Former U of M receiver Keiwone Malone shifting focus on earning pro roster spot

MaloneWhen asked recently to assess her son’s collegiate stint, Sheila Malone deemed it necessary to allude to a super hero.

“He is and always will be Superman,” Malone said of her son, Keiwone Malone. “He has filled many roles on the team and has excelled at all them. He received the punt and made spectacular moves, scoring touchdowns and broke the high school records in Tennessee. He kicked the extra points and covered (opposing team’s) receivers. Using what gifts God has given him, he is my Superman.”

To grasp a full understanding of why Malone has dubbed her son arguably the most decorated super hero of all time, look no further than his slew of accomplishments in recent years, most notably during what was a remarkable tenure at the University of Memphis.

A native of Rosedale, Mississippi, Keiwone Malone emerged as arguably one of the best football players in the history of Memphis Mitchell High, considering he blossomed into one of Shelby-Metro’s most sought-after recruits for the Class of 2010.

Widely regarded as an “athlete” because of his versatility on both sides of the ball, Keiwone Malone was the catalyst of a Mitchell team that had become a fixture in the Class 5A playoffs for the better part of his tenure with the Tigers.

GAME CHANGER --- To his credit, Keiwone Malone is amongst the biggest reasons the Memphis program --- a doormat while enduring years of futility --- has emerged as a national standout in recent years, considering he was one of Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch’s best options. (Photos courtesy of Memphis Athletics)

GAME CHANGER — To his credit, Keiwone Malone is amongst the biggest reasons the Memphis program — a doormat while enduring years of futility — has emerged as a national standout in recent years, considering he was one of Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch’s best options. (Photos courtesy of Memphis Athletics)

Add to the fact that Alabama’s Nick Saban was amongst the high-profile college coaches who inquired about Keiwone Malone’s services as a four-star recruit, and it’s no wonder this do-it-all athlete still believes he possesses the skills to — what else? — do it all at the professional ranks.

Less than one year removed from having completed his eligibility at the U of M, the 24-year-old Keiwone Malone doesn’t shy away from the notion that his primary focus now is to earn a spot on a professional football roster.

“If given a chance to play professional football, I will give it my all for the (organization) every day,” Keiwone Malone told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “I’ve always had dreamt at being the best at what I do, and I want to prove to people that size doesn’t matter.”

At 5-foot-11 ½ and 168-pounds, Keiwone Malone had proven time and again that his slim frame didn’t prevent him from enjoying success while playing major college football.

To his credit, he is amongst the biggest reasons the Memphis program — a doormat while enduring years of futility — has emerged as a national standout in recent years, considering he was one of Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch’s best options.

After transferring from Alabama to Memphis to be close to his ailing grandmother, Keiwone Malone enjoyed a stellar career for the Tigers, given his numbers progressed considerably in each of his four seasons with the program.

MOM KNOWS BEST --- When asked recently to assess her son’s collegiate stint, Sheila Malone deemed it necessary to allude to a super hero.  “He is and always will be Superman,” Malone said of her son, Keiwone Malone. “He has filled many roles on the team and has excelled at all them.

MOM KNOWS BEST — When asked recently to assess her son’s collegiate stint, Sheila Malone deemed it necessary to allude to a super hero.
“He is and always will be Superman,” Malone said of her son, Keiwone Malone. “He has filled many roles on the team and has excelled at all them.

He was especially resilient as a senior for a Memphis team that finished the 2014 campaign with seven consecutive wins (10-3), including a 55-48 double overtime win over Brigham Young in the Miami Beach Bowl.

Keiwone Malone led the Tigers in yards receiving with 45 catches for 555 yards and four touchdowns, while averaging better than 12 yards per receptions — surpassing his 44 receptions for 476 yards and three scores he registered as a sophomore.

All of which is why Lynch, a Heisman candidate who’s projected as a Top 10 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, was extremely high on Keiwone Malone during his time with the Tigers.

All of which is why this former Tiger standout, who had proven to master major college football, believes he stills possesses the skills and mechanics to earn a paycheck at the professional ranks.

“I’m sure every mom feels their son deserves a chance, but I feel (football) is his ministry,” Shelia Malone said. “He is not complete if he is not playing football. I am his coach at home, so I am constantly giving him pep talks and keep us both prayed up. I am also constantly trying to put him in positions that can get him that chance he deserves.”

Without question, many — including Lynch — who have followed Keiwone Malone’s rise from Mitchell to appearing on a major college football stage believe he’s armed with the finesse to perform for a pro team.

The biggest question at this point is will his golden opportunity come to fruition.

Just as he played his way to earning to scholarship to play at tradition-rich Alabama, Keiwone Malone isn’t ruling out hope.

“I’m dedicated,” he said. “I work hard and I’m not one to give up or half-ass. I’m open-minded to leaning new techniques and ways of winning. I have a great sense of humor. I’m a people person. I’ve never had a coach or player since pee-wee football dislike me or my play or actions on the field. I interact well with others, and I’m a very respectful man that knows how to motivate a team to win.”

Key attributes “Superman” prays pro scouts and general managers will take into account in the foreseeable future.

 

AndreEDITOR’S NOTE: If you have a child or team that is seeking exposure and would like an in-depth sports news story, call Reporter Andre Johnson at 901-690-6587 or Facebook message him for details under “Andre T. Johnson.”

Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. A 2000 graduate of the University of Memphis School of Journalism, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division from Dallas, Texas. To reach Johnson, send an email to [email protected] Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

 

Five Reasons Why Memphis Football Will Win The AAC Championship

No. 40 Alan Cross of the Memphis Tigers celebrates with quarter back No. 12 Paxton Lynch after rushing for a 1 yard touchdown against SMU.  Cross leads the Tigers in receiving touchdowns with three on the year including one for 50 yards.  The University of Memphis football team is bowl eligible for the first time since 2008.   (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

No. 40 Alan Cross of the Memphis Tigers celebrates with quarter back No. 12 Paxton Lynch after rushing for a 1 yard touchdown against SMU. Cross leads the Tigers in receiving touchdowns with three on the year including one for 50 yards. The University of Memphis football team is bowl eligible for the first time since 2008. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

For the first since 2008, the University of Memphis is bowl eligible.  It was a long and arduous path back to bowl eligibility for the much beloved Tigers full of embarrassing losses, a coaching change, and a jump (albeit for one year) to a BCS automatic bid conference.

The Tigers have gone 12-48 since their last trip to a bowl six years ago, but they are currently 6-3 on the year and Memphis fans everywhere are rejoicing.

Yet why merely settle for bowl eligibility?  This team should set their sights on something much more significant, a conference championship.

This was unexpected to say the least, especially since the Tigers are in just their second season of the American Athletic Conference.  With the Cougars loss to Tulane, all Memphis has to do is win out and they will get at least a share of the American Championship.

A conference championship would be historic for a Memphis program that last one a championship as a part of the Missouri Valley Conference way back when.

Five Reasons Why the Tigers Football Team Will Win the American Athletic Conference Championship:

1.  Favorable schedule down the stretch
To say the Tigers have an easy final three games of the year is disrespectful to USF, UCONN, and Tulane.  After all, they have scholarship players like Memphis and pride on the line also.  However, compared to the opponents Memphis had to start the year (Ole Miss and UCLA especially), the final three games of the year are, for lack of a better word, easy.

The Huskies and Tulane sit at the bottom of the American standings, and the Tigers final three opponents are a combined 9-19.

Not only is Memphis facing three overmatched teams, 2 of those games are at home.  The schedule could not be set up better for a six gamewin streak to end the year, and a conference championship.

2.  No UCF or East Carolina on the schedule
The scheduling gods really favored Memphis this year allowing the Tigers to avoid two of the best teams in the American.

The Pirates of East Carolina are ridding the nation’s third best passing attack all the way to an impressive 6-2 record, and had it not been for five turnovers in Philadelphia, ECU would still be undefeated in conference play.

UCF sits at 5-3 with respectable losses to Penn St. in Dublin by two points, and a Mizzo team that currently sits atop the SEC East.  The Knights were bitten by the turnover bug much like ECU, surrendering four turnovers in route to their only loss in AAC play.

Since Memphis currently holds the tie breaker over Cincinnati (who also only has one loss), and avoids both ECU and UCF, should the Tigers win out they are guaranteed at least a share of the American Conference Championship.  By the way, ECU and UCF play at the end of the year so one of them is guaranteed to lose one more game.

3.  The Tigers run game seems to be unstoppable
It has been a while since we have seen the University of Memphis field an offense this potent.  This is an offense that is currently fourth in the American in passing yards per game (240.7 ypg) thanks to the maturation of Paxton Lynch.

However it is the Tigers ground game that is proving to be among the best in the nation.  Memphis currently leads the conference in rushing with 192.2 ypg.  That is quite the feat considering that Memphis only managed 23 rushing yards against Ole Miss earlier in the season.  If you ignore that particular game the Tigers average rushing yards per game jumps to 213.4 ypg.  Brandon Hayes leads the way for Memphis with his burst and power averaging 102.3 ypg on the ground.  Opponents will have their hands full trying to stop Hayes the rest of the season.

4.  Defense is really stepping up
If the old saying is true, and defense really does win championships, the Tigers are in stupendous shape.  They have given up three touchdowns in a game just four times, and one of those was during the Tulsa game with the backups in.   Two of the teams to score at least three touchdowns on this tenacious Tigers defense are currently ranked in the top 20 of the College Football Playoff Rankings (No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 18 UCLA).  Memphis is allowing opponents to score just under 19 points per contest which is good for 13th best in the nation.

The Tigers are second in the American in tackles for loss thanks in part to star linebacker Tank Jakes’ 12 tackles for loss on the season (also good for second in the American).   Their ability to get penetration and make plays behind the line of scrimmage is the main reason why Memphis sits third in the American in both passing and rushing yards allowed and second behind East Carolina in total yards allowed.

Should this defense continue to wreak havoc in opponents backfields offenses will continue to have a rough time scoring, and we all know that if you cannot score you cannot win.

5.  Justin Fuente
The job head coach Justin Fuente has done since taking over in 2012 is truly remarkable.  He inherited one of the worst programs in the nation and all he did was lead them to three straight wins down the stretch of his first season, giving the Tigers a .500 record in conference for the first time since 2008.

Then, right in the midst of his rebuilding efforts, Memphis made the jump from an easier Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference, no easy task for a team that was as inexperienced as Memphis.

Even though the losses continued to pile up, fans saw signs of improvement.  Fuente had the Tigers within striking distance going into the fourth quarter much of last year, which is something people were not accustomed to seeing.  In fact, in three of the Tigers losses last season, Memphis was either leading or tied at some point in the fourth quarter.

This season Coach Fuente has gotten the program to turn the corner as is evident by the way they played on the road against UCLA and Ole Miss early in the year.  Memphis almost pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the college football season, but did not have enough to knock off the bruins in Pasadena.  The Ole Miss contest was a one possession game until the Rebels pulled away in the fourth quarter.

Fuente is proving that he is one of the best up and coming coaches in the sport, and has this team believing in themselves.  More importantly, he has the Tigers on the precipice of a conference championship, which is something nobody saw coming.

SEE ALSO:


CJ Hurt covers college football for MemphiSport. Follow him 
@conradicalness for live tweets from games.

Preview: Memphis vs. Ole Miss

ole miss helmetComing off of a ho-hum 56-15 win over Louisiana-Lafayette two weeks ago and bye week last week, the Ole Miss Rebels will welcome the University of Memphis Tigers to Oxford this coming Saturday. This will be the first time these two teams have met since a 45-14 Ole Miss victory in 2009.

While being separated by only about 70 miles, this rivalry is one that has died off in recent years thanks to disagreements revolving around Memphis Basketball not wanting to play Ole Miss and Ole Miss Football not wanting to play Memphis. Personally, I see both sides’ points of view, but I do feel the Ole Miss/Memphis rivalry is a fun one for the region.

The fanbases don’t care much for one another (Read both teams’ message boards for proof.). The locations are close enough for good travel support from the visiting school. And the on-field product has been decent. With Memphis being in the American Athletic Conference now, and Ole Miss putting time, money, and effort into their typically mediocre basketball program, I think that a matchup between these two teams should happen every year in both sports. It just makes sense.

As for this weekend’s matchup, here are some of my thoughts followed by the ever meaningless prediction.

Memphis is a completely different team than it has been in years past. Larry Porter was just an awful hire as the team’s record in those years can attest to. There was absolutely nothing to get excited about if you were one of the dozens of people that gave any support to those Porter-led teams. But the Justin Fuente hire is proving to be a legitimate one that is paying off nicely for the Tigers.

In Fuente’s first two years, Memphis fans could see baby steps being taken in the right direction. I mean there were actually a couple of numbers in the “W” column, which was a vast improvement over Larry Porter.

This season the Tigers have put together their three most complete games since 2008. Big wins over Austin Peay (FCS) and MTSU have the program and all of its supporters fired up. But it was the close loss at then #11 UCLA that has given Tiger fans the most hope for the season. The team traveled across the country and stood toe-to-toe with former Heisman contender Brett Hundley, and were only a break or two away from pulling a major, major upset. The final score of 42-35 was a sweet sight to Memphians who expected a pounding from a legitimate Pac-12 opponent.

This past weekend, Memphis put more butts in the Liberty Bowl to watch the Tigers face MTSU than they had put in the stadium since the last time they played an SEC team at home. I mean for the Tigers to see 40,000+ at a football game, after instances of less than 3,000 showing up in recent years, is a big deal.

Sophomore QB Paxton Lynch leads the Tigers offensively along with a great set of tailbacks in Brandon Hayes and Doroland Dorceus. The running game is rushing for nearly 250 yards a game, good for 26th nationally. Aside from a strong running game, Memphis’ offense relies on some unique play calling to keep opponents guessing. Look for plenty of this on Saturday as a way to level the playing field. The defense is anchored by LB Tank Jakes, (Yes. His name is Tank.), and has done a decent job of keeping points off the board in the Tigers’ two wins.

While the Tigers are playing well by their standards, Hugh Freeze has the Rebels absolutely rolling right now. Since an ugly first half against Boise St., the Rebs have flat out decimated their opponents. Bo Wallace is among the nation’s most consistent QBs , connecting on 75% of his passes and limiting his turnovers after three interceptions in that Boise St. contest. And what many thought would be a great receiving corps anchored by Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram, has been absolutely incredible. Treadwell and Engram along with Cody Core and Quincy Adeboyejo have all had 100+ yd receiving games.

And the highly touted Rebel defense has been straight up nasty. Ole Miss, in three games, has only given up two touchdowns. They are third in the nation allowing only 10 points a game. Robert Nkemdiche and the defensive line are in a groove. But the interceptions have been the bright spot for Ole Miss’ defense. The eight interceptions tie them for first in the nation, as do the two they’ve returned for touchdowns. With Tony Conner, Cody Prewitt, and Senquez Golson, the Rebels have three defensive studs with a nose for the ball.

Hopes are sky-high for the Rebels. And while Coach Freeze will tell you that Memphis is a game the team isn’t overlooking, I can promise you, players, fans, coaches, and administrators all have started at least daydreaming about the matchup Ole Miss has with Alabama next week. Should the Rebels beat Memphis, Oxford will host its first ESPN College Gameday ever. Needless to say playing Memphis just doesn’t feel that exciting.

As far as the result of the game itself, Ole Miss is going to win. They are simply just too talented and too well coached to lose a game like this. Coming off a bye week has allowed banged up Rebels to heal, given more prep time, and given the team some much needed rest. Memphis is a good football team that very well could win the American this season. But this just isn’t a game that Memphis can win. There is a reason Vegas is favoring the Rebels by about 20 points.

Aside from the Rebels being a better team, this weekend will be spent honoring Chucky Mullins. And I just don’t see a world where Ole Miss can lose a game on a weekend dedicated to Chucky. If you aren’t familiar with his story, read it. Even the non-Ole Miss fans can appreciate it.

The game will be fun for a quarter or two. Most Memphis/Ole Miss games in recent memory have been. But the Rebels will pull away on their way to a nice, easy win and a date with College Gameday next weekend.

Ole Miss 41 – Memphis 17

Warner Russell covers Ole Miss Football for MemphiSport. Read his non-sports stuff over on The Wise Guise. Follow him on Twitter @uncle_warny.

 

Week 2 TAM Rankings: Ole Miss Remains Number One

Ole miss cupsIt is not often that a loss is the most impressive performance in a week of TAM football.  Yet, that is the case this week as Memphis went into the Rose Bowl and pushed UCLA to the brink of defeat.

Coach Justin Fuente’s offense looks unstoppable, especially after quarterback Paxton Lynch threw for 305 yards and a touchdown in their 42-35 loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

Next up for the Tigers is in state rival and fellow TAM team MTSU.

Speaking of the Blue Raiders, they also lost to a Power Five opponent this week when they went on the road to face Minnesota.

After looking sloppy in their week one win over Boise State, Ole Miss flexed their muscles this week against a Vanderbilt squad that looks nothing like the Commodores team that went 9-4 last season.  The Rebels only allowed three points and six completions (that is right quarterback Stephen Rivers completed just 1.5 passes a quarter against the Rebels) for 60 passing yards to Vandy in route to a 38 point win.

Ole Miss was not the only TAM team that decided to demolish their opponent this week.  Arkansas dropped 73 points on lowly Nicholls State, ending the longest losing streak in school history.

Mississippi State continued beating up on overmatched opponents with their victor over UAB, and Southern Mississippi won a surprisingly close game over Alcorn State.

Tennessee took advantage of fellow TAM team Arkansas State for the Vols second win of the year.  Things get a little bit tougher for them Volunteers as they go to Oklahoma this week.

There are some great games featuring TAM teams this week including Tennessee vs. Oklahoma.  However, Arkansas vs. Texas Tech is this week’s game of the week.  The Razorbacks are looking to get a win over a “Power Five” team for the first time since beating Kentucky on October 13, 2012 (that is a 15 game losing streak).

Week three of the college football season is upon us, and Vanderbilt is the only TAM team that remains winless on the year.

Without further ado, here are Week 2’s TAM Rankings…

The Mid-South is full of fans with allegiances to different area college football programs. Which FBS program in the three states surrounding the Memphis area is the best? To help end some arguments and start others, every week MemphiSport ranks all the college football teams in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. We call it the TAM Rankings.

1. ole_miss logoOle Miss (2-0):
Last Game:
W 41-3 vs. Vanderbilt @ LP Field
Best Win:
41-3 vs. Vanderbilt @ LP Field
Worst Loss: N/A
Wins Against TAM Teams: 1 (Vanderbilt)
Losses Against TAM Teams: N/A

2. Mississippi_State_Bulldogs logoMississippi State (2-0):
Last Game:
W 47-34 vs. UAB @ Davis Wade Stadium
Best Win:
49-0 vs. Southern Miss @ Davis Wade Stadium
Worst Loss: N/A
Wins Against TAM Teams: 1 (Southern Miss)
Losses Against TAM Teams: N/A

3. University-Tennessee-Logo-2Tennessee (2-0):
Last Game:
W 34-19 vs Arkansas State @ Neyland Stadium
Best Win: 38-7 vs. Utah State @ Neyland Stadium
Worst Loss: N/A
Wins Against TAM Teams: 1 (Arkansas State)
Losses Against TAM Teams: N/A

4.  Arkansas logoArkansas (1-1):
Last Game:
W 73-7 vs. Nicholls State @ Razorback Stadium
Best Win:
73-7 vs. Nicholls State @ Razorback Stadium
Worst Loss: 45-21 vs. Auburn @ Jordan-Hare Stadium
Wins Against TAM Teams: N/A
Losses Against TAM Teams: N/A

5.  memphis-tigers logoMemphis (1-1):
Last Game:
L 42-35 vs. UCLA @ Rose Bowl
Best Win: 63-0 vs. Austin Peay @ Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium
Worst Loss: 42-35 vs. UCLA @ Rose Bowl
Wins Against TAM Teams: N/A
Losses Against TAM Teams: N/A

6.  Arkansas State Logo 2Arkansas State (1-1):
Last Game:
L 34-19 vs. Tennessee @ Neyland Stadium
Best Win: 37-10 vs. Montana State @ Liberty Bank Stadium
Worst Loss: 34-19 vs. Tennessee @ Neyland Stadium
Wins Against TAM Teams: N/A
Losses Against TAM Teams: 1 (Tennessee)

7.  MTSU LogoMTSU (1-1):
Last Game: L 35-24 vs. Minnesota @ TCF Bank Stadium
Best Win: 61-7 vs. Savannah State @ Floyd Stadium
Worst Loss: 35-24 vs. Minnesota @ TCF Bank Stadium
Wins Against TAM Teams:
N/A
Losses Against TAM Teams: N/A

8.  Vandy LogoVanderbilt (0-2):
Last Game:
L 41-3 vs. Ole Miss @ LP Field
Best Win: N/A
Worst Loss: 
41-3 vs. Ole Miss @ LP Field
Wins Against TAM Teams: N/A
Losses Against TAM Teams: 1 (Ole Miss)

9.  Southern Miss logo 2Southern Mississippi (1-1):
Last Game:
W 26-20 vs. Alcorn State @M.M. Roberts Stadium
Best Win: W 26-20 vs. Alcorn State @M.M. Roberts Stadium
Worst Loss: 49-0 vs. Mississippi State @ Davis Wade Stadium
Wins Against TAM Teams: N/A
Losses Against TAM Teams: 1 (Mississippi State)

CJ Hurt covers college football for MemphiSport. Follow him @conradicalness for live tweets from games.

SEE ALSO:

 

 

5 Things You Missed At The University Of Memphis Tigers Football Spring Game

tigers helmetThe 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.

CJ Hurt covers @Conradicalness for live tweets from games.

SEE ALSO:

 

 

 

 

MSL: 4.5.14 ‘WrestleMania XXX Eve’

 

2014-04-08-10-43-28

HOUR 1:

(Segment 1)  Marcus Hunter  and CJ Hurt  recap the week’s big stories during the Starting 5.
(Segment 2 )  Memphis Flyer Grizzlies writer Kevin Lipe stops by in studio for his weekly segment to talk about everything Memphis Grizzlies including NBA playoffs, Tayshaun Prince’s injury, and more.
(Segment 3) More with Lipe.

HOUR 2:
(Segment 1) Hang Up & Listen.
(Segment 2) Dustin Starr and Kevin Cerrito join the show to discuss WrestleMania XXX
(Segment 3) Woohoos and Boos.

Kevin Cerrito and Marcus Hunter host MemphiSport Live (MSL) on Sports 56 & 87.7 FM every Saturday from 11:00 am – 1:00 pm. MSL was voted 3rd Best Sports Radio Show in the 2010, 2011 & 2012 Memphis Flyer Best of Memphis poll.

Follow the MSL hosts on Twitter @cerrito  @MHunter_GAMME.

Memphis Tigers keep their bowl hopes alive after beating UT Martin 21-6

2013-11-09-20-13-31The University of Memphis football team has come a long way this season despite their overall 2-6 record.  They are playing a tougher schedule than last year, and have managed to avoid huge blowout losses unlike years past.

Since 2009 the Tigers have suffered a total of 45 defeats.  Of those losses 19 of them were by more than three touchdowns.  This season Memphis has managed to only lose by double digits three times and has yet to lose a game by 20 plus points.

Adding to the Tiger’s slow (but steady) improvement rate is the fact that they have avenged two of their losses from last year.

Brandon Hayes carried the load for the Tigers offense, rushing 27 times for 105 yards in the Tigers victory over the Skyhawks. While Paxton Lynch also made several key plays for Memphis, running for a touchdown just before halftime to give the Tigers a one point lead and throwing a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to make it an eight point game.

Memphis also defeated an Arkansas State team that beat them last year.  The Tigers defeated the Red Wolves earlier this year by 31 points, holding them to just 74 rushing yards, 255 total yards, and 7 points, well under the Red Wolves season averages of 190 yards on the ground, 425.6 total yards, and 27.3 points.

It is no secret that the Tigers have been down the past five years, with their last winning regular season and bowl appearance coming in 2008.

However, Coach Justin Fuente has the Tigers poised to make a significant run at bowl eligibility this year.

The biggest hurdle standing between Memphis and their first bowl appearance in four seasons is the Louisville Cardinals.

Of the remaining four games left on the schedule, Louisville is the only team with a winning record (and the only team ranked in the BCS).  In fact, when you exclude the hated Cardinals, the other three teams (USF, Temple, and UConn) only have three wins amongst them.

Sure three of these four games are on the road, but is it crazy to think that the Tigers might get six wins on the year and become bowl eligible?  No.

While the offense has struggled mightily at certain points during this year, the defense has been nothing short of superb.  On the defensive side of the ball, Memphis ranks 19th in total yards allowed and are only giving up 24.1 points per game.

Coming into their contest with UT Martin, Martin Ifedi was fifth in the nation in total sacks, and led the nation in sacks per game.  He leads the way for a defense that is averaging just over 6 tackles for loss per game.

The Tigers faced plenty of high powered offensive attacks earlier this year in Arkansas State, UCF, and Houston and they held all of them under their season averages in total yards and scoring.

Again, with the exception of Louisville, their next four games are against teams who have their fair share of offensive issues, and the Tigers should be able to capitalize on this.

Temple is only averaging 22.3 points per game, while neither UConn nor USF averages more than 17 points per contest (the Huskies rank 119th in the nation in points for averaging just 16.4 points per contest while the Bulls are 120th and scoring just 15.4 points in their games).

Statistically Memphis will finish the year against three of the worst offenses in the American Athletic Conference, and should be able to win these contest with their defensive abilities.

If playing one of the Tigers biggest rivals is not enough, defeating Louisville in two weeks may be the difference in making a bowl game and not making one.

CJ Hurt covers college football for MemphiSport. Follow him @Conradicalness for live tweets from games.

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Despite 1-5 Record, Things Are Looking Up For Memphis Football

Photo by Just Ford

Photo by Just Ford

It is the midway point of the University of Memphis football season and from a win loss stand point it looks exactly the same as the previous four seasons.  This marks the fourth time in the past five years that Memphis has only one win and five losses at the midway point of their football season (in 2009 the Tigers were 2-4 after six games).

However, these losses are not the same as the others in years past.  The Tigers average margin of defeat this year through six games is only 7.6 points.  By contrast, the average margin of defeat through six games was 16.8 points last season, 32 points in 2011, and 32.8 in 2010.

What is more encouraging about the Tigers football program so far, is that they were tied or leading in the second half of four of their five losses (the loss to SMU is the lone exception).  In fact, Memphis has been tied or held a lead in fourth quarter of three of their losses so far this season.

In years past, Memphis has left no doubt who the inferior team was on the football field, but this year they are doing more than keeping the games close and looking competitive.  They actually have chances to win games, and that has to count for something.

No teams do not get credit for almost wins, but after years of football futility teams do not just start winning.  However, even though the Tigers have five losses on the year, improvement can be seen all over the field for Memphis.

Individual defensive players like Martin Ifedi, Ryan Coleman, and Anthony Brown are improving weekly and are leading the way for a resurgent Memphis defense that has yet to allow a hundred yard rusher on the year.

The Tigers rank 14th nationally in total team defense allowing 327.7 total yards per game, ninth in rushing defense giving up just 99.9 yards on the ground per game, and are holding opponents to just 22.2 points per game so far this year.

The Tigers are also full of young contributors, with 10 true freshmen and 12 redshirt freshmen making significant contributions to the team.

Freshmen like starting quarterback Paxton Lynch (redshirt freshman) and running back Marquis Warford (true freshman) are being counted on by Coach Fuente to make significant contributions on the offensive side of the ball.

Lynch’s 279 yard game against UCF was good for fourth most passing yards by a freshman in school history, while Warford’s 173 rushing yards against Arkansas State is the second most rushing yards in school history by a freshman (Larry Porter holds the Memphis record with 206 rushing yards against Arkansas State in his freshman year).   Warford also leads the team in yards per carry with 6.3.

So while the results appear to be the same from a win loss stand point this year when compared to previous seasons, this is a different Tigers program, and fans have several things to be optimistic about.

If the old adage holds true that you have to crawl before you walk, the Tigers have now started taking one or two steps before falling back to the ground.  Assuming Coach Fuente continues to get his players to buy into the system and improve every week, the Memphis football program will be walking in no time.

CJ Hurt covers college football for MemphiSport. Follow him @churtj09 for live tweets from games.

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4 Positives from Memphis’ 28-14 loss to Duke

Tiger Lane footballAnticipation illuminated throughout the Bluff City all week thanks to the start of the Memphis Tigers football season.

The weather on Saturday was beautiful, recent alumni were given season tickets, and fans were able to buy tickets for as cheap as five dollars.  All of this, plus some recent excitement that Justin Fuente and the Memphis athletic department created, led to one of the largest home crowds for the Tigers in recent memory.

Word around the city was that these were not the same old Tigers.  These Tigers were different than the Tigers in years past who went 3-21 under Larry Porter.  They have an actual win streak to protect, a coach who knows what he is doing, and a young group of players itching to make magic happen on the field (22 players made their college debuts against the Blue Devils).

Yet, when the clock struck zero it was a result all too familiar for Tigers fans as the beloved home team lost their season opener 28-14 to the Duke Blue Devils.

However, do not be fooled by the score or the stats.  Memphis was right there with a chance to win this game midway through the fourth quarter.  A few missed opportunities led to a Tigers defeat, but there are some positives that can be taken away from their game against Duke.

1) Tigers fans came out to support the home team.
Perhaps the best thing that happened all game was the fact that the attendance for the Tigers home opener was 44,237.  That is the most since the home opener in 2009 against Ole Miss (and let us all be honest for a second, most of the 45,000 plus that attended that game were Rebel fans).

It is the highest attended game versus a non-SEC opponent since November of 2005, when former Conference USA rival UAB came to town (that game saw 47,669).

Coach Fuente noticed the overwhelming support from the fans in attendance and said, “I want to publicly thank everybody for coming out.  It was an awesome display of Tiger Nation, and their desire for us to build a football program here… I am sorry we are sending them out of here with a loss, but you need to keep coming out here because we are going to keep getting better.”

2) The Tigers are still an extremely young team.
For an illustration of this youth, all you have to do is look at the very first play from scrimmage.  Redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch completed a one yard pass to true freshman wide receiver Marquis Warford.  Warford finished with four catches and Lynch finished with 148 yards through the air.

“I like the way the young guys who played in the game prepared,” Fuente said when asked about the performance of his younger players.

“I like the way they approached the game.  I thought at times we looked young.  At times we looked hectic… they did not make huge mistakes, but I do not think that they would say that they played as well as they would have liked to.”

These players will have to mature quickly for the Tigers to have the type of season that they want.

3) Paxton Lynch is going to be good.
Although Paxton Lynch held his own out there in his first collegiate game ever, neither he nor his head coach was thrilled with his how he played.

“Some good and some bad,” Coach Fuente said about his freshman quarterback’s performance.

“He made some plays.  Obviously the play that stands out is the quarterback sneak, he has got to secure the ball.  It is the most important thing that anybody who touches the ball does is come up off the ground with it.”

Lynch proved to be his toughest critic tonight letting everyone know that he holds himself to a higher standard. “I do not think I played very good,” the freshman quarterback said. “I fumbled a snap in the red zone… I want to play perfect, but I did not, so I do not think I played very well.”

Lynch has a ways to go before he is performing at the level his team needs him to be to secure tough wins like these, and the level that he wants.

4) The Tigers are close to being able to compete with the quality opponents, but close is not what this program is about.
Memphis was right there with 11:38 left in the fourth quarter.  The home team battled Duke the entire game, despite the Blue Devils dominating time of possession and total yards.

A Jai Steib 11 yard touchdown run tied the game, and momentum swung in the Tigers favor.

Alas, Duke took their next two possessions straight down the teeth of the Memphis defense for touchdowns and put the game out of reach.

“We have got to learn to finish against quality opponents… we are not happy,” said Fuente. “Yeah people will say that we played them better this year than we did last year, but that is not what we are shooting for… we are going to make (the team) take the next step.”

Coach is right, Memphis did play Duke better this year than they did in last year’s 38-14 loss.  That day Memphis fans everywhere saw the Blue Devils pass for over 300 yards while holding Memphis to just 152 total yards of offense.

However, according to Coach Fuente, close losses are not what this program is about anymore, “That is the step we have got to make as a program… versus good teams you just cannot make little mistakes,” the second-year Memphis coach said. “Especially with where we are at now, you score to tie it up and then you make a couple of mistakes that get amplified a little bit and the next thing you know you are back down.”

CJ Hurt covers college football for MemphiSport. Follow him @churtj09 for live tweets from games.

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Top Five Memphis Football Storylines For 2013

memphis-tigers logoThe start of the 2013 college football season is a few short days away, and there is an air of anticipation in Memphis. Getting to this point has taken longer than expected, but the University of Memphis Tigers are finally in an automatic bid conference (even if it is just for one year) and hopes are high for this year’s squad.

It is tough to pinpoint exactly where this optimism is coming from, but there is a lot to be excited about this year for Memphis football fans.

However, Memphis is still a program that has not ended the year with a winning record since 2007, has failed to make it to a bowl game since 2008, and is making the leap to a much tougher conference.

Here are the Top 5  Memphis Football Storylines for the 2013 season:

The move to the American Athletic Conference:
At last, the Tigers have joined the big boys of the FBS, and now all Memphis has to do is win their conference and they get into a BCS game.  If they remained in Conference USA they would have had to go undefeated and be conference champions to even get a sniff at a chance to play in a BCS bowl. Also, there is the reunion with two of the Tigers archrivals, Louisville and Cincinnati.  Fans cannot wait to see how well Memphis does in its inaugural year as AAC members.

Building on the momentum from the end of last season:
The Tigers ended the year on a three game win streak, their longest win streak since 2008 (the last time Memphis was bowl eligible).  This win streak was thanks in large part to their running game which averaged 174.8 rushing yards per game in the Tigers’ final four contests, including a 275 yard performance against Southern Mississippi in their Conference USA finale.  Memphis also beat a Rice unit that went on to win the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Can they carry the win streak over to this season?

Quarterback battle between Jacob Karam and Paxton Lynch:
It has been five years since the Memphis quarterback who ended the year as starter, played in the first game of the following year as starter.  The last quarterback to do that for Memphis was none other than Arkelon Hall, and since that time it has been a proverbial carousel of starting quarterbacks for the Tigers. After setting school record last season in accuracy, many people expected Karam to be the quarterback to break that trend, but Lynch has emerged as the man who is going to lead the Tigers offense on opening day. If Lynch struggles, Karam could be thrust back into the starting lineup.  This will be something to keep an eye on all season.

Coach Fuente’s second season:
After winning more games in his first year as head coach than the Tigers won the previous two seasons combined, Fuente got a one year extension and is the type of coach Tigers fans have dreamed of having.  His fiery personality, mixed with a desire to get the most out of his players every single play, has fans believing that he can carry Memphis from the cellars of the FBS to a more respectable level.  Many felt like the Tigers overachieved last year, and hope that Coach Fuente can continue to build on last season’s success.

Bowl watch 2013:
Finishing the year with a winning conference record and being just two games away from bowl eligibility last season has many fans thinking about a possible bowl berth this year.  Mentioning Memphis and bowl eligibility does not seem like such a farfetched idea for the first time in a while.  After all, if Memphis would have beat FCS foe UT-Martin in that unusual season opener (the contest was delayed three hours), and if they could have found a way to finish a remarkable comeback on the road against Marshall, the Tigers would have finished last year as a bowl eligible 6-6 team.  It is not going to be easy, as Memphis should be the underdogs in most of their games this year.

CJ Hurt covers Tigers football for MemphiSport. Follow him @churtj09 for live tweets from games throughout the Mid-South. 

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