Memphis Preview - Starting Over. Again.
Memphis LB Akeem Davis
Memphis LB Akeem Davis
Posted Jun 7, 2012 2012 Preview - Memphis Tigers

Memphis Tigers

Preview 2012

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By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: Justin Fuente
First year: 0-0
Returning Lettermen
Off. 16, Def. 21, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 14
Ten Best Memphis Players
1. LB Akeem Davis, Sr.
2. RB Jerrell Rhodes, Jr.
3. WR Kevin Wright, Soph.
4. LT Jordan Devey, Sr.
5. WR Marcus Rucker, Sr.
6. P Tom Hornsey, Jr.
7. LB Kenyatta Johnson, Sr.
8. SS Mitch Huelsing, Sr.
9. FS Cannon Smith, Sr.
10. QB Jacob Karam, Jr.
2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 UT Martin
Sept. 8 at Arkansas State
Sept. 15 Middle Tennessee
Sept. 22 at Duke
Sept. 29 OPEN DATE
Oct. 6 Rice
Oct. 13 at East Carolina
Oct. 20 UCF
Oct. 27 at SMU
Nov. 3 at Marshall
Nov. 10 Tulane
Nov. 17 at UAB
Nov. 24 Southern Miss

For the second time in three years, Memphis is starting over on the sidelines.

After just three wins over the last two seasons, the administration wasted no more time in pulling the plug on the Larry Porter era, handing the reigns to yet another young assistant, with no head coaching experience, from a thriving program. Justin Fuente, the 35-year-old former TCU offensive coordinator, is walking into one of the most challenging situations in the country. And he knows it. There are no delusions of grandeur or quick-fixes for a shell-shocked program that has slogged through three straight miserable years in large part because of a dearth of depth and talent compared to the rest of the conference.

In the short term, Memphis will continue to struggle to compete, as it adapts to new systems, new playbooks and new coaching philosophies. Long-term, the Tigers will have no choice but to make tangible strides, because if they can’t survive in Conference USA, they’ll get stampeded upon joining the Big East a year from now. Fuente has numerous objectives, many of which can’t be tied to statistical measurements. He wants to repair the psyche of his fragile players, many of whom have struggled to adjust to the tumult of the past few seasons. He also wants to flex his recruiting muscles, both in the community and on the recruiting trail. Fuente and his staff have been highly visible in the community throughout their first few months on the job, working hard to create a buzz.

Fuente has only just begun to climb one of the FBS’ steepest mountains, but he has a few hooks to help him from plummeting as quickly as Porter did. He’s assembled a terrific staff, is on the verge of taking the program into a BCS conference and is at a school that’s thoroughly committed to being more competitive in football. From 2003-08, the Tigers went to five bowl games under Tommy West, proving that you can win consistently at Memphis. The new regime wants to build a bridge to that successful period in as short a time as possible.

What to watch for on offense: Jacob’s clatter. The Tigers have lost four quarterbacks to transfers in just over a year, but do have one key import to help ease some of the pain. In a quest for more playing time, Jacob Karam has taken his strong arm from Texas Tech to Memphis, where he’s already won the starting job. The coaching staff has been impressed with more than just his physical ability, noting that he has a great feel for the position and the pocket. Karam will have the luxury of learning from new head coach Justin Fuente, who did a terrific job with the TCU quarterbacks in Fort Worth.

What to watch for on defense: The development of the D-line. The staff raved about the play of the defensive line throughout the spring, which is interesting since no other unit was hit harder by graduation and other departures. Unfortunately, no one will know until the season begins whether the effort in March will translate into results September. DE Zach Gholson and NT Terry Redden got the most attaboys, while fingers remained crossed that veteran DT Johnnie Farms will make it back from suspension.

The team will be far better if… the ground game is able to provide more support to the rest of the offense. After ranking 119th in the country at only 84 yards a game, Memphis needs to establish more of a presence between the tackles. When the Tigers fail to run the ball on first and second downs, the ripple effect reaches the passing game and a defense that stays on the field for far too long. The program must extend its drives, and create more manageable third-down situations in order to improve its ability to compete.

The Schedule: The Tigers should be able to come up with a win over UT Martin to kick things off, but they have to hold serve at home against Middle Tennessee and Rice to have any hope of a strong season. The week off comes at the end of September after going to Duke, and then it's all Conference USA all the time. It's not going to be easy. They don't get two games in a row at home and have to go on the road for three games in four weeks over the second half of the year, and things don't get much easier at home against UCF and Southern Miss.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Jerrell Rhodes. The past season was a wash, hindered by a nagging, season-long injury. However, when Rhodes was healthy as a rookie, he displayed the running and receiving skills of a player with all-conference potential. Now that he’s back to full strength, Memphis believes it harbors a workhorse back who warrants at least 20 touches a game. The Tigers need him to be effective, much the way Curtis Steele and DeAngelo Williams were when head coach Tommy West was guiding the school to perennial bowl games.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Akeem Davis. Davis has become a jack-of-all-trades for the Tigers, excelling in both the secondary and at linebacker over the past two seasons. He showcased his versatility a year ago as the nickel back, making 78 tackles, eight stops for loss, three picks, four fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. At strongside, he’ll be able to freelance on defense, supporting run and the pass. Davis is a microcosm for a defense that prides itself on being disruptive and frenetic.

Key players to a successful season: Sophomore CBs Bobby McCain and Bakari Hollier. McCain and Hollier were young and rather raw as true freshmen who were thrust into the starting lineup last season. Entering their second years on campus, the Tigers are hopeful that their precocious corners are a little less unsure of themselves in 2012. Memphis has been the equivalent of a light scrimmage of late for opposing passers, a trend that the starting corners are hoping to reverse beginning in the fall.

The season will be a success if ... Memphis is playing its best ball in November. Forget the record when it comes to the Tigers. After going 5-31 since 2009, an extra win or two won’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. This season is all about laying the kind of foundation that provides the school with a launching point for 2013. More than anything else, Memphis wants to begin righting a sinking ship, and capture a head of steam before starting life in the tougher Big East.

Key game: Nov. 17 at UAB. With the theme of November being the most important month, Memphis is capable of turning Birmingham into a winnable road destination. Both the Tigers and the Blazers are sputtering programs, with a first-year head coach and a quest to avoid the East Division cellar. This matchup between a pair of teams unlikely to be in the postseason hunt could be a statement on which rookie staff has done a better job of elevating the play of its new team.

2011 Fun Stats:
- Yards per play: Memphis 4.2 – Opponents 6.6
- Rushing touchdowns: Memphis 10 – Opponents 25
- Passes intercepted: Memphis 12 - Opponents 8
- 2012 Memphis Preview | 2012 Memphis Offense
- 2012 Memphis Defense | 2012 Memphis Depth Chart