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VOL. 11 | NO. 34 | Saturday, August 25, 2018

Memphis Climb

Coach Mike Norvell and Tigers aim to go higher by focusing on first steps

By Don Wade

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Recently, cbssports.com put out a map showcasing the best college football programs in every state. The state of Tennessee, which forever would have been colored Big Orange, was instead shaded Memphis Tigers Blue. College football writer Barrett Sallee provided a two-part explanation for how this came to be:

“Yes, Tennessee, this is an indictment of the Butch Jones era. Once a college football doormat, Memphis has rattled off two 10-win seasons since 2014, been an annual contender for the American Athletic Conference title and has produced high-round draft picks in quarterback Paxton Lynch and wide receiver Antony Miller, among others.”

Nice, no?

So, too, is the recognition that has come from several Tigers being named to various preseason national award watch lists and the team again picked to win the AAC West Division title. It all confirms that, yes, Memphis is on the college football map, and the clear state champions after the Vols’ historically awful 4-8 finish a year ago.

“I don’t think any coach would hope to be picked last,” said third-year coach Mike Norvell, who is 18-8 since coming to Memphis. “It shows that people respect what we’ve been able to do.”

But notice, he used the past tense.

This year?

“We haven’t done anything yet,” the coach said.

So, for all the good vibes – and Norvell speaks of this year’s seven home games as a chance to hold seven civic festivals – the truth is the team lost a lot. More than 4,200 yards passing and 38 touchdowns from quarterback Riley Ferguson and Miller’s more than 1,400 yards in receiving and 18 TD catches.

They were the leaders in an offense that averaged 45.5 points per game in 2017, which was second in the nation. Fortunately, leading rusher Darrell Henderson (1,154 yards), plus Patrick Taylor (866 yards and 13 TDs) return, and the offensive line brings back four upperclassman starters.

The defense, on the other hand, allowed 32.5 points per game, which ranked eighth in the league and 102nd in the nation.

“It was a challenge,” Norvell said. “We had (several) starters go down and we had to force some young guys into early action before they were truly ready.”

The obvious imbalance of a team that was still good enough to finish 10-3 and 7-1 in the AAC was most evident in the league championship game at UCF in Orlando. The Tigers put up 55 points and amassed 753 yards of offense.

Yet, they lost 62-55 in double-overtime as the defense allowed 726 yards and missed multiple chances to turn the game.

“I can look back at a few plays where we had penalties,” junior linebacker Austin Hall said. “I remember the interception that probably would have won the game, but was called back because we hit the quarterback late …”

Emma Sanders Brady gets her arm signed by Memphis Tigers quarterback Brady White during Fan Day. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

The Tigers then missed another opportunity when they fell 21-20 to Iowa State on their home turf in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

A special season in which the Tigers were ranked in the Associated Press Top 20 late in the year came to a quiet, indifferent, end.

“It drives us a lot,” said sophomore Damonte Coxie, who brings back the most catches and yards (21 for 323) among the returning wide receivers.

“We all still got that fire up under us.”

New Starter Quarterback

Graduate transfer Brady White, who has at least two years of eligibility remaining, and redshirt sophomore David Moore came into fall practice competing for the starting quarterback job.

Norvell recruited White to Arizona State when an assistant coach there. White and the Norvell family became close enough that White once babysat Norvell’s daughter, Mila.

“Like, she is adorable,” White said.

That prior relationship and the fact that White is coming from a Power Five program made him the odds-on favorite to win the job the moment he stepped on campus. Moore, for his part, said before camp began the relationship between Norvell and White “definitely entered my mind,” but did not, and does not, scare him.

“Regardless of ties,” Moore said, “it doesn’t matter. (Norvell’s) job is to win games, and I truly believe he’ll put out the best player to do that.”

But on the same day this past week that Norvell announced White had won the job, he also disclosed that Moore left the team with the intention of transferring.

It was an about-face from all the things Moore said coming into camp, including that he learned from White, and that previously he and former backup Brady Davis, who transferred to Illinois State, were “just gunslingers” and didn’t know the playbook as well.

“Brady White came in, he was the super-opposite to us,” Moore said. “He was more someone to be in the classroom all the time and it translates to confidence on the field.”

White is not the athlete that Moore is and concedes he won’t win a lot of foot races. But he adds, “My athletic ability has been slept on.”

That said, the new Memphis starter has no illusions about where his strength lies.

“Knowledge is power,” he said. “It’s the same in football. Especially at the quarterback position. You’ve got to know everything that’s going on. When you can just worry about the looks that a defense is giving you and reacting, that’s where you see guys like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers play so fast, so smoothly, and truly just operate.”

Leading into in the first game on Sept. 1 against FCS foe Mercer, the competition is now for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart between freshmen Brady McBride and Connor Adair. Even White has light experience, having attempted just 49 passes in two games at Arizona State in 2016 before a season-ending foot injury.

Provided Memphis puts away Mercer early, look for Norvell to give one or more of the backups some reps. Memphis plays at Navy in Week 2 and though Norvell says he is very comfortable with the players behind White, neither has a Division 1 snap to his name.

Defense Must be Better; Pollard Leads Special Teams

This defense, though far from perfect, will put its nose in the fight. Example: Oft-injured linebacker Jackson Dillon, who was recently granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, likes to go pig hunting in his spare time back in Oklahoma. If you decide to try it, he says the smaller pigs make for better eating.

“You gotta get a little one,” he said. “The bigger they are, the tougher they are. They’re so bad in Oklahoma, I don’t skin a lot of ’em. I just let ’em lay.”

Meanwhile, cornerback Terrell “TJ” Carter last season set the program’s record for interceptions by a freshman with five, but also had 69 tackles. Yes, Carter qualifies as “cover corner,” albeit one who relishes contact.

Memphis Tigers football head coach, Mike Norvell, encourages his players to hustle during practice at their outdoor practice facility. The Tigers first game of the year will be against Mercer on September 1 at the Liberty Bowl. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

“I’d play linebacker if they put me there,” he said. “I love hitting. I love hitting.”

Carter also had the element of surprise on his side for much of last season. No more. He’s on two national award watch lists.

As Norvell says, “People know exactly who he is.”

Opponents also know what the Memphis defense was last season: soft on yards allowed with 466.2 per game, which left the Tigers eighth in the AAC and 117th nationally.

They accounted for this flaw, however, by having a +15-turnover margin, or +1.15 per game – third-best in the country.

If Dillon can stay healthy, a defense that returns seven starters – four of them freshmen in 2017 – gains an additional X factor and more ways to rush the passer.

Dillon explains his reason for one last college try this way: “I ain’t got a lot better to do. Go to work, oil field or ranch. And I kinda like college, my free time. And I love football. And I think I can make a damn good year out of it.”

Return man Tony Pollard, who had four kick returns for touchdowns last season and with six for his career, is just one shy of the NCAA record, heads the special teams. The Tigers will have a new punter, long snapper and holder.

Riley Patterson returns as placekicker after hitting 11 of 16 as a freshman but only making 2 of 6 kicks from 40 yards or beyond and missing two field goal attempts in that double-overtime loss in the AAC championship game.

“It did not end well for me or for the team,” Patterson said, “and a big part was because of me.”

The Climb Continues

On Nov. 26, 2017, Memphis was 10-1 and ranked 16th in the Associated Press Poll, four places behind undefeated UCF, the team that had handed the Tigers a 40-13 beatdown two months earlier in Orlando.

But at this point, everything was still in front of the Tigers. If they could have defeated UCF in the AAC championship game, they could have been the ones going to a New Year’s Day bowl game.

It remains the larger ambition for a team that now has made four straight postseasons – two under Justin Fuente, two under Norvell – and this season gets UCF at home on Oct. 13.

“It’s good to get them to come back to us,” Coxie said. “We can’t wait.”

Not that Norvell will speak of UCF or the ultimate goal on the horizon.

That way, every coach knows, lies danger.

“We talk about the `Memphis climb,’” Norvell said. “At the end of the day, it takes the step right in front of us to get there. We get our vision too focused on the top of the mountain, we could slip before we ever get close to that.”

Advice worth heeding.

For one need only glance Knoxville’s way to see that what it looks like to fall from Rocky Top and slide clear off the map.

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