Anyone who pays attention knows that Memphis' football program is on an upswing, but the problem is that the program was in a very deep hole and is only beginning to show improvement. Head Coach Justin Fuente is in his third season as the head man after previously serving as co-offensive coordinator at TCU. He's compiled an 8-17 record at Memphis, but that really disguises the fact that he took over a program that was one of the worst in the country at the time of his hiring. If you want a good season preview of Memphis, check out Bill Connelly's excellent preview. There is a lot of good data in there for anyone that's interested.
Of course, there isn't much useful data for this season to date. Memphis' only game thus far was a 63-0 blowout of FCS Austin Peay. The score is impressive, but Austin Peay has won 5 games total in the past three seasons, including a winless season last year.
While the strength of the Memphis team is the defense, the face of the program's change in direction is probably RS So. QB Paxton Lynch. At 6'7 230 lbs., Lynch is an imposing figure in the Memphis backfield. He took over for Memphis partway through last season, where he had somewhat of a mediocre showing, completing 58% of his passes for 2,056 yards with 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Not good by any means, but an improvement over Memphis' prior years. This year, he looks to improve on those numbers and got off to a good start last week, completing 20 of 27 passes for 242 with 2 touchdowns and 1 interceptions. Lynch is not a dual threat quarterback, but he also managed about 5 yards per carry last year for 311 yards and had 5 carries for 34 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground last week.
Lynch was able to spread the ball around to 7 different receivers against Austin Peay receivers. The most talented of the group is Alabama transfer Sr. Keiwone Malone. At 5'11 155 lbs., he'll provide a different dynamic than the big receivers that UCLA just faced at Virginia. Memphis also returns last year's leading receivers, Sr. Joe Craig (5'11 175 lbs.) and Jr. Tevin Jones (6'2 215 lbs.), as well as Jr. Mose Frazier (5'11 184 lbs.), and tight end Jr. Alan Cross (6'1 245 lbs.). None of these returners put up big numbers last year, but they provide plenty of experience in Memphis's receiving corps.
Memphis also returns their leading rusher in Sr. Brandon Hayes. Hayes is a stocky 5'8 198 lbs., and he managed 860 yards on 201 carries last year. He'll carry the load for the most part, but I'm interested in seeing Fr. Jarvis Cooper. Cooper is a load at 6'1 255 lbs. and led the team in rushing last week with 8 carries for 101 yards. Memphis was able to spread the ball around a lot last week, as three runners got over 10 carries (Hayes, So. Doroland Dorceus, Fr. Tearris Wallace), and the team rushed for 303 yards on 55 carries, but I suspect we'll see a little more concentration of carries this week.
Of course, you can't mention the running game without the offensive line, and Memphis has to be happy with the performance last week. Memphis returns 3 starters along the line from last year, including the leader of the group, Sr. Al Bond, a 6'4 300 lbs. guard making his 29th career start. They are big at tackle, with Sr. Nykiren Wellington and Taylor Fallin sizing up at 6'7 325 lbs. and 6'6 330 lbs., respectively. They did replace their center and one of their guards with Jr. Micah Simmons (6'3 285 lbs.) and So. Tony Mays (6'4 275 lbs.), who only have about 10 starts between them.
That concludes Part 1 of our Memphis Tigers preview. Be sure to check back tomorrow where we'll preview the defensive side of the ball.