True preview: Memphis
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2005 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
Tommy West's next goals at Memphis are fairly obvious: become a regular member of the national polls and win another, perhaps bigger, bowl game. West, a veteran of football in the Southeast, knows what those two things can do for a program, especially one that has never been nationally prominent and is frequently overshadowed by its basketball program. "I think we have made great progress here," said West, who in his four years at Memphis has led the Tigers to back-to-back bowl games and the first national ranking in school history. "We took a program that hadn't been playing in bowls and got them there. Now, as we go to three or four in a row, we will be doing it with the consistency I am looking for. "But there is going to come a time here that we will need to win a championship. I think our immediate goals are to keep going to bowl and to have a chance to win a championship." West has no idea if that will be possible in the new configuration of Conference USA, which added six new teams since last season. But he believes his team can be in the mix for playing in the inaugural C-USA Championship game on Dec. 3. "I just don't know where we fit, because I don't know the other teams right now," West said. "I know about the ones that stayed in the league. I would like to think we are a team that will have something to do with who wins the league, whether it is us or somebody else. We are good enough to be a factor." The Tigers have finished 5-3 the last two years in Conference USA, winning nine games overall in 2003 and eight in 2004. West has one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in college football, senior tailback DeAngelo Williams, who led the nation with 22 touchdowns, was second with 185.8 all-purpose yards per game and was third in rushing with 1,948 yards. In short, he's the best football player the school has ever had. West hopes Williams' senior season, which begins with a nationally televised game against Mississippi, will shine a continuous national spotlight on the Tiger program. The school is going all-out to promote Williams, the two-time Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, for all the major awards. It is undertaking the first Heisman Trophy blitz in school history, sending out blue and gray die-cast race cars with Williams' No. 20 on the hood to 1,000 members of the media across the nation. Sure it's gimmicky, but that's pretty much what it takes for a player from Conference USA to generate some national buzz going into the season. The burning question, however, is will there be any help for Williams on offense? Quarterback Danny Wimprine, a four-year starter who threw for more than 10,000 passing yards in his career, is no longer around. The only game experience among the three players vying for the starting quarterback job is junior Patrick Byrne's time as the Tigers' kickoff specialist last year. West and his staff will have to replace four of the five starters on the offensive line, two of which were All-Conference USA selections last year. And the receiving corps is thinner than onion skin paper. A defense that was the strongest part of the team's attack in the nine-win 2003 season was lackluster all last season, especially in defending the pass. The Tigers were ranked No. 111 in pass defense last season, and West went through spring looking for new cornerbacks who could handle man-to-man coverage better than his crew last year. Not that defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn blames the lack of success solely on the secondary. "It was the defensive line, the linebackers, the secondary and the coaches," Dunn told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. "We won eight games last year, but I felt Like I had been shot 35 times after the season last year." Dunn installed an aggressive 3-3-5 defensive package in hopes of improving his team's pass coverage, and the Tigers brought in nine new recruits who could play in the secondary. In the end, however, Williams is even more crucial to the Tigers' success this year, though it's hard to imagine they can rely on him even more. Last December, the Tigers were staying with Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl, as the teams went into intermission with Bowling Green leading, 35-28. When Williams broke his leg in the third quarter, the Tigers couldn't keep up and lost, 52-35. Williams announced that he would return for his senior year in January, but saw only limited action in spring practice as he recovered from his injury and did not participate in the Blue-Gray spring game. He should be back at full strength in the fall, able to put the Tigers in position to go to a third consecutive bowl game.
It's a tough situation going from a record-setting four-year starter who threw for more than 10,000 passing yards to a trio of unproven candidates, none of which has ever taken a snap in a college football game. But that's what West and the Tigers face this year, as they try to find a capable -- not spectacular or flashy, just capable -- replacement for Danny Wimprine. The Tigers also lose Wimprine's backup for the last four years, Bobby Robison. "It's definitely the most inexperienced place on our team," West said. "We do not have a quarterback coming back who has taken a snap in a game. Obviously, that's a concern. But it would be more of a concern if we didn't have DeAngelo coming back." West thinks his team can make do with Patrick Byrne (6-1, 211), a junior, at the helm of the offense, which is why he is listed ahead of red-shirt freshman Will Hudgens (6-3, 200) and freshman Billy Barefield (5-10, 165), who graduated early from Evangel Christian Academy in Montgomery, La. and enrolled at Memphis in January. Byrne, entering his fourth year in the program, has been on the radar for some time now. He has won or shared MVP honors in the team's spring game the last two years. "I feel comfortable that he knows what we are trying to get done," West said. And Byrne does have some game experience -- he handled all kickoffs last year for the Tigers. Of his 84 kicks, 38 went for touchbacks. But that's not quite the same as being under center. In his 10 years as a head coach at Clemson, Chattanooga and Memphis, West has never been in the position of having a quarterback this inexperienced. His options are fairly limited, as well. Hudgens is a local product from Memphis' Ridgeway High School who sat out all of last year after suffering a torn ACL in April 2004, while participating in a church-sponsored slam dunk contest. He has fully rehabilitated, but it could still limit his mobility. Barefield's ability to enroll early obviously helped him get involved in the Tigers' passing system much earlier than if he waited until August. But it will still be difficult for him to surpass Byrne's knowledge of the offense. While Byrne is listed as the starter after the spring, the battle for playing time and the starting position will likely continue into the fall. If something happens and West needs more help at the position, he can also call on senior wide receiver Maurice Avery (6-1, 216), who was recruited as a quarterback before being moved. He worked out some with the quarterbacks in spring practice and will be available for emergency duty in the fall. Three other candidates for reps throughout the fall are red-shirt freshman Devin Gardner (6-4, 221) and incoming freshmen Brett Toney (6-1, 180) of Germantown, Tenn., and Dave Thomas III (5-11, 180) of Murfreesboro, Tenn.
West is putting a lot of faith that senior All-American DeAngelo Williams (5-10, 217) can carry the load for the Tiger offense. Without an experienced quarterback and four starters missing from the offensive line, maybe Williams should be classified as an extra-large 18-wheeler instead of a race car. But the school opted to base its Heisman Trophy campaign -- the first in Tiger history -- around NASCAR imagery, sending out die-cast race cars to Heisman voters and selected other media around the country. It was a promotional campaign West thinks Williams earned with his extraordinary efforts in his first three seasons, during which he was chosen to the Conference-USA All-Freshman team and twice selected C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. Heading into last season, there were obvious questions about how Williams would return from the knee injury that sidelined him for the final two and a half games of his sophomore season (he suffered a torn medial collateral ligament against Cincinnati). But there seemed to be no lingering effects as Williams broke his own school record for rushing yards in a season, topping his sophomore total of 1,430 yards with a monstrous year of 1,948 yards. He led the nation with 22 rushing touchdowns. He finished second in the NCAA Division I-A stats in scoring with 138 points and all-purpose yards with 2,230. Willims was third in rushing, but is the top returning rusher in college football this season. Of course, there as an inevitable dalliance with the NFL, but Williams announced in January that he would "forgo his NFL career" for another season so he could return to the Tigers. Just about everyone in Memphis, from the W.C. Handy statue on Beale Street to all the Elvis impersonators who make a pretty good living out near Graceland, breathed a huge sigh of relief. West was the happiest college football coach in the country that day, as well. "It was very close," West said. "There were certainly some reasons for him to go and some reasons for him to stay. In the end, he went back to what he wanted to do all along -- stay in school. He changed his mind a couple of times, but I think deep down he wanted to stay." The Wynne, Ark., native is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime recruit coaches dream they can one day find. Williams has produced since his first season, when he averaged an amazing 6.6 yards per carry, gaining 684 yards on 103 carries and scoring five touchdowns. He doubled his freshman rushing total as a sophomore and tripled it as a junior. If he quadruples it this year, he'll easily pass Barry Sanders' long-standing NCAA record of 2,628 yards in 1988 at Oklahoma State, the largest single-season rushing total in NCAA history. Along the way, Williams has set every school rushing and scoring record imaginable, including a single-game mark of 263 yards as a sophomore against USF. He also doubled his touchdown total from his freshman season (five) to his sophomore (10), then more than doubled that last year (22). "He's the best player I have ever had," West said. "He is the guy you always want, the guy you always dream about having, the guy who can change a game for you. He can change it on any play. He has vision, he has speed, he has patience, all the tools. "Off the field, he is the best package I have ever been around. He's a really good student, who likes school. He's a likeable guy, very down to earth, an outstanding young man. A lot of times, the great, great players don't come in that package." Williams did not see much action in the spring, as he continued to recover from a broken leg he suffered in the third quarter of the Tigers' GMAC Bowl appearance against Bowling Green. He did practice some but was held out of scrimmages and the spring game. He expects to be at 100 percent by the time the season begins. West is clearly grooming several other players to take over the spot when Williams eventually leaves. Sophomore Joseph Doss (5-9, 190), who was second on the team with 183 yards on 54 carries last year, got most of the reps with the first team in the spring. Sophomore Jamarcus Gaither (5-10, 188), who had 40 yards on 15 carries last year, is also available, as is junior Brian Davis (6-1, 211). "We are OK at the running back position," West said. The Tigers brought in someone they hope can eventually be a replacement for Williams in freshman T.J. Pitts (5-10, 190) of Gainesville, Ga., the highest rated player in the 2005 signing class. He rushed for 2,422 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior at North Hall High School, leading his team to a 12-1 record. Other recruits who are potential running backs include freshmen Brian Hall (5-11, 180), Miguel Barnes (5-11, 190) and Chris Barnett (6-0, 195), all of which were listed simply as "athletes" on signing day but carried the ball during their prep careers. In almost all situations, the Tigers' lineup in a one-back set with either four receivers and three receivers and a tight end. So there is no fullback listed on the roster.
The Tigers lose four of their top five receivers from last year, including Tavares Gideon, who led the team with 54 receptions for 665 yards and 11 touchdowns, which was second only to Williams. In all, the four missing receivers accounted for 117 receptions, 15 touchdowns and more than 1,500 yards. The top returning receiver is Maurice Avery, a senior who was second on the team with 36 receptions for 422 yards and one touchdown. West calls the versatile Avery -- who was a second-team All-Conference USA pick as a sophomore when he led the team with 49 receptions for 742 yards, even though he missed the final two games with a knee injury -- one of his "go-to" guys in a shotgun, no-huddle offense that frequently uses four receivers on the field at any given time. While West bemoans the loss of experience, he thinks the Tigers will more than make up for it with the addition of speed and talent. He is counting on Avery at the H receiver position, junior Ryan Scott (6-4, 215) at the X receiver, sophomore Taz Knockum (6-2, 205) at Y receiver and senior Mario Pratcher (6-4, 211) at the Z receiver. Avery, Scott and Pratcher will be expected to become big-play receivers. Pratcher certainly stole the show in the annual spring game, catching a pair of touchdown passes, one of which was thrown by Avery, who not only spent some time playing wide receiver and quarterback in football, he also played for John Calipari's 2003-04 basketball squad. But West is also excited about the development of three red-shirt freshmen -- Carlton Robinzine (6-3, 195) at X, Earnest Williamson (6-0, 180) at H and Antonio McCoy (6-, 175) at Z. West will look to junior college standout Brandon Hunt (6-2, 195) for some immediate help with his receiver corps. He will also likely lean on four incoming freshmen for playing time in the fall. The Tigers signed Lucian Godwin (6-0, 185) of Cordova, Tenn.; Michael Grandberry (5-10, 170) of Covington, Tenn.; Maurice Jones (6-2, 185) of Memphis; Carlos Singleton (6-7, 195) of Brownsville, Tenn.; and junior college transfer Brandon Hunt (6-2, 195) of Southaven, Miss. "We lost a lot of people," West said. "We are going to be playing with some youth there. I think we are going to be more talented than we have been, and we have been pretty good. "We are going to be faster than we have been." At tight end, if senior John Doucette (6-2, 265) isn't Williams' best friend, he ought to be because of his blocking skills. He enters his fourth-year as a starter, after catching 11 passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns. But his biggest contribution is as a blocker, and he will be instrumental in making sure the three offensive linemen who have never been regular starters maintain the protection Wimprine enjoyed last year. "I think John should be a real leader on our team," West said. "We don't use the tight end as primary targets in our passing game, because we play a lot of four wides. But when our tight ends come in, they are open a lot. "We just don't have a tight end in the game all the time." Doucette is backed up by red-shirt freshman Brett Russell (6-3, 225). The Tigers also signed tight end/fullback combination Stacy Jones (6-2, 235) of Columbus, Mo.
Not a single player on the offensive line that allowed just five sacks last year will return to the same position this year. Four starters are gone because their eligibility is used up. The lone returning starter, junior Blake Butler (6-3, 280) has moved from left guard to center. Did anyone tell DeAngelo Williams about this before his decision about going to the NFL? In reality, West believes it's not as bad as it seems, mainly because three-year starter Andrew Handy (6-2, 310) returns to left guard after sitting out the 2004 season while rehabilitating an ankle injury. And the rest of the line got considerable experience last year. So, coming out of the spring, Butler is the starting center. On the right side is junior tackle Bruce McCaleb (6-2, 278) and junior guard Willie Henderson (6-7, 328). On the left side are Handy and sophomore Abraham Holloway (6-4, 312) That's an experienced five-player corps that averages 301.6 pounds per position. "I think we will be just as good this year as we were last year," West said. "These guys who stepped in this spring did a tremendous job, and I don't think we will miss a beat." The reserves at tackle include senior Greg Billingslea (6-3, 290), junior John Cianciolo (6-2, 290), red-shirt freshman Philip Beliles (6-4, 265) and red-shirt freshman Brandon Pearce (6-5, 270). Junior Jared McGowan (6-4, 305) backs up Handy at left guard and sophomore Andy Smith (6-4, 290) backs up Henderson on the right side. Behind Butler at center are fifth-year senior Bobby Garafolo (6-3, 289) and junior Stephen Schuh (6-1, 287). The Tigers signed four offensive linemen in this year's recruiting class, but the overall depth in the group will probably prevent the need to play any of them. The class consists of Paul Edwards (6-6, 305) of McKenzie (Tenn.) High School; Eric Evans (6-4, 290) of Lepanto, Ark.; Clayton Presley (6-0, 280) of Memphis; and Ken Turner (6-3, 280) of Marrero, La.
It's always good to have an experienced kicker returning. It's even better when he is one of the top kickers in the country. Senior Stephen Gostkowski (6-2, 200) was a finalist last year for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's top place-kicker. He made 20-of-24 field goal attempts, tying for eighth in the NCAA statistics for field goals per game. He also made 48-of-49 PATs and scored 108 points. While Williams ranked second in the nation in scoring with 138 points, Gostkowski was tied for 13th. "He had a great year last year," West said. "And I really anticipate him having another one this year." Last year, Byrne handled all the kickoff duties and 38-of-84 kicks went for touchbacks. The only other kicker on the roster is red-shirt freshman Trey Adams (5-9, 175).
Solid, and experienced -- that's the way West describes his defensive line, which has five seniors returning for the three slots in the Tigers' new 3-3-5 defensive scheme. "With five seniors, we anticipate that we will be solid on the defensive line," West said. "We would like some of those guys to step up and be better than that, but I think we will be solid at worst." In other words, West doesn't think any of his returning players are as good as departed nose-guard Albert Means, who was a first-team All-Conference-USA selection, or tackle David McNair. Both were starters in the down positions last year. But among the position changes defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn made in the spring was putting red-shirt freshman Ryan Williams (6-2, 290) into the nose guard position. The Memphis native and Christian Brothers High School product was impressive in the spring. Senior Van Houston (6-6, 320), red-shirt freshman Brandon Douglas (6-3, 275) and junior Haracio Colen (6-3, 286) are Williams' backups. At the two end positions, three-year starter Marcus West (6-4, 260) returns on the left side. The second-team All-Conference USA selection led the team with six sacks last year and 9.5 tackles for loss. "We think he could have an all-conference type year this year," West said. He'll be backed up by senior LaVale Jackson (6-1, 265), junior Brandon Farrar (6-4, 255), sophomore Arron Bentley (6-3, 292) and red-shirt freshman Cortez McCraney (6-4, 220). On the right side, senior Rubio Phillips (6-2, 250) won the starting job in the spring, backed up by red-shirt freshman Michael Stackens (6-3, 265). Sophomore Lane Garcia (6-3, 247) is another available defensive end. The Tigers also signed Clinton McDonald (6-3, 240) of Jacksonville, Ark.; Greg Terrell (6-4, 215) of Birmingham; and Steven Turner (6-3, 240) of Brownsville, Tenn., at defensive line.
West was disappointed in his linebacker play last year, but he hopes a year's maturity and experience will help his three returning starters at that position be more productive. Junior outside linebacker Quinton McCrary (6-2, 222), who started all 12 games last year on the right side, was the most consistent linebacker in the spring and hopes to step forward as a leader in the fall. Senior middle linebacker Tim Goodwell (6-2, 229) was the Tigers' leading tackler last year, with 106 stops in 12 games. That includes eight tackles for loss and three sacks. He also recovered three fumbles while starting all 12 games. Senior outside linebacker Carlton Baker (6-2, 232) was second on the team with 96 tackles last season. He also had 4.5 tackles for loss. "I think we need to play better at linebacker," West said. "I think McCrary plays well for us week after week and he should be an all-conference candidate. He's the best linebacker of the bunch." Among the candidates who will push for more playing time is sophomore Greg Hinds (6-1, 220), a converted defensive back who was the prize of last year's recruiting class. He was the state of Tennessee's top-ranked player as a high school senior and won a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman team last year. "He just needs to get some playing time and experience," West said. Hinds plays behind McCrary, followed by junior Carson Hunter (5-10, 231) and red-shirt freshman Brandon Slaughter (5-11, 222). Behind Goodwell in the middle is senior Cato Mott (5-10, 194), senior Tyus Jackson (6-3, 250), sophomore Heath Grant (6-1, 220) and junior converted fullback Michael Spurlock (6-0, 221). Behind Baker is junior Mike Snyder (6-2, 231) and red-shirt freshman TiQuintin Morrell (6-2, 209).
West thinks his team needs to have cornerbacks capable of intense man-to-man coverage, mainly because that jibes with his aggressive offensive philosophy. But the coach wasn't pleased that the Tigers were ranked No. 111 in the nation in pass defense last year. That might be why he brought in nine prospects with defensive back experience, including junior college transfers Brandon McDonald (5-11, 180) from Jones County (Miss.) Community College and LaKeitharun Ford (5-9, 170) from Mississippi Delta Community College. West is certainly open to using any of the newcomers immediately. "I think we played OK in the secondary last year, but not as good as we have to play to keep winning more games," West said. "We have to be better in the secondary. The competition on our team is definitely going to be better. "I think the guys who are already there will have to play better, or some of these other guys are going to come in and push them." McDonald entered school in January and competed in spring drills, which allowed him to push senior O.C. Collins (6-0, 185) at the right side until he suffered a knee injury early in spring practice. Collins had two interceptions, five pass break-ups and five tackles for loss last season and goes into the fall as the starter. He'll be backed up by junior Jamaal Rufus (6-2, 205) and McDonald. On the other side, senior Dustin Lopez (5-10, 191) had a team-high four interceptions as a part-time starter in his first year with the program after transferring in from West Minnesota Junior College. He was pushed in the spring by junior Jermaine Chambers (6-0, 190) and junior Olen Whitely (6-0, 208). The Tigers use three safeties in a nickel-back setup. At free safety, senior Wesley Smith (6-3, 194) returns to the position where he was a first-team All-Conference USA selection for the second year in a row. He was third on the team with 89 tackles and added an interception. As a sophomore, Smith was second on the team with 98 tackles and had a team-high three interceptions. Red-shirt freshman Brandon Patterson (6-1, 195) is listed behind Smith on the post-spring depth chart. The right "Cat" safety is junior Derek Clenin (5-9, 195), who is backed up by sophomore Rod Smith (6-1, 215) and junior Javar Pollard (6-0, 203). The left "Cat" safety is sophomore Jake Kasser (5-10, 190), with junior Sam Brewer (6-1, 194) behind him. Besides McDonald and Ford, the incoming defensive backs are Tyler Griffin (5-11, 192) of Nashville; Chris Huffman (6-3, 190) of Montgomery, Ala.; Bernard Key (5-11, 175) of Montgomery, Ala.; Deante Lamar (5-10, 183) of Atlanta; and Traye Simmons (5-11, 175) of Marietta, Ga. A pair of newcomers, Miguel Barnes (5-11, 190) of Millington, Tenn., and Alton Starr (6-0, 185) of Decatur, Ga., were recruited as wide receivers and defensive backs. Their future position won't likely be settled until they arrive on campus.
The Tigers split punting duties three ways last year, with quarterbacks Wimprine and Robison kicking rugby-style punts and Brandon Roberson handling traditional punts. Wimprine had the best average of the three, but just barely at 36.7 yards on 22 punts. Robinson averaged 36.4 yards on 13 kicks and Roberson averaged 36.4 on 21 kicks. All three are gone, however, which is why West went on a desperate search for a junior college punter. He found a pretty good one in junior Michael Gibson (6-2, 190), a Mooreville, Miss., native who spent last year at Itawamba (Miss.) Community College. Gibson transferred there after spending two years at Auburn, where he sat out as a red-shirt in 2002 and was a reserve letter-winner in 2003. Last year at Itawamba, Gibson averaged 44.6 yards per kick, the best average of any college kicker in the state of Mississippi, and was an honorable-mention All-American. There are no other punters on the roster heading into the fall.
While Memphis seems settled with a returning kicker and an experienced junior college transfer punter, the rest of the specialist positions are very much undecided. The Tigers' top two kick returners are no longer around, so West will likely give Williams even more opportunity to get his hands on the ball as one of two kick returners. He had four attempts there last year. Sophomore reserve tailback Doss will also get some opportunities. West had no idea after spring practice who he might use to replace punt returner Darron White, who averaged 10.8 yards on 34 returns last year. He'll likely look to several young players, including Doss and red-shirt freshmen McCoy and Williams. "The punt return guy is wide open," West said. "We are going to look at some of our freshmen when they come in. We will give people a lot of chances there." Byrne has been a big contributor on special teams, both as a kickoff specialist and holder for field goals and extra points. He may continue to kick off, but West would like to replace him as a holder. Junior Rusty Clayton (6-2, 241) returns for his third year as the starting deep snapper.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2005 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
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