What to look for in Memphis’ football season opener

Tigers kickoff against Mercer tonight at 6 p.m.

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Football season is finally upon us.  

Despite the excitement around the program this season, it’s easy to forget that The University of Memphis Tigers enter the season with a heart-breaking two-game losing streak. The last time the Tigers took the field they were the visiting team in the Liberty Bowl post-season game losing to the Iowa State Cyclones. And before that, they lost to the University of Central Florida in the American championship game.

Every season starts with plenty of questions – some teams just have more questions than others. Tigers Head Coach Mike Norvell is usually nervous to start the season, because you never know what you are going to get until you play that first game.  Here are some of the pressing questions that the Tigers hope to answer – not just in the season opener, but throughout the entire year.

How will the new quarterback fare?

Brady White, who transferred from Arizona State to the University of Memphis last spring, will get the start when the Tigers kickoff against Mercer on Sept. 1. (Photo: Terry Davis)

The battle for quarterback was settled when David Moore transferred – transfer Brady White will lead the Tigers to start the season. White has only started one game in his college career, and left that game with an injury.

White is looking to follow in the footsteps of two great quarterbacks, Paxton Lynch and Riley Ferguson. Those two quarterbacks put up big numbers and gave the home crowd much to cheer about. Both quarterbacks also led their respective teams to wins over top 25 programs, 10-win seasons and a showing in the final top 25 college football rankings.

White was an Army All-American coming out of high school and has shown some flashes of greatness in practice.  His task will be to develop consistency in playing at a high level. The Tigers have the offensive skill players to continue to perform at a high level.  Despite losing Anthony Miller to the NFL, the team still have receivers that can have spectacular performances.

Who will emerge as the leaders?

Last season, Miller and Ferguson were the faces of the team. But with both in the NFL now, who will be the “coach on the field” to make adjustments and to keep other players in line? The two prime candidates are defensive back TJ Carter and running back Tony Pollard.

T.J. Carter

Both players were All-Americans last season and have made everyone’s preseason watch list.  The two have risen to national respect in their positions. Carter, a 5’11” 180-pound sophomore from Nashville, had five interceptions last season. He had some critical interceptions that came late in games including one that helped seal the come-from-behind victory over Houston.

Pollard, the redshirt junior from Melrose High School, has a very soft-spoken personality, letting his play on the field speak for him. He is only two kickoff returns short of setting a new NCAA record for kickoff returns for touchdowns. Last season, he broke the school’s 20-year streak of not have a kickoff return for a touchdown. He has six all-time kickoff returns for touchdowns – a school record. Last year, one of his touchdown returns made a lot of jewelry customer happy – delivering on a local jeweler’s promotion to refund the price if the Tigers scored on the opening kickoff return.

Carter and Pollard are leaders on the field and will be looked upon to be team leaders. They seem to understand that with the spotlight there are additional responsibilities they both must bear.

Expectations from the fan base

UofM players and fans celebrate after the Tigers’ upset win (30-27) over Navy.
(Photo: Warren Roseborough)

Memphis fans have raised their expectations for the football program. The Tigers have enjoyed a win over a national ranked top 25 team for the last three years. The program has had trouble scheduling tougher teams for a home-and-home football series. Memphis came within one win of a New Year’s Day Bowl game. 

The team has more games slated to appear on a national basis.  The administration has also stepped up their partnership with the fans challenging them to up their attendance at the games. Last season was an abnormally bad year for attendance with a good football team. The season opener was playing in a literal monsoon. The UCLA game was like playing a game in a sauna. The field temperature was over 100 degrees.

Unlike years past, fans are expecting big things from this team instead of just hoping for them. But will they stick around if the Tigers start slow?

Will the defense be improved?

Ernest Suttles’ defensive presence was felt by UCLA QB Josh Rosen in the Tigers win last season. (Photo: Warren Roseborough)

The best way to describe the Memphis defense last was inconsistent.

Several key defensive players were injured early last season. Curtis Atkins and six-year player Jackson Dillon will be leaned upon to improve the total overall defensive numbers as a unit.  The rush defense has been a sore spot the unit for past few years. The linebackers may be the strength of the defensive unit.

Carter Austin Hall has been roving the defensive backfield and redshirt freshman Tamaurice Smith from Mobile, Ala. will look to follow in the footstep of Carter as a standout freshmen. Smith has shown bright spots for being a ball hog and coming up with some big plays in the fall camp.

Some of these questions will be answered tonight at the Liberty Bowl. The Tigers play Mercer, which is located in Macon, Ga. and play in the Football Subdivision Championship. Kickoff is at 6 p.m.