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VOL. 132 | NO. 233 | Thursday, November 23, 2017

Tigers Defense Has Persevered Through Adversity This Season

By Phil Stukenborg

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The numbers don’t tell the story. A glance at the American Athletic Conference team statistics show a University of Memphis defense that ranks in the bottom half of the 12-team league in practically every category, from scoring defense (seventh, 32.6 points per game) to total defense (eighth, 452.3 yards per game). The Tigers have allowed 43 touchdowns (4.3 per game) and struggled stopping opponents on third down and in the red zone.

Genard Avery has started six games at linebacker and four at defensive end as the Memphis Tigers have patched holes all year on defense due to injuries. (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)

But the Tigers’ defensive coaches understand they wouldn’t be 9-1 overall, winners of the AAC West Division and preparing for their first league championship game if not for the play of a unit that has persevered through unprecedented injuries and the loss of key personnel.

U of M defensive coordinator Chris Ball, in 32 years as a college coach, said he’s never encountered such an upheaval.

The Tigers lost linebackers Jackson Dillon and Darian Porter, along with defensive tackle Jared Gentry, to injuries in a season-opener played in torrential rain and wind. Dillon, a fifth-year senior, was considered the key member of the defense and potential AAC Defensive Player of the Year.

Two others – defensive back Shaun Rupert and defensive lineman Ernest Suttles – were dismissed during the season because of off-the-field issues.

“You spend all spring, and all (preseason) camp, with Jackson Dillon and Gentry and Porter and some of the other guys we lost,” Ball said. “And then, all of a sudden, you have to figure out who you are again as a defense.”

What Ball discovered was a resilient, persistent bunch that has taken its (scoring) punches – yielding 45 points to both UCLA and SMU and 38 to Houston in U of M wins – and survived.

Ball said forcing turnovers has been the unit’s salvation, along with the development of several freshmen, notably linebacker Tim Hart. Memphis has gained 23 turnovers, second in the AAC to Central Florida, the East Division champion.

“It took us a couple of weeks to (regroup), but we’ve gotten better each week,” Ball said. “And the next man up (at each position affected) has done a good job of coming in and playing. The most impressive thing to me is that, at times, we have had six or seven freshmen or redshirt freshmen playing. The future looks bright.”

When the Tigers play host to East Carolina at 11 a.m. Saturday, they will be seeking only the third 10-win season in the program’s history. They also will be attempting to finish the regular season unbeaten at home for the first time since Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium opened in 1965.

If they are to defeat ECU, they may have to slow a passing attack that ranks third in the conference at 315 yards per game. During the season’s second half, the Tigers have answered such challenges. They held Tulsa’s running game, averaging more than 240 yards, to 145 in a 41-14 win. Entering last weekend’s game, SMU’s passing offense was averaging 310 yards, but managed only 218 in a 66-45 U of M victory.

“If other teams are watching us, they are watching relentless effort,” said linebacker Genard Avery, who has played more at defensive end recently as Hart has blossomed. “We’ve improved a lot throughout the season with our tackling and coverage, things we lacked at the beginning of the season. We’re not done. But we’re getting better each day.”

On defense, only three players – linebacker/defensive back Austin Hall, cornerback T.J. Carter and free safety Jonathan Cook – have started every game at the same position. Avery has started six games at linebacker, four at defensive end.

Tiger coach Mike Norvell said at his Monday press luncheon that he hopes defensive tackle Emmanuel Cooper, who missed the SMU game with an injury suffered in practice, returns this weekend. Cooper has started four games this season.

The U of M has won four games in which it has allowed more than 450 yards, overcoming its inability to limit an opponent’s offense by making key defensive plays and stops, while relying on a potent offense averaging 44.7 points and 519 yards. Freshman defensive back Jacobi Francis, playing in his first game, broke up a fourth-and-6 pass attempt by UCLA’s Josh Rosen in the closing minute to preserve an early season upset of the then-nationally ranked Bruins.

“We definitely have had guys stepping up and making plays,” Hall said. “Jacobi is a great example. He’s only made a few plays this season, but he’s made big plays. He’s also had a couple of big third-down stops for us. It’s just stuff like that.”

Ball said he’d like to see the defense return to forcing three turnovers per game. The U of M has forced only one in each of the past three games after forcing 11 in the previous three games, including five in a 30-27 upset of nationally ranked Navy.

“Three games in a row (forcing) just one turnover?” Ball said. “That’s not like us. Somebody told me the other day that during the last two years we’ve forced more turnovers (45) than anyone in the country. We’re pretty proud of that. But we’ve got to step it up these next couple of weeks. We’ve got some things we’re playing for.

“But when I look back at the season, with all the adversity we’ve had, it’s unbelievable what we’ve done. It could have gone the other way with all the loss (of personnel) and the changes. A lot of kids have stepped up. I’m pleased with where we are.”

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