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VOL. 133 | NO. 156 | Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Tony Pollard a Known Commodity Entering 2018

Pete Wickham

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Took Tony Pollard all of 10 seconds in a 2016 win at Temple to establish himself as a generational talent for the University of Memphis football team. Did it by becoming the first Tiger in a generation to turn a kickoff return into a touchdown.

Since then, the fast kid from Melrose has spectacularly gone about the business of building a case that he is indeed one for the generations in a blue/gray/black/white … whatever color combination the Tiger fashion show is sporting on game night.

Now, the junior is poised to give the Tigers something they have never had in a century of football – back-to-back consensus All-Americans. What kind of encore he can provide to Anthony Miller’s All-America final bow will be a key to how well the Tigers can continue their latest, and best, Golden Era with a 6 p.m. home opener Sept. 1 against Mercer.

University of Memphis running back Tony Pollard, center, runs evasion drills during practice on Aug. 5, 2018, at the Murphy Athletic Complex. (Daily News/Jim Weber)

“He’s had a great first couple of years,” Memphis coach Mike Norvell said at last week’s Media Day. “He’s had a dynamic impact on our return game, and last year you saw his role in the offense expand to the point where he was our second-leading receiver.

“Tony’s such a versatile player. He does so many things pretty dang good,” Norvell added, “but what we want to see in his progression is for him to become a master of all those techniques and fundamentals. But he’s had a phenomenal off-season moving in that direction.”

Pollard’s kick-returning skills earned him mention on several All-America teams last year. Had an NCAA-best 40 yards per kickoff return average with four TDs, tied for the national lead. He ripped off two of his three career 100-yard returns against Southern Illinois and East Carolina.

“He got that first long one, and he just took off,” said Sam Craft, whose back and hamstring injuries forced Norvell to throw freshman Pollard center stage.

Pollard said after the Temple return “it was just a different excitement, a different adrenaline rush.”

It wasn’t until he ripped off a 100-yard score against Navy a few weeks later that his performance began to become surreal.

“It didn’t hit me until after that game,” he said. “People kept coming up and congratulating me, telling me how happy and proud they were. Navy is so disciplined and they usually don’t give up plays like that.”

He added it’s not just him hitting overdrive.

“People don’t see the preparation. We work on special teams as much as we work on offense or defense during the week.”

In 2017, Pollard’s contributions started to diversify. He finished the year second to Miller with 36 catches for 536 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran the ball 30 times for 230 yards and a couple of scores.

Total it all up and in two seasons he’s averaged 17 yards every time he’s touched the football … and scored once every 11.6 touches. That balance has put him on the watch lists for the Maxwell and Paul Hornung awards.

One of the few times he was kept out of the end zone was in the Tigers’ 40-13 loss at Central Florida in September. But when the teams met again in Orlando for the American Athletic Conference championship in December, Pollard had a TD catch and then ran one in from 66 yards during the epic 62-55 double OT loss to the Golden Knights.

“It’s just fun,” Pollard said, “especially when the ball is in your hands and you can make plays for your team.”

Pollard said he got a great education last year watching Miller, who became the first non-kicker to earn consensus All-America honors at U of M.

“I saw him run routes every day, how he’d critique himself every day,” Pollard said of Miller, now a touted Chicago Bears rookie. “Watching what he did raised my game.”

Craft, who will be back after missing most of the last two years with injuries, said Pollard “is scary, a freak athlete. I knew that when he was at Melrose. But he’s come a long way in terms of working on his total game.”

Norvell said one of the most interesting things about this season will be watching “how teams will try to neutralize Tony … he’s definitely a known commodity.”

Still it’s easy to visualize Norvell, at odd moments of the day, or the middle of the night, dreaming up with some new wrinkle to get Pollard the 6- to 12-inch seam of daylight he can turn into six more points. And as the coach jots it down on paper, he does so with an evil smile.

“That’s about how it works,” Norvell said with a laugh.

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