Memphis endured its share of struggles in its first season under coach Justin Fuente, but a late-season surge may have established a foundation on which Fuente can build for the future.
After losing eight of their first nine games, the Tigers concluded the 2012 season with their third consecutive win, a 42-24 victory over Southern Miss. The win allowed 16 departing seniors to leave the Liberty Bowl for the final time in triumph, adding to a growing sense of optimism in Memphis as the Tigers leave Conference USA for the Big East.
The Tigers finished 4-8 overall and 4-4 in their final C-USA campaign. They went 2-22 in conference play over the previous three seasons. In the end, their progress under Fuente was unmistakable even if the first few steps were slow and unsteady.
"I told the kids before the game that if I had one wish, it would be that we had 10 more-that we had 10 more games to go-but I can't give you that. I can give you four quarters. That's all we've got," Fuente said. "I thought they went out there and played like that. This will springboard us into a lot of things-into recruiting, into the offseason, into the offseason program, which starts tomorrow. The way we finished the season maybe validates some of the hard work we've put the kids through."
Seniors such as linebacker Akeem Davis, wide receiver Marcus Rucker and offensive lineman Jordan Devey will not be easily replaced, but a number of talented underclassmen will return with renewed hope and enthusiasm.
"This is a real confidence-booster going into the offseason," junior running back Brandon Hayes told The Commercial Appeal. "We were going to go into the offseason and bust our tails anyway, but the momentum swing of winning three in a row and coming back from the adversity from early in the season is just a great feeling. And winning those last three for the seniors is just something that is indescribable."
Game Of The Year: Memphis 14, Rice 10-After losing four in a row to start the season, the Tigers earned their first win at home against the Owls. Junior QB Jacob Karam started as he did all season and threw a third-quarter touchdown pass that cut Rice's lead to 10-7, but it was backup Eric Mathews who made the biggest play of the game. With 3:01 remaining in the third quarter, Matthews threw an 11-yard scoring strike to Alan Cross, giving the Tigers a lead their defense would not relinquish. Memphis was much better offensively while ending the season with a three-game winning streak, but this was the Tigers' most impressive victory. After losing to the Tigers, the Owls went on to win five of their last six games to finish 6-6 overall and 4-4 in Conference USA.
Player Of The Year: LB Akeem Davis-The senior linebacker endured his share of hardship and tumult. He played for three head coaches and four defensive coordinators in four years at Memphis and battled back from an ACL tear that sidelined him for much of the 2010 season, during which his mother died of cancer. None of that deterred Davis, who led a Memphis defense that finished third in Conference USA in total defense (383.6 ypg) and rushing defense (138 ypg) and fifth in scoring defense (30.2 ppg) and pass defense (245.6 ypg). Davis ended the year with 68 tackles, five tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
Fast Forward: Major challenges and maybe more struggles await as the Tigers prepare to move to the Big East Conference next season, but there is growing optimism after they finished their first season under coach Justin Fuente with three consecutive wins. The Tigers will have to replace program fixtures such as LB Akeem Davis, OL Jordan Devey and WR Marcus Rucker. All were impact players who will be missed, but the receiving corps features some good young talent with freshmen Alan Cross and Tevin Jones.
Recruiting Trail: The Tigers are bringing in reinforcements in some key areas. The most highly-rated recruits include QB Brayden Scott, RB Marquis Warford, two-sport star Sam Craft and DE Jackson Dillon. Scott is a 6-foot-3 pocket passer from Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah, Okla. who reportedly received offers from Arizona, Arizona State, Arkansas, Clemson, Tennessee and Texas Tech, among others. Warford is a 5-8, 169-pound running back from James Madison High School in San Antonio, Texas. Craft is a 5-11, 185-pound quarterback from Craigmont High School in Memphis, Tenn. who also plans to join the Memphis basketball team as a walk-on. He reportedly received offers from North Carolina and Cincinnati. Dillon, a standout from Ringling High School in Ringling, Okla., is an intriguing prospect at 6-6 and 210 pounds with a 4.65 40-yard dash time.
Quote To Note: "I think it's good to see the fruits of everybody's labor, and don't mistake me by any means, we have a long way to go. We have mountains to climb and we have a lot of things to do in the offseason through recruiting, through spring practice and through summertime. I'm glad for the kids to get some reward, but we all as coaches and adults know that we're doing the right thing and doing it the right way. I think the kids thought we were, and hopefully now they know we are."-Memphis coach Justin Fuente, after beating Southern Miss to end the season with a three-game winning streak.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Players To Watch In 2013:
QB Jacob Karam-The junior quarterback started all 12 games this season but remained under constant scrutiny. He completed 64.1 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions, but he threw for just 1,733 yards, an average of 134.1 per game. The offense sputtered most of the season without big plays in the passing game, prompting coaches to experiment with backup Eric Mathews, but Karam solidified his status as the starter late in the season, completing 40 of 52 passes and throwing seven of his 14 touchdown passes in the last three games.
RB Brandon Hayes-The 5-foot-8, 205-pound walk-on running back could be poised for a big senior season after emerging as Memphis' best ball carrier in late October. Hayes took over after starting running back Jerrell Rhodes was dismissed from the team, finishing the year with 461 yards on 99 carries, an average of 4.7 yards per attempt. Rhodes could return next season, but Hayes will have the inside track on the starting job after putting up back-to-back 100-yard games to end the season.
LB Charles Harris-The 6-foot-2, 235-pound linebacker impressed in his first season as a starter, leading the team with 79 tackles. Harris recorded 12 tackles in his first career start and went on to post double-digit tackles in three of the Tigers' first four games. He had a season-high 13 tackles against Arkansas State.
LB Akeem Davis-The 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior has been a fixture in Memphis' defense for the past two years after recovering from major knee surgery in 2009. Davis finished second on the team with 78 tackles in 2011 and third with 68 in 2012. Davis also has been a leader in the classroom. He is a three-time Conference USA Commissioner's Honor Roll and Tiger 3.0 Club honoree. Davis started his college career as a safety before suffering a torn ACL early in his sophomore season.
OL Jordan Devey-The versatile 6-foot-6, 300-pound lineman didn't even play football at American Fork High School in Utah because he suffered from Osgood-Schlatter disease. Instead, he played the tuba in his school band. Devey played two seasons at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, before transferring to Memphis, where he has played every position on the offensive line without missing a snap over the past two years.
WR Marcus Rucker-At 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, Rucker has the requisite size, but does he have the speed pro scouts are looking for? The senior receiver climbed to No. 6 on Memphis' career list for receiving yards. He had one monster game this season, catching 10 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns against Middle Tennessee on Sept. 15, but he may not have done enough to make himself a late-round draft pick.
• WRs Alan Cross and Tevin Jones could take on even greater roles next season given the departure of senior WR Marcus Rucker, who is seventh all-time at Memphis in receiving yards. Cross had three catches for a career-high 49 yards and two touchdowns against Southern Miss. Jones caught four passes for a career-high 88 yards.
• Junior P Tom Hornsey became the first player to punt for more than 10,000 yards in his career with a 38-yarder which was downed inside the 10-yard line against Southern Miss. Hornsey now has 235 career punts for 10,015 yards. Hornsey punted only once against Southern Miss, the first time the Tigers have had just one punt in a game since 2008.
• Junior TE Jesse Milleson came on strong over the second half of the season and could play an important role in the passing game in 2013. After catching just one pass for 12 yards over the first eight games, Milleson had nine receptions for 86 yards in the last four games.