The much anticipated third year under University of Memphis head football coach Justin Fuente is underway as the Tigers annual spring game ended Friday night. Fans are expecting the program to continue to grow under Fuente after it made much needed strides the past two seasons.
Fuente inherited an ailing Tigers program two years ago, and while he has not wowed fans with his own win loss record (7-17 in two seasons), he has made the Tigers more competitive in their contests.
Last season the Tigers were mere seconds away from victory against UCF (Fiesta Bowl game winners), Cincinnati, and MTSU (a TAM team rival). If the Tigers could have scored a touchdown instead of settling for five field goals against Houston they might have won that game too, and let us not forgot how closely they played rival Louisville on the road.
In 2013 the Tigers average margin of defeat was 12.6 points per game, which is better than the previous three years’ of 17.9 in 2012, 26.3 in 2011, and 27.5 in 2010.
However, the close losses last season were just that. Losses, which amounted to a less than stellar record of 3-9 (1-7 in the American Athletic Conference).
Memphis and Coach Fuente are looking to put last year’s near wins behind them with a fresh start in 2014. While the Tigers have been practicing for a while in preparation for their 2014 campaign, fans got their first up close and personal look of the team Friday night at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
It was a great atmosphere. A reported 7,400 fans showed up to cheer on the hometown Tigers. There were the usual bouncey houses for the kids before the game, and in an interesting spring game twist a DJ was on the field managing to keep the fans energized and into the game with an array of songs and mixes.
Yet, there other sporting events going on in the great city of Memphis Friday night as well. It was opening day at AutoZonePark for the Redbirds, the Grizzlies were fighting for a playoff spot, and Grizz did this. So, if you were unable to make it to the game here are 5 things you missed at the University of Memphis Tigers football spring game…
1. The improvement of the offensive line…
Now it could be because they were facing the “younger team” as Coach Fuente called them (the gray team was comprised of second and third stringers), but the blue team, AKA the starters, did an impressive job of blocking up front. There were a few times that Paxton Lynch was forced out of the pocket, but by in large the starting offensive line did an a good job in pass protection. Perhaps more impressive was the job that they were able to do in the ground game, allowing Brandon Hayes and others to look stellar on the ground during the scrimmage. Opposing defenses sacked the Tigers quarterbacks 28 times last year, a number that should decrease thanks to experience and depth up front. In all there are five linemen on the Tigers roster with starting experience for Memphis, and all of them started three or more games in their careers.
2. There are several returning starters and they look more comfortable in Fuente’s system…
In addition to the three returning starters on the offensive line, Memphis brings back six more starters on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively the Tigers return eight players to make a grand total of 17 returning starters for the Tigers. What does that mean for Memphis and why is that such a big deal? It is simple, the longer you have been in a system the more things become second nature and the less you have to think about what you have to do. It becomes more of a reaction and less of a thought process. This allows football players to play faster and more freely. The experience gap between the older and younger players was noticeable early and often. Everything seemed to go the blue team’s way and early on the gray team looked discombobulated. “The younger guys really got a taste of the level you have to play at, and I think that is important going into the off season,” Fuente said after the game. No play exhibited this confusion for the gray team more than a fumble that was caused when a player in motion in the backfield collided with the tailback on a handoff before any defender was within five yards of the two. Coach Fuente will have to lean heavily on those who have experience this year if the Tigers are going to snap their bowl game drought.
3. Finally the offense is playing that up tempo style…
Again, this could be because it was basically the starters versus the second and third team, but the blue team’s first offensive possession resulted in a score in just over four minutes. With nine starters returning on offense, Memphis is deep enough, skilled enough, and understands enough about Coach Fuente’s system to be able to really push the pace of a game. “We got a long way to go to be what we envision here offensively,” Fuente said, “but at times we flashed something that has a chance to be explosive.” Expect the Tigers to push the tempo more this year than they have in the past seasons under Fuente.
4. Running back will be a real strength for the Tigers this season…
With Brandon Hayes getting an extra year of eligibility and Doroland Dorceus returning as well, the Tigers bring back 1033 yards from a team that rushed for a total of 1660 last season. Granted Hayes had nearly half of the teams total (he ran for 860 yards last season), but expect Dorceus to be a major contributor to the run game also. After an early fumble on the first drive of the game for the gray tem, Dorceus settled down and had one of the most explosive plays of the game with a 50 plus yard touchdown run. However, make no mistakes about it Hayes is on a different level than the rest of the running backs right now. One man cannot bring him down and he rushed for three touchdowns during the spring game. “It is great having Brandon back,” Fuente stated after Hayes’ outstanding spring game performance. “Not just because he is a great football player, but because he of the person he is…he is a very comforting force to have… he is a pretty intellectual football player.” A good ground game will certainly take more pressure off of Paxton Lynch and the passing game, which will help the Tigers young signal caller.
5. Paxton Lynch’s growth at the quarterback position…
It has been five years since the Tigers have started the same quarterback on opening day for consecutive years. This is a trend that should end this year with Lynch. Arkelon Hall was the last Memphis quarterback to accomplish this feat during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Since Hall left there has been a proverbial revolving door of quarterbacks from Taylor Reid to Jacob Karam and a slew of quarterbacks in between (anybody else remember when Cannon Smith started against Mississippi State in the season opener in 2010?). Lynch should be the opening day starter unless something catastrophic happens, and continuity at the quarterback position will be an immense help to the Tigers. There were several good throws by Lynch Friday night, but what is most impressing is the fact that he did not turn the ball over. Fuente was pleased with Lynch’s performance on Friday, but understands that there is still room for his redshirt sophomore to improve. “I think he continues to get better. We have got to get better around him… he continues to improve from and learn from his mistakes.” Here is hoping that all of the Tigers learn from their mistakes and make the 2014 season better than the seasons of the past five years.
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