Fall camp is over, and final preparations are under way for Larry Porter and his 2011 Memphis Tigers. Looming is a huge clash with a legitimate Top 25 team, the Mississippi State Bulldogs in both teams' season opener this Thursday night at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
"We've had a really good camp," Coach Porter said on the Talk Back Live with Bob & Josh radio show yesterday on KWAM 1090. Coach Porter shared the hour with TSR Managing Editor Leroy Watson, Jr. and 560 WHBQ's Greg Gaston.
Talk Back Live had a lively hour which ended up being devoted solely to Tiger football. The consensus that was reached? The Tigers are far more talented this year than last year. Translating that into more wins and losses, though, is difficult.
"I've got the Tigers down for three wins this year, and I hope I'm wrong," Gaston commented. "The key to the season, though, is this: will they be competitive? I think they will be."
Memphis lost their season opener in 2010 on the road to the Bullies, 49-7. A similar result this year would be an ominous start to the campaign.
"Let's be realists here, Memphis doesn't have the quality depth to defeat the Bullies," he said with remarkable candor. "But they've got to keep the margin down to about two or three touchdowns. And I know Larry doesn't believe in moral victories but if he can stay close, that's like a win for Memphis."
The bright spot for Memphis fans is, paradoxically enough, the main reason for concern: the amount of talent on the roster that resides in the freshman and sophomore classes, the first two groups recruited by Porter, the Rivals Recruiter of the Decade.
When these Tiger cubs become experienced and grow real teeth, the rest of Conference USA will have a fight on their hands. Until then, Porter and the Tigers will take some lumps.
Porter, though, is extremely excited about his young talent, and how many of them have stepped up to have excellent performances during preparations for the season opener.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the defensive backfield.
Porter plans to run a 4-2-5 alignment this year, with four down linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. Coming into camp, two of those spots were seen as taken: sophomores Taurean Nixon at one corner and Lonnie Ballentine at a safety position.
I asked Porter who else was stepping up in the secondary.
"(Junior) Cannon Smith has looked really good, he and (junior) Mitch Huelsing. Then we've got (sophomore) Bobby McCain and a freshman Bakari Hollier (pronounced Oh-yay). Those four are going to contribute this fall."
Several other freshmen are poised to see the field for the Tigers, too, and perhaps even star.
"One young man has really stood out on the defensive line," Porter confided. "Not only has he stood out but he's outplayed (junior) Dontari Poe and (senior) Frank Trotter, and that's Johnnie Farms. He's going to be very important for us."
The offensive line is much-improved, but outgoing senior Brad Paul will be missed at center. Another true freshman could fill the gap.
"Monte Golden has had a great camp on the offensive line. He can help us."
And a pair of contrasting running backs in the freshman class are going to contribute, too. They're the brutish Artaves Gibson out of Memphis Mitchell High and slippery Joe Price from Madison, MS. Gibson has prototypical size for a featured back (6'1", 220) yet enough speed to exploit creases. Price is a home run threat every time he touches the ball.
"We're going to need them," Porter said.
The coach made an impassioned plea to Memphis football fans before he signed off the air.
"These young guys have worked hard and done their part," he began. "Now we need the fans to do their share and fill up the Liberty Bowl. If we can get 40,000 or so screaming fans, our players will feed off that emotion and it will be like giving us a 7-0 lead before the first kick-off.
"That would be a great way to show appreciation for the work these young men are putting in."
Leroy Watson, Jr. is Managing Editor of TigerSportsReport.com and may be reached via e-mail: Leroy@tigersportsreport.com or on Twitter: @leroywatsonjr