UofM receiver Damonte Coxie (r) and the Tigers had plenty to celebrate last season. QB Brady White (l) says of this season, “I just want to win ball games.” (Photos: Karanja A. Ajanaku/TSD Archives)
Terry Davis

One of the most anticipated University of Memphis Tigers football kickoffs in history is finally upon us.

The Tigers will host the Arkansas State University Red Wolves at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in a nationally televised game Saturday night (Sept.5). The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. (CDT) on ESPN.

There was doubt whether this season would ever start because of COVID-19. The Tigers play in the American Athletic Conference, one of few conferences that will play football this fall.

The American has set specific protocols for testing to ensure that once the season starts it can be completed. The UofM has a policy not to release the number of confirmed coronavirus cases among team members.

As the season-opener looms, the Tigers, who finished 12-2 last season, have received word that Kenny Gainwell, who was expected to anchor the running-back corps, has chosen not to play football during this campaign.

Gainwell posted on social media that he has lost several family members to the coronavirus, most recently his uncle. He is listed on many of the preseason watch lists and is rated as one of the best running backs in the country. He rushed for 1,523 yards last season and was the second leading receiver with 610 yards.

Redshirt freshman Rodrigues Clark will carry the load in Gainwell’s absence. Clark rushed for 85 yards and scored a touchdown in limited action. He also had a blocked punt in his first career game versus Southern University.

“We have full faith in Clark,” head coach Ryan Silverfield said. “He can carry the rock; he can catch the ball. He is good in pass-protection concepts as well.”

Memphis does return quarterback Brady White and his favorite target, Damonte Coxie, who has turned in back-to-back seasons with 1,000 receiving yards.

While Coxie will be the primary receiver defenses will key on stopping, Calvin Austin III had a breakout season last year. The former walk-on and track star earned a full scholarship.

White passed for 4,014 yards and threw for 33 touchdowns. He has been listed on many preseason watchlists as one of the most prolific passers in the country.

White, who talked to media on Wednesday, already was in one-game-at-a-time mode and ever more so because of the pandemic.

“No one can be looking forward or expecting anything. You have to treat every week and everyday as a gift. You never know what is to come,” White said.

Once he again he voiced his team-first philosophy.

“Team success equals individual success. I really don’t care about if I don’t match my numbers (from last season),” he said.

“If we win 12 games, you guys are going to be happy and love us. I just want to win ball games.” White said.

Arkansas State’s Red Wolves historically have been a touch team for the Tigers. Memphis leads the series 29-24, with the Tigers winning 22 games in Memphis.

The teams last played in 2013. Memphis won that meeting 31-7.

Quarterbacks Layne Hatcher and Logan Bonner lead the Red Wolves. They combined for 3,998 passing yards last season.

Arkansas State, which finished with an 8-5 record, returns many players from last year and are picked to finish second in the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division.

Memphis enters the game with an 18-game non-conference winning streak at the Liberty Bowl. The maximum attendance will be less than 5,000 fans because of COVID.