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College Football Preview 2020: 24. Memphis Tigers

24. Memphis Tigers

Mike Norvell may be gone, but he leaves behind a foundation that can once again compete for a New Year's Six Bowl

Brady White
Offense: Memphis has finished in the Top 15 nationally in scoring offense the last five years, and the ingredients remain for a successful 2020.

Quarterback Brady White is the most crucial returnee, coming back for his senior season with the Tigers. White began his career under Norvell at Arizona State before making the trek to the AAC, and there was some question that he would follow his long-time coach to Tallahassee. Instead, he'll enter 2020 as the best quarterback in the conference, and will have a legitimate shot at becoming the school's all-time passing leader. He does have to cut down on interceptions, as he had 11 last fall and some of them came at crucial moments.

White also has the luxury of having his favorite target, veteran Damonte Coxie, back in the fold. Coxie contemplated going pro, but seems to have something to prove entering the new year. He is a bonafide NFL prospect, with a well-built frame and top-tier athleticism. Coxie averaged nearly 17 yards per catch a year ago, and I still expect Memphis to attack downfield with him often. Tight end Joey Magnifico is a notable loss, as defenses were forced to focus on him underneath. It will be interesting to see whether anybody is able to make up for his absence at the position. Not having a spring certainly hurt the chances of a youngster making the leap. Beyond Coxie, wide out Calvin Austin has shown flashes, and could see an uptick in action.

Norvell loved to throw the ball around and attack opposing defenses and while he may be gone, that philosophy remains intact under offensive coordinator Kevin Johns. However, the Tigers shouldn't shy away from pounding the rock this upcoming fall, as they have a special talent in Kenneth Gainwell. Gainwell redshirted in '19 before breaking on to the scene in the backfield, eclipsing 2,000 all-purpose yards. He will certainly get his opportunities running the ball, but his ability to catch out of the backfield adds another element to this offense. Gainwell will eat up the bulk of carries, but keep an eye on newcomer Asa Martin. Martin is on his third school in the collegiate ranks, beginning at Auburn before a quick pit stop at Miami (where he never suited up), and eventually coming to Memphis. Martin is a former four-star prospect coming out of high school and he's the type of talent the Tigers simply didn't get a half-decade ago. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield, which should help him see opportunities.

This offensive line will almost certainly be overshadowed by the playmakers at the skill positions, but three starters return to the unit and a healthy amount of experience. The left side is particularly strong, with tackle Obinna Eze back for his junior season, along with guard Dylan Parham, who has made 28 straight starts. The center spot may be a concern with Dustin Woodard off to the NFL, but sophomore Isaac Ellis appears to be the favorite.

There are few teams in the entire country that can match what Memphis brings back at the skill positions. They have a veteran quarterback ready to lead the way, a budding superstar at running back, and a proven top target on the perimeter. It seems almost certain they'll once again feature as a Top 15 offense, and they could be even be better than the 2019 edition.

Defense: The prognostication for the defense is not as cheery as the offense. There are some very notable faces gone, including Austin Hall, Bryce Huff, and Chris Claybrooks. Hall is going to be the loss they feel the most. He led the team in tackles during the 2019 campaign, and helped out in a variety of ways. He was the only Memphis Tiger defender to score a touchdown last fall.

Huff was the team's top pass rusher (six sacks), but the outlook for the defensive line still appears fine. Senior Joseph Dorceus is a very important returnee, as a chaotic edge rusher who really grew into his own last year. He's a former walk-on, but his production last fall was no joke, as he totaled 14.5 TFL and five sacks. Memphis coaches are hoping he can get even better with more time under his belt, and rumor is he's added major muscle during the off-season. In the middle, the Tigers also bring back notable experience in O'Bryan Goodson and Morris Joseph. Goodson played a hefty amount of snaps a year ago and showed he was a real technician in run support, with seven tackles for loss. Joseph is a former junior college transfer who acclimated well to the defense in 2019. He had 27 tackles and two sacks as a reserve, but could start this fall in this 4-3 look.

The Tigers linebacker corps was another unit hit hard by the impact of no spring practice. This group has a lot of growing up to do, but there's upside as well. Xavier Cullens is a proven playmaker who was third on Memphis in tackles last fall. He'll need a new playing mate with the absence of Hall. Keith Brown could be an interesting player to watch as a former JUCO transfer who missed most of last season due to injury. The hope is that he's fresh for the fall, and he has the potential to be a really impactful player. Another former transfer, Cincir Evans, could also factor into the linebacker rotation. He arrived from Coastal Carolina in the spring, but obviously things have changed. His eligibility status is uncertain as we look ahead to 2020.

Memphis posted the No. 26 pass defense in the country during 2019, a fairly underrated element of this team a year ago. Sanchez Blake Jr. has the chance to become an All-AAC player as a dynamic strong safety who had 69 tackles and two interceptions last season. He can play close to the line really well for his position, and I think he'll continue to grow in coverage. That could be important for a Tiger team that is hurting at corner. Veteran Jacobi Francis had eight pass deflections in 2019, but may need an adjustment period becoming the No. 1 corner. La'Andre Thomas is the other veteran back in the fold, locking down the free safety position. Thomas was the only Memphis defender to score a touchdown last year, taking an interception 33 yards to the house. Perhaps another late newcomer in the spring or fall can get snaps, but you get the feeling this is going to be a fairly experienced group. They might not be as deep as they were a year ago, but could still figure to be among the conference's elite.

Mike MacIntrye arrives as the new defensive coordinator, looking to keep the momentum going from a strong showing in '19. MacIntrye was formerly the Colorado head coach before guiding the Ole Miss defense last year.

Special Teams: Placekicker Riley Patterson should be active in 2020, and he's proven he can consistently knock in field goals. Patterson is 26 for 36 in his career, including going 23 of 25 in 2019. Don't be surprised if he gets some attention on the Lou Groza Award watchlist for nation's top kicker. The return game could be explosive, but it's not a very well-established group at this point.

Bottom Line: Memphis has been the envy of most of the Group of Five this past half-decade, sending their last two head coaches to ACC powers. Their 12-2 record in 2019 was all about perfect timing and impactful veterans, but not everybody moves on. It's hard to overstate the importance of bringing back Brady White. He'll bridge the gap between Norvell and the new coaching staff, as will Damonte Coxie and Kenneth Gainwell. It's hard to imagine that offense not producing, even some expected changes under the leadership of Ryan Silverfield. But, Silverfield looks like's ready to go; he coached Memphis in the bowl game and even though they lost, he seemed to take command of the team. I don't see a dropoff this year, and think they could still be considered the American Athletic favorite, even though I rank Cincinnati higher. It wouldn't be surprising to see them in their fourth-straight conference championship game and perhaps even staying in New Year's Six Bowl consideration.

Recruiting Breakdown
The Tigers bring in one of the better classes in Group of Five, even breaking in a new coaching staff. They reeled in a number of junior college players who enrolled during the spring. Kundarris Taylor is one of the highest-rated JUCO players in the entire country, and he's a one-time Oklahoma commit. Rhett Weidenbacher is not one the top players in the Class, but I wonder if he'll be able to make an immediate impact at tight end. He comes from a respected JUCO program in Butler Community College, and earned a three-star billing. We'll see how this recruiting class opens up, assuming we get some sort of fall practice in late summer. There were eight enrollees for the spring but a lot more slated to come in for fall camp, including three-star dual threat Keilan Brown. He obviously won't supplant Brady White at the quarterback position, but don't be surprised if he makes an impact in the future.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-4 (6-2 AAC, Lose in American Athletic Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Brady White
Defensive MVP: S Sanchez Blake Jr.
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Calvin Austin
Impact Freshman: TE Rhett Weidenbacher (JUCO)

Five-Year Trend

As of publishing, we still do not know the effect that COVID-19 will have on the 2020 college football season beyond cancelled spring practice. It seems highly likely that there will be no fans or a shortened season, at the very least. This preview is operating under the optimistic assumption there will be a season, and even if it is delayed, teams will be able to get a full, 12-game schedule in. 

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