VOL. 133 | NO. 2 | Tuesday, January 2, 2018
Memphis Players See Football Program Continuing to Excel
By Don Wade
(Editor’s note: This story was published before the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Dec. 30).
Memphis claimed the AAC West Division title in 2017 and achieved other milestones no other Tigers team has. Players say the program’s future is bright. (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)
It was three days before the University of Memphis was to play Iowa State in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Much of the talk was about going for what would be a program-record 11th win, and finishing with an undefeated record on the home turf this season.
But there was also talk about the lasting legacy. And about the future. About the condition of the program going forward. And looking 20 years down the line, when some of the key players from this team might get together and savor some of the best days of their young lives.
“I know one thing, we’re gonna talk about the time we could have won a conference championship and how we won this bowl game,” said senior linebacker Genard Avery, offering a prediction. “We gonna have a great time 20 years from now looking back at what we did accomplish.”
Said senior right guard Gabe Kuhn: “We’ll be getting together, staying in touch.”
It seems likely, doesn’t it?
This season, the Tigers went to a fourth straight bowl game. They finished the regular season ranked 17th in the Associated Press poll. They took UCF to double-overtime in the American Athletic Conference championship game, almost getting to the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day.
The Knights beat Memphis twice, but there was no ill will toward their conference brothers. In fact, to a man, everyone was hoping that UCF would defeat Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
“They’re a great team,” said senior All-America receiver Anthony Miller. “They make our conference look good.”
Said Avery: “This conference doesn’t get enough credit.”
Recently, former Tiger quarterback Danny Wimprine told The Daily News that he and others that were part of the strong run during the DeAngelo Williams years believed they had built the program to a new place. And that they were disappointed that it ultimately could not be sustained. Their coach, Tommy West, was forced out after a 2-10 season in 2009.
The Tigers then went 1-11 and 2-10 in the next two years under Larry Porter.
Justin Fuente arrived for the 2011 season, but the program was in such sorry shape it took until his third season to have a winning record and get Memphis in a bowl game. Now, after two bowl trips under Fuente and two under Mike Norvell, who signed a long-term contract to stay on as head coach, Memphis perhaps has the best chance in its history for a long run of high-level accomplishment.
“We’re more respected as a program. We’re not a game you can look over anymore,” said senior wideout Phil Mayhue.
“We’ve built it to where guys know there’s no playing around when you step on that field wearing a Memphis Tigers uniform,” Miller said. “I don’t see us slowing down one bit as a program.”
Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson arrived last season as a junior college transfer after a brief time at Tennessee. All he did was replace Paxton Lynch, a first-round NFL draft pick, and going into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Ferguson only needed 29 passing yards to crack the 4,000-yard mark for the season.
He’s an obvious example of the talent that can be found to help bridge a gap and then some.
“I mean, if you look at guys even just while I’ve been here, there’s some extreme talent,” Ferguson said. “But not just talent, guys that are the right fit.”
Mayhue says they have tried to pass on the right attitude to younger players, adding, “This is now a winning tradition. I think they understand that.”
Sophomore Austin Hall, already a leader on the defense, will be one of those young guys stepping into an even larger leadership role next season. He says he already knows he’ll be telling his children and grandchildren that he played with some of the best players in program history – from Avery to Ferguson to Miller.
But he’s also confident about the next two years, saying, “We’ve got young guys that will shine when their time comes.”