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September 24, 2013In the not-too-distant past, the University of Memphis/Memphis State developed quite the reputation for producing standout defensive backs.
The tradition actually goes all the way back to longtime Seattle Seahawks standout Keith Simpson. The native Memphian played at Memphis State from 1975-'78 and was drafted by the Seahawks with the 9th overall selection of the 1978 NFL Draft. This remains the highest any Tiger has been drafted.
Simpson, a safety, played his entire 8-year career (1978-'85) with Seattle. He completed his NFL career with 19 interceptions and 3 interception returns for touchdowns along with 7 fumble recoveries. Tackles were not an official statistic in the League during his career.
Subsequently, Memphis has sent a steady stream of DBs to the NFL. Among the more notable names have been Derrick Burroughs (1985, first round, #14 overall, Buffalo Bills), Reginald Jones (1991, fifth round, #126 overall, New Orleans Saints), Ken Irvin (1995, fourth round, #109 overall, Buffalo Bills), Jerome Woods (1996, first round, #28 overall, Kansas City Chiefs), Mike McKenzie (1998, third round, #87 overall, Green Bay Packers), a pair in 2001 (Idrees Bashir, second round, #37 overall, Indianapolis Colts and Michael Stone, second round, #54 overall, Arizona Cardinals), and Brandon McDonald (2007, fifth round, #140 overall, Cleveland Browns).
McKenzie earned a Super Bowl title in 2010 with the New Orleans Saints. Irvin and Woods, at 10 years apiece (though Woods sat out one season with a leg injury), had the longest tenures in the NFL. Woods in 2003 for the Chiefs is the only former Tiger defensive player to make the NFL Pro Bowl.
However, perhaps an argument can be made that the Memphis program is becoming a fertile breeding ground of NFL defensive linemen.
Former Tiger Tony Williams (1997, fifth round, #151 overall, Minnesota Vikings) had a stellar 8-year career, split evenly between Minnesota and Cincinnati. He was the prototypical run-stopper at right defensive tackle, but he also notched a career-high 5 sacks on three (3) separate occasions (1999, 2001, 2002).
Clinton McDonald (2009, seventh round, #249 overall, Cincinnati Bengals) went to the Seattle Seahawks in a 2011 trade, has appeared in 31 of a possible 35 games with the 'Hawks, notching his first NFL sack earlier this year.
But it seems that Dontari Poe might do the most to start building Memphis' reputation for producing d-linemen. . . and Martin Ifedi might someday strengthen that reputation.
Poe was selected with the Kansas City Chiefs' first round pick last summer, and he was chosen #11 overall, just behind Simpson for highest Tiger ever. Poe was also the highest ever draft pick out of Conference USA. Some naysayers predicted that he would merely be a "workout wonder" who was drafted on the basis of some eye-popping stats at the NFL combine.
Despite being 6'4" and 346 pounds (the fifth-heaviest d-lineman at the Combine since 2000), Poe ran the 40 in an amazing 4.89 seconds, while completing a scintillating 44 reps in the 225-lb. bench press, the fourth-best total since 2000. He also managed a mind-boggling 29 and 1/2 inch vertical jump.
Though Poe only managed five sacks during his three years playing at Memphis (he left after his junior season) and none as a rookie with the Chiefs in 2012, the Kansas City Star selected him as Chiefs' Rookie of the Year for 2012 and Poe came into 2013 primed for a break-out campaign. He trimmed down to 335 without losing any strength but added to his already-explosive first step.
And my, has he broken out of the gates, racking up 10 total tackles in three games with 3.5 sacks, 3 additional tackles for loss, 4 quarterback pressures/hits and 2 passes batted down/defensed.
At Poe's current pace, he would complete the 2013 season with 19 quarterback sacks and 22 quarterback pressures, among the best numbers a defensive tackle has ever produced. Even though it might be unrealistic to think he will keep up his current level of production, consider that he is almost certainly going to rack up more sacks this season than he did during his entire career at Memphis.
Another Tiger performing at near historic rates is current Tiger defensive end Martin Ifedi, whom I predicted would be the first American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Ifedi's early performances have only bolstered the veracity of the prediction, as he leads the country in sack's per game at 1.83 and is among the leaders in total sacks (5.5) while also contributing an impressive 23 tackles (7.67 per game) and 9 total tackles for loss (which includes sacks), costing the opposition a total of 35 yards.
Fittingly, Ifedi became the first Tiger to garner an AAC honor, being named Defensive Player of the Week after leading Memphis with 10 tackles including 4.5 tackles for losses of 16 yards with 2.5 QB sacks. Additionally, Ifedi is the only NCAA FBS player to record 4.5 tackles for loss in a single game thus far this season, and he is among only six players with one or more sacks in each of his team's games in 2013.
Ifedi, a redshirt junior, actually spent most of his freshman campaign inside the defensive line as a tackle with Poe for Larry Porter and the Tigers. He ended the season with 13 total tackles, one TFL (a sack), one pass break-up, one QB hurry, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Defensive Coordinator Barry Odom and Defensive Line Coach Tim Billings moved Martin back to his more natural position, end, last season, and Ifedi responded by collecting 46 total tackles, leading the Tigers in tackles for loss (11 for 51 yards) and sacks (7.5), and adding 4 QB hurries and 2 forced fumbles.
Ifedi is building off his sophomore campaign with a tremendous junior season which could become historic if he can maintain his tremendous pace.
At his current 1.83 sacks per game rate, he would complete the 2013 season with a jaw-dropping 22 sacks. Though not an NCAA record (24, Terrell Suggs, Arizona State, 2002, though Derrick Thomas recorded 27 for Alabama in 1988, before the NCAA made sacks an official stat), it would shatter the school single season mark of 14 (Andre Arnold, 2000) and eclipse the U of M career record of 21 (Tramont Lawless, 1996-'99).
Poe in the NFL and Ifedi at Memphis have each started the 2013 season with a bang. If they keep going we could see each make history, with Poe being the first former Tiger defensive lineman to make the NFL Pro Bowl and Ifedi becoming the inaugural AAC Defensive Player of the Year.
Don't bet against either man etching his name in the U of M history books in 2013.