VOL. 132 | NO. 154 | Friday, August 4, 2017
Prolific Memphis Offense From 2016 Could Be Even Better in 2017
By Don Wade
Wide receiver Anthony Miller is holding a football, says he just picked it up in the equipment room. Which is a little surprising because the usual way a football gets in Miller’s hands is for quarterback Riley Ferguson to throw it to him.
Quarterback Riley Ferguson and the University of Memphis Tigers lit up scoreboards and stat sheets last season, but could be even more potent this year. Head coach Mike Norvell doesn’t see why not, saying the Tigers have “great playmakers.” (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
As the University of Memphis begins its second season under head coach Mike Norvell, it will bring back eight starters from an offense that had the second-most prolific passing game in the American Athletic Conference, averaging 304.4 yards per game and that put up 38.8 points per game (15th nationally).
But even that statistic, or individual ones for Ferguson (AAC-best 3,698 passing yards and 32 touchdowns) and Miller (95 catches for 1,434 yards, both school records) don’t tell the whole story of this offense.
“If I was playing defense, I’d be scared,” said sophomore Tony Pollard, a triple-threat as a returner, running back and receiver. “We have a numerous amount of weapons.”
Which raises a tantalizing question: Could the offense be even better this season with Ferguson now a senior and in his second year at the controls, and the coaching staff in its second season?
“I think we can,” Norvell said. “We’ve got great playmakers and a returning quarterback I thought was playing his best football towards the end of the year. The depth at receiver can be a real positive for us.”
For his part, Miller gets that defenses will be focused on preventing him from hooking up with Ferguson.
“Yeah, that’s the first thing,” said Miller, now a fifth-year senior and former walk-on from Christian Brothers High School. “But then you have to worry about the other receivers – about Phil Mayhue, Damonte Coxie, Sam Craft. So many weapons, so who you gonna stop?”
Mayhue, also a senior, will start the season with a streak of having caught a pass in 28 straight games. Craft’s 2016 season was cut short by injury and he was awarded a medical redshirt for one more year. Like Pollard, he can be deployed out of the backfield or as a receiver. Coxie is a 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman who will give all of those players a run for the label of most dynamic.
Ferguson and Miller also both believe that as good as the offense was – and Memphis scored 42 or more points in five games, including 77 vs. Bowling Green – there were plays and points left on the field.
“We looked at the film,” Miller said. “We feel like we made many mistakes.”
Said Ferguson: “I know there’s so much more we could have done.”
Senior Gabe Kuhn and junior Drew Kyser anchor an offensive line that is expected to get a boost with former Missouri enrollee and junior college transfer Harneet Gill.
Kuhn says for the linemen, the second year in the system is a huge help.
“Transitioning in one year is hard to do,” he said. “Now we know all the assignments and plays and it’s easy.”
The offense is also ahead because Craft’s injury in 2016 created an immediate opportunity for Pollard as a redshirt freshman. He finished second among FBS leaders in kick return total yards (1,068), set a school record with two returns for TDs, and also had 29 receptions for 298 yards and rushed 31 times for 159 yards.
“Tony, we thought he was going to be a depth guy going in,” said Norvell. “Tony got pushed into being showcased. What he did in special teams was phenomenal, but as an offensive player, he played in the slot, in the backfield … he’s had a phenomenal summer and probably is one of our most impressive physical specimens with his speed and strength.”
Pollard’s presence opens up the Memphis playbook, too.
“He possesses a unique skill set,” Norvell said, adding that Craft is versatile as well. “Allows you to do a lot of different things. He’s got home run-hitting speed.”
Truth is, if this was baseball people would be wondering if the ball was juiced. That’s how explosive this Tigers offense can be.
So imagine being the quarterback, being the guy who gets to deliver the ball around.
“I’m like a little kid in the backyard with the best players in the neighborhood,” Ferguson said.