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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...MEMPHIS TIGERS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Remember Jim McKay describing the old “Demolition Derby” from the Islip, NY Speedway that used to be such a staple on ABC’s Wide World of Sports?

Perhaps recently-dismissed Memphis football coach Larry Porter was a fan. After all, we are hard-pressed to recall another coach (outside of perhaps New Mexico's Mike Locksley) doing such a demolition job to a program as did Porter the past two years with the Tigers.

What, you didn’t realize they were still playing football at Memphis?

That’s understandable, as the Tigers have fallen from the basement into a mine shaft the past three seasons, winning just five games since Barack Obama took the presidential oath of office on January 20, 2009. The first of those campaigns in ‘09 marked the end of the Tommy West regime at the Liberty Bowl, when Memphis crashed to a 2-10 mark, but the decline accelerated under the ill-advised hiring of alum Porter, a former LSU aide who posted back-to-back marks of 1-11 and 2-10 before being forced to walk the plank by AD R.C. Johnson.

For Johnson, it was one of the last acts of a busy final year in his job before retiring and being replaced by former San Jose State AD Tom Bowen. For Porter, he became victim of the new timetable for college football coaches, many of whom no longer given a four or five-year window to turn around their programs.

But if the performance level was as bad as Memphis’ was under Porter (or, for that matter, Kansas under Turner Gill and Akron under Rob Ianello, a pair of other two-year coaches also pink-slipped after last season), the grace period can be reduced significantly. A Tiger-like degree of awful under Porter in 2010 & ‘11 can trump the traditional honeymoon periods for new football coaching hires if they’re not careful. Sorts such as Colorado’s Jon Embree and Indiana’s Kevin Wilson, and maybe even UConn’s Paul Pasqualoni and Maryland’s Randy Edsall, are duly warned for this upcoming 2012 campaign.

Porter’s ouster, however, didn’t catch Memphis followers by surprise. Dave Woloshin (left), the play-by-play voice of the Tigers for over two decades and host of a popular local sports talk show on radio station WHBQ (where we have appeared in weekly guests spots since 1992), summed up the new reality for college football coaches. “It’s understandable for coaches who have been on the job elsewhere and succeeded to have some extra cushion, which made the Gill dismissal (at Kansas) a little odd,” Woloshin said. “That’s why a guy like Edsall (at Maryland) probably still has some time to turn things around. But when you have no head coaching experience, and it fails so completely, it’s easier to justify pulling the plug, even after just two years, which unfortunately is what happened with Larry.”

By the time Porter was done dismantling the Tigers, only 50 or so scholarship players remained in the program. Further, the football downturn made it a bit harder for Memphis to promote itself to the Big East, targeted as a conference destination for the past several years. Although the Tigers’ high-profile basketball program was an easy sell, the gridiron portion was a different matter. With C-USA members UCF, Houston, and SMU already enlisting for Big East duty in the 2013-14 school year, Memphis was in danger of being left behind before finally securing its own escape route in February from CUSA and into the Big East for next season.

The Tigers, and AD Johnson, had been plotting the move for a while, and realized that the football program needed to change course, and quickly, to hit the new conference with some momentum. Even before the move to the Big East was made official, Memphis, and Johnson, knew that keeping Porter at the helm any longer was simply unacceptable if the football program was to move forward.

Memphis, which had considered once-successful veteran coaches such as Tommy Bowden and Phil Fulmer before offering the job to the untested Porter, might have similarly gambled with the new hire, 35-year-old Justin Fuente, who arrives at the Liberty Bowl fresh from a wildly-successful stint at Gary Patterson’s co-offensive coordinator at TCU.

Fuente, however, inherits even more of a carcass of a program than did Porter from Tommy West two years ago. Not only are the Tigers down on bodies (as mentioned with the low scholarship player count), but only eight starters are back from stage two of the Porter meltdown last season.

Fuente wasted no time putting his stamp on the program in spring, increasing the tempo for everything (and we mean everything, including how quickly the players were to move from meeting-to-meeting, and maybe even how quickly they took their showers and ate their food). Fuente did, however, go back to the future when naming former North Texas HC Darrell Dickey as the offensive coordinator. Dickey also served as the Tiger offensive coordinator as long ago as the later days of the Reagan Administration, working under former coaches Charlie Bailey and Chuck Stobart between 1987-89.

Dickey and Fuente, however, were presented with early challenges when holdover quarterbacks Andy Summerlin and Taylor Reed both decided to transfer elsewhere. Before spring, Summerlin announced his intentions to move to FCB Samford, while Reed waited until after spring practice to announce he was headed to Arkansas.

Reed’s transfer, however, didn’t materialize until he appeared to get beaten out for the starting job in March by Texas Tech transfer Jacob Karam, who is immediately eligible after earning a degree in Lubbock but still with two years of eligibility remaining. Karam played sparingly for the Red Raiders but earned his degree (pre-law!) in just 2 ½ years, precluding any down time at his new destination.

Quarterback issues were at the middle of Memphis’ considerable offensive woes under Porter, especially a year ago as the Tigers ranked a sorry 115th nationally in scoring (16.3 ppg) and an even-worse 116th in total offense (with a mere 274.3 ypg), qualifying them as the CUSA version of New Mexico. Indeed, the similarities over the past couple of years between Memphis under Porter and Lobos under Mike Locksley are almost eerie.

Only four starters are back on the strike force, which Fuente and Dickey envision operating out of multiple looks, including Shotgun, Pistol, and more-traditional pro-style formations that will put Karam under center.

It sounds good in theory, but nothing is going to work on the attack end without upgrades from a shaky offensive line that neither opened enough holes for its runners (the Tigers ran for only 84 ypg in 2011, ranking above only Miami-Ohio in national rush stats) nor protected its QBs very well a year ago. Three starters do return up front, but Fuente nonetheless went hard for offensive linemen in his first recruiting class. One of those, juco RG Antonio Foster, is already penciled in to start at the RG spot.

In the meantime, it is hoped that jr. RB Jerrell Rhodes (left), who has run with considerable flair at times the past two seasons, is beyond the series of nagging knee and ankle injuries that limited his participation to only three games last fall as the Tiger RB corps more resembled a M*A*S*H unit in 2011. Rhodes gained 5.1 ypc in limited work last year after hinting at bigger things as a frosh in 2010 when gaining 433 YR, not bad considering the circumstances. Since keeping Rhodes in one piece appears to be a challenge, don’t be surprised to see more of punishing, between-the-tackles slammer Artaves Gibson (316 YR in 2011) or perhaps high-stepping juco addition Jai Steib, each likely to take some carries from Rhodes.

Fuente, however, is mostly being tasked with finding more clues to the endzone for a passing game that generated only 10 TD passes a year ago. Karam seems to have a potential big-play target in rangy, 6'4 soph wideout Kevin Wright (right), who caught 36 passes last year, although Dickey and Fuente will be looking to get Wright downfield more often after he gained just 11.1 yards per catch last season. The three-wideout looks could be further augmented if former Alabama transfer Keiwone Malone, a once-ballyhooed prep who made a marginal impact last season, can get his act together and earn reinstatement after being suspended for spring practice. CUSA sources also suggest that Fuente will make liberal use of his tight ends in the new-look offense; if that’s the case, RS frosh Alan Cross could emerge as a surprise contributor on the attack end after impressing in spring work. Will Gilchrist, a former QB, also moved to a receiver spot in spring.

Unfortunately, Fuente might even have more concerns with a stop (go?) unit that ranked 117th nationally in total defense last season...and that was with NFL first-round draftee Dontari Poe (now with the Kansas City Chiefs) anchoring the defensive front. The Tigers also ranked dead last in national pass defense stats last season, allowing a whopping 299 yards per game through the air.

On the plus side, improvement shouldn’t be all that difficult.

Fuente hired former Missouri DB coach Barry Odom as his new coordinator, but as is the case with the offense, Porter didn’t leave much behind.

After Poe departed for the NFL with another year of eligibility to go (and wasn’t begrudged by anyone for doing so) and the graduation DE Frank Trotter, who earned all-CUSA mention, the defensive line looks exceptionally barren, with no returning starters in the mix. Still, regional sources say Fuente and Odom were somewhat encouraged by the line’s performance in spring, with soph NT Terry Redden hinting that he could be ready to step into Poe’s considerably-large shoes.

Redden’s high school teammate, soph Charles Harris, was one of the “movers” in spring at MLB and suggested he could become a serious playmaker in Odom’s version of the 4-3. Flanked by returning starter seniors Kenyata Johnson and Akeem Davis, the LB corps could be the strength of the platoon (such as it is).

There’s definitely nowhere to go but up for a secondary that allowed almost 300 yards per game via the air a year ago. Well, on second thought, maybe not, as jr. CB Taurean Nixon, who has started games since his frosh season, like QB Reed asked Fuente for his release after spring practice. Still, new d.c. Odom believes that soph CB Bobby McCain could emerge as the real star of the DB corps after being fed to the wolves as a frosh last season. There is starting experience at the safety spots (including sr. FS Cannon Smith, a former QB who also happens to be the son of FedEx supremo Fred Smith).

If nothing else, thanks to Smith, there are more potential booster dollars related to the Memphis DBs than at any other school in the country.

The schedule isn’t too daunting, and the opener vs. UT-(Dean) Martin gives Fuente a real chance to get a win right out of the chute. But remember that the Tigers lost vs. Week Two foe Arkansas State by a 47-3 count last season, and Memphis is likely an underdog against both Middle Tennessee and Duke before CUSA play begins. Since CUSA isn't the SEC, perhaps the Tigers will have few more chances to notch some wins vs. league foes. Or maybe not. Whatever, proceed with caution, as Memphis is a pitiful 11-25 vs. the number the past three seasons under West and Porter, who at least didn’t set the bar too high for Fuente.

Summary...This is about as complete a rebuild job as we see in the country this season (neck-and-neck with New Mexico), and expectations are very low at the Liberty Bowl. Any level of improvement heading into the move to the Big East next year will be appreciated. For his considerable accomplishments on the staff at TCU, Fuente remains completely untested as a head coach, and many regional observers were surprised he took the job at what has been a career graveyard for his predecessors, not to mention competing for affection at one of the nation’s pre-eminent basketball-first schools. Any good news? Well, if Texas Tech transfer Jacob Karam proves competent at QB, perhaps Memphis provides some pointspread value in many expected big underdog roles. That’s not a lot to get excited about, but it’s about as much as we want to anticipate at the Liberty Bowl this fall.


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