Memphis football preview 2019: Tigers’ best season ever?




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Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

If you want to gauge how Norvell is doing, look at how many major assistants he’s had to replace in just three full seasons.

  • In 2017, Notre Dame took offensive coordinator Chip Long. Norvell replaced him with longtime assistant (and former North Texas head coach) Darrell Dickey.
  • In 2018, Texas A&M took Dickey. Norvell replaced him with Kenny Dillingham, with whom he had coached at Arizona State.
  • In 2019, Auburn took Dillingham. Plus, Northern Arizona chose Norvell’s defensive coordinator, Chris Ball, as its new head coach, and Texas Tech stole his dynamite special teams coach, Joe Lorig. (Weeks later, Penn State stole Lorig from Tech, too.)

Plucking is the purest form of flattery. This is the price Memphis pays for finally becoming the program it always felt it should.

After decades of almosts and why-aren’t-they-betters, the Tigers have won 45 games in five years. Their previous five-year high was the 38 games they won in their first five years at the Division I level (1960-64).

The program bottomed out in two years with Larry Porter. But Justin Fuente built a hell of a foundation, and when he took the Virginia Tech job (plucking!), Norvell provided a seamless transition.

Their second-order win total — which basically looks at what your record should have been, based on the key stats of each game — has improved from 7.7 to 9 to 9.6 under Norvell. They were a hair fortunate in 2017 and won 10 games; they were unfortunate and won only eight last fall. But the key indicators continued to improve.


There’s a good chance that continues this fall. That feels like a strange thing to say when Norvell has not only three coordinators, but also maybe the best running back in FBS to replace (1,900-yard rusher Darrell Henderson). But on the field, that’s almost all he has to replace.

Memphis ranks seventh in the country in returning production, and for the second time in three years, Norvell signed the second-best class in the AAC. My redesigned S&P+ formula is less friendly to non-power-conference teams than the previous iteration, but Memphis is still projected 26th overall. The Tigers are a projected favorite by at least six points in every game, and that includes a Week 1 visit from Ole Miss.


AAC Championship - Memphis v Central Florida

Mike Norvell
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

This could be Memphis’ best football season ever … as long as Norvell has nailed his coordinator hires. Here’s who he chose:

  • Offensive coordinator: Kevin Johns. Johns was a GA under Kevin Wilson and Randy Walker at Northwestern at the turn of the century, studying the evolution of one of the most successful strains of spread offense. He served as Wilson’s coordinator at Indiana, then moved to the same title at WMU in 2017 and Texas Tech in 2018.
  • Defensive coordinator: Adam Fuller. Fuller was Chattanooga’s DC from 2009-12 before joining Doc Holliday’s Marshall staff in 2013. After five seasons as DL coach and special teams coordinator, he took over the defense in 2018, and the Thundering Herd fielded their best defense in nearly 20 years. They ranked 22nd in Def. S&P+.
  • Special teams coordinator: Pete Lembo. The former Ball State head coach served as Rice’s STC in 2018, and the Owls improved from 117th to 29th in Special Teams S&P+. Granted, he struggled in the same role at Maryland, but he’s gotten a taste of extreme success.

Norvell didn’t didn’t try to find the 30-year-old next big things (which is basically what he was when Todd Graham promoted him to co-OC at age 29). Perhaps he knows what he could have on the field this fall and didn’t want any growing pains.

Or perhaps he was just tired of losing young assistants. Couldn’t blame him for that.


Offense


The Wilson-Walker version of the spread was more physical and run-heavy than others, and you can see why Norvell might be drawn to that, as he and Dillingham presided over one of the most terrifying run games in the country last fall.

Henderson was amazing, averaging a downright stupid 8.9 yards per carry and nearly rushing for 2,000 yards while averaging just 16 carries per game. Patrick Taylor Jr. and Tony Pollard contributed another 20.4 carries per game and combined for 1,674 more yards.

Henderson and Pollard are gone, but in Taylor, Memphis returns a big back (6’3, 223 pounds) who could probably handle a bigger load. The rest of the remodeled RB corps is young but exciting. Redshirt freshman Kenny Gainwell carried only four times last season, but one was a 73-yard score against Georgia State. (Gainwell also has one of my favorite quotes of the spring: “I’m really just trying to be fast because if you’re not fast, you get caught by slow people.” So true, Kenny. So true.) A few other sophomores and redshirts saw action, and mid-three-star freshman Rodriques Clark also waits his turn.

This is a lot of youth, but having Taylor as the anchor makes it seem manageable. And if anything, the biggest concern here isn’t the RB youth, it’s the line.

Memphis has to replace three linemen who combined for 127 career starts, including all-conference tackle Trevon Tate. There are still some seniors in the mix, and Norvell added two three-star JUCOs just in case. But he’s also got tantalizing players like four-star sophomore Obinna Eze and redshirt freshman Titus Jones.


NCAA Football: Memphis at Missouri

Damonte Coxie (10) and Kedarian Jones (13)
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis ran the ball a lot, and with obvious reason. But the Tigers also operated at a tempo high enough that Brady White still got to attempt 30 passes per game. And if the run game is a hair glitchier, that’s okay — with this receiving corps, White can probably handle more of a load.

A former blue-chipper and Arizona State transfer, White completed 63 percent of his passes at 13.4 yards per completion in his first year as starter. He had a nice mix of vertical weapons (Damonte Coxie, tight end Joey Magnifico) and horizontal ones (slot receiver Pop Williams, plus Pollard/Taylor/Henderson).

Coxie was a revelation. After coming on strong late in 2017, his freshman year, the former star recruit was steady and explosive as a sophomore. In two weeks in September, he caught 14 balls for 236 yards against Georgia State and South Alabama, but he also torched some of the better opponents on the schedule: he had eight for 111 against Missouri and a combined seven for 128 in two games against UCF. He scared safeties enough that it opened occasional up-the-seam opportunities for Magnifico.


NCAA Football: Connecticut at Memphis

Joey Magnifico
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody but the backs return. Williams averaged only 9.2 yards per catch last season, but his return prowess shows he’s a breakaway threat, and the requisite crop of recent star recruits — sophomore slot man Calvin Austin III, redshirt freshman Jeremy Tate Jr., freshmen Tahj Washington and tight end Drew Martin, etc. — will just have to wait their turn.

Despite the coaching turnover, Memphis has ranked 17th and 14th in Off. S&P+ over the last two years. There’s a smidge of concern about glitchiness in the run game here, but I’d be surprised if this were anything other than another top-25 unit.


Defense


By AAC standards, Memphis’ defense hasn’t been all that bad of late. But it hasn’t been good. The Tigers surged to 32nd in Def. S&P+ in 2014, back when Missouri head coach Barry Odom was leading the D, but they have ranked between 74th and 87th each year since.

That No. 87 ranking came last year, when Norvell and Ball basically handed the defense over to sophomores — three of the top five linemen, three of the top seven linebackers, and seven of nine defensive backs were sophomores, and that says nothing of freshman safety Sanchez Blake Jr., who might have been the steadiest DB on the field.

Memphis was devastatingly young, especially in pass defense, so maybe the fact that the Tigers ranked 49th in completion rate allowed and 43rd in sack rate is an exciting sign of things to come.


Birmingham Bowl - Memphis v Wake Forest

Sanchez Blake Jr.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Sophomores become juniors, and Memphis is loaded with returning experience. Blake and fellow safeties Tyrez Lindsey, Josh Perry (who, due to overcrowding, is evidently moving to more of a nickel/OLB type of role), Carlito Gonzalez, and La’Andre Thomas are all back, as are corners T.J. Carter, Jacobi Francis, and Chris Claybrooks. Norvell signed a couple of JUCOs (including mid-three-star sophomore safety Rodney Owens Jr.) as insurance, too. I would expect improvement, potentially drastic, in the back.


NCAA Football: Navy at Memphis

Bryce Huff
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Said improvement could reach mach speed if the pass rush improves further, too. Three Tigers recorded at least six sacks in 2018 — OLB Bryce Huff and DEs Joseph Dorceus and Jonathan Wilson — and they’re all back. JUCO speed rusher Everitt Cunningham and four-star redshirt freshman Kayode Oladele could threaten for playing time, too. For that matter, high-three-star freshman ends Cole Mashburn and Jalil Clemons were two of the jewels of the 2019 signing class, too.

The run defense, which was decent in 2018 (50th in Rushing S&P+), should at least hold steady. Six Tigers recorded at least 11 run stuffs (stops at or behind the line) last year, and they’re all back. That includes not only Huff and the aforementioned ends, but also linebackers Austin Hall and JJ Russell and nose tackle O’Bryan Goodson. And junior nose John Tate IV combined four sacks with eight run stuffs in a backup role last year. If he made a play, it was probably in the backfield. Fuller helmed one hell of a run defense at Marshall last year. He should know what to do with these pieces.

Goodness, I just listed a lot of potential stars. If experience tamps down the glitches even a little bit, the defense should serve the offense opportunities.


Special Teams

Special teams can be pretty flaky, but under Lorig, Memphis had maybe the most consistently strong ST unit in the country. The Tigers ranked first in ST S&P+ in 2013, 2015, and 2016, and ranked between 29th and 41st in 2014, 2017, and 2018.

The last couple of units have been dragged down by Riley Patterson’s growing pains. The place-kicker has been a starter since his freshman year, and while he’s got potential (he was 5-for-8 on FGs longer than 40 yards), he missed three PATs and two shorter FGs. If he stabilizes as a junior, then the rest of the unit is loaded, from sophomore punter Adam Williams to punt returner Pop Williams.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Ole Miss 39 6.2 64%
7-Sep Southern U. NR 44.5 99%
14-Sep at South Alabama 127 30.5 96%
26-Sep Navy 118 31.0 96%
5-Oct at UL-Monroe 103 18.6 86%
12-Oct at Temple 66 7.6 67%
19-Oct Tulane 98 21.9 90%
26-Oct at Tulsa 95 15.7 82%
2-Nov SMU 85 17.0 84%
16-Nov at Houston 73 9.5 71%
23-Nov at USF 71 8.8 69%
29-Nov Cincinnati 44 7.7 67%

Opportunity awaits. Memphis returns more high-upside pieces than maybe any G5 team in 2019, and that includes UCF and Boise State. They’ve got an experienced blue-chip quarterback, a burly running back, a loaded receiving corps, and a playmaking (and sometimes play-allowing) defense that returns almost everybody.

If they’ve also got a pair of good coordinators — and you never know in advance whether that’s the case — then they’ve got everything they need to make a run at … well … name your goal. AAC title? Twelve wins (or more)? The G5’s New Year’s Six bowl bid? It’s all on the table.

It’s been really fun watching this program grow over the course of what is now my ninth year of writing these previews. When I started doing this, I was talking about Porter’s Tigers and some of the worst Memphis teams of all-time. Now I might be writing about the best.


Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.



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