than satisfied with the way the nonstarters played.
Or, as he said in full-on coachspeak: “The group on the field after the ones (the starters) has got to play better.”
Now the Tigers travel to Lawrence, Kan., to play the University of Kansas on Saturday, Sept. 12, at 6 p.m. The Jayhawks are, for the moment, a Big 12 member in name only. They lost their season opener at home 41-38 to Football Championship Subdivision program South Dakota State and missed out on the chance to try a score-tying field goal when quarterback Montell Cozart, who was supposed to spike the ball, fumbled the snap.
Such was the debut for head coach David Beaty, most recently the recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach at Texas A&M. It appears his challenge at Kansas is as large, or larger, than Fuente’s in season one.
Thus, there was this headline at kansascity.com after the first game: “Jayhawks show progress against South Dakota State but need to show more to avoid winless season.”
In fact, when you listen to Beaty talking about the state of the Kansas football program now, he sounds a lot like Fuente in 2012 as he tries to keep a positive vibe going.
“There’s not a single thing I’m discouraged about,” Beaty said in response to a question about his team’s woeful defense in the first half. “Now, there’s a lot of things I’m disappointed in, but there’s 23 new players out there.”
Contrast that to Fuente now, when two days after the opener he again addressed the way the backups and new players performed: “You can certainly tell the guys that were on the field for the first time and the guys that weren’t when you look at the film. Now that excuse is behind us.”
It’s all part of a program’s upward evolution, with Fuente at times sounding a wee bit like Nick Saban and nothing like a guy taking over a program with no realistic shot of a winning season.
Even so, there are challenges in a week when Kansas is on the schedule. Fuente cites the Jayhawks’ 576 yards of offense last week and Cozart’s athleticism.
“They’re never out of a game,” he said.
And beginning the season against FCS Missouri State and then playing a program trying to rebuild isn’t the ideal way to start; it can leave room for focus to wander and overconfidence to gain a foothold.
Which is why the Tigers are repeating the mantra from last year of trying to go 1-0 each week. Counting their seven straight wins in the back part of the 2014 season, they are on an eight-game streak of going 1-0.
“We’re not gonna take any team for granted,” said wide receiver Mose Frazier. “Just because they got beat by whatever type of team they got beat by, that doesn’t mean they won’t be ready for us. Things can change within one week.”
That’s exactly what they’re hoping out in Lawrence, Kan. Beaty knows well the challenge that is quarterback Paxton Lynch. He reminds of another quarterback, Andy Dalton – now of the Cincinnati Bengals – that Fuente groomed in his TCU assistant days.
“He is a big dude – 6-7 and 230 pounds,” Beaty said of Lynch. “He can sling it but he can also run it.
“I’ll tell you this: I was standing in line trying to steal what (Fuente) was doing schematically (at TCU) because he’s a brilliant, brilliant offensive mind.”
A mind with fewer worries than Beaty has, but concerns just the same.
“We have plenty to work on,” Fuente said. “There was quite a bit of good (last week) and quite a bit of corrections that we need to make.”
Happily, the outcome not being one of them.