Despite a thrilling winning season, the Memphis Tigers ended last season on two sour notes: First an heartbreaking 62-55 double-OT loss to Central Florida in the American Athletic Conference Championship game, followed by a Liberty Bowl loss to Iowa State with a loss in the Liberty Bowl against Iowa State. Some returning players are still bitter about those losses.
Former U of M stars QB Riley Ferguson and WR Anthony Miller are trying to impress their new NFL coaches in Tampa Bay and Chicago, respectively. But how the Tigers will compensate for those two departures aren’t the only questions around the club:
Who will start at quarterback?
David Moore came into camp as the favorite to start at QB, but Brady White, the red-shirt junior transfer, continues to battle for the job. White has performed well in the first few days of practice, but there are plenty of practice reps to go before the opening kickoff against Mercer on Sept. 1.
Moore, the red-shirt sophomore from Alpharetta, Ga., is more of a ball control quarterback and figures to provide more consistency. In contrast, White is a high-risk, high-reward quarterback. I don’t expect Head Coach Mike Norvell to decide on a starting quarterback until the last week of August.
Who will replace Anthony Miller as the leading receiver?
In Norvell’s offense, there will be plenty of opportunities for big statistical games. Sophomore Damonte Coxie seeks to become the team’s go-to receiver, while Kedarian Jones will also be looked at to make play this season. Also, expect junior Tony Pollard to take some snaps at the wide receiver position as well as his normal duties at running back and kickoff return.
I expect Pollard to be the leading returning receiver. The former Melrose standout caught 35 passes for 536 yards – mostly from the backfield. Junior TE Sean Dykes is the second-leading returning receiver with 15 catches for 346 yards. “Going into last everyone most of us were young and inexperienced,” Dykes said. “But coming into this season, we understand the system better. It is a lot easier going into this camp.”
Will Tony Pollard continue to dazzle?
Pollard is only two kickoff returns from setting a new NCAA record for total career kickoff returns for touchdowns. His play has earned him all types of honors including two-time All-American Athletic Conference first team in 2016 and 2017. “Since I am close, I would love to get it,” Pollard said of his pending kickoff record. “I hope to get my first one in the first game.”
When arriving at Memphis no one expected Pollard to become the breakout star that he has become – especially since he didn’t return kickoffs in high school. But can he continue?
Can the defense raise its game to slow opponents down?
The key to the Tigers success this season may be on defense. Curtis Atkins, TJ Carter and Austin Hall will be the leaders who hope to mold the Tiger defense into one of the best in the country.
Last season’s early injury woes may turn out to be a positive. So many players were forced into action, gaining valuable playing time and confidence. Now they’re competing for starter’s minutes.
Last year, the Tigers had 16 interceptions and 15 forced fumbles – good enough to rank third in the nation in takeaways. True freshman TJ Carter led the way with five interceptions; Hall had three.
Carter also has high expectations, aiming for a conference championship and New Year’s Day bowl game.
“The work that we have done in the spring and everyday is unmatched,” Carter said. “The team has worked very hard. Everybody is hungry and has the same expectations. My personal expectation is if the team is doing well, the recognition will come.”
Can the Tigers’ top their accomplishments from last season?
Nine Tigers players have been named to some type of preseason watch list. They are projected again this season to win the AAC West. But on some level, they’re still chasing UCF – after all, two of the Tigers three losses came at the hands of the Golden Knights. UCF will be in Memphis on Oct. 13, in what could not only be an AAC championship preview, but a game that could decide home field in the AAC championship.
If the Tigers are to achieve the success of last season it will start and finish at the quarterback position. Whoever is deemed the starting quarterback will have a lot of weapons to play with and the development of the defense could have the Tigers playing in a decent bowl game again.