Memphis had its Week 2 game at Central Florida canceled due to Hurricane Irma, so the Tigers are an unproven team with a potentially potent offense hoping to take advantage of a struggling, injury-riddled UCLA defense. The Commercial Appeal’s Tom Schad answered a few questions about Memphis’ offense, its own problem with a targeting suspension and the how the team will respond to three early injuries.
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1. What was the feeling around the program heading the second year with head coach Mike Norvell?
There’s been a lot of excitement throughout the program — and the city — over the past eight months or so, due in large part to a few happenings in January and February. Star wide receiver Anthony Miller and all-conference linebacker Genard Avery both elected to return to school for their senior seasons after flirting with the NFL. And Norvell’s first full recruiting class (he was hired less than two months before National Signing Day the year before) was one of the highest-rated classes in program history, including three Rivals four-star recruits. All that, plus an 8-5 finish in what was expected to be a transition year in 2016, has created a lot of optimism and excitement in 2017.
2. Memphis was expected to be a dynamic passing offense, but stormy weather derailed quarterback Riley Ferguson and his receivers in the opener. Assuming the team won’t be playing every game in hurricane weather, in what ways are Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller hoping improve on their record-setting seasons from last year?
Well from a statistical standpoint, last year will be hard for Miller to beat. Over 13 games, he averaged seven catches for 110 yards and a touchdown. He broke all of Isaac Bruce‘s single-season receiving records at Memphis. He was terrific. For Ferguson, I think it’s simply a matter of being more consistent and cutting down on the turnovers. Though he only threw 10 picks on the year, he had three games with multiple interceptions.
3. Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. combined for 302 yards against Louisiana-Monroe. How much of a threat do you expect the running game to be on Saturday as most of the preseason talk seemed to be focused on the passing attack?
Given that UCLA currently has the third-worst rushing defense in the country, I think Memphis’ rushing game will absolutely be a threat. The Tigers’ offensive line is improved and carved out some nice lanes for Henderson and Taylor in the opener. And senior Doroland Dorceus, the team’s top returning rusher, appears healthy and ready to take on more of the workload; He only had two carries against Louisiana-Monroe because of what Norvell termed “a tweak.”
4. What impact will defensive lineman Jonathan Wilson’s first-half targeting suspension have on the Memphis defense?
Wilson was one of Memphis’ most dominant defensive linemen last season, despite being a true freshman. So his absence will be felt. But the Tigers believe they’re deeper up front this year and can help fill the void with Emmanuel Cooper, who’s taken big strides, and newcomers like freshman O’Bryan Goodson and redshirt freshman John Tate.
5. The Tigers suffered three season-ending injuries in the season opener (nose tackle Jared Gentry, linebacker Darian Porter and linebacker Jackson Dillon) and also lost wide receiver Sam Craft during training camp. Which injuries were the biggest hits and who will be expected to step up?
The injury to Dillon was huge. The coaching staff spoke all offseason about him being a potential difference-maker this year. Now, the Tigers will turn to a combination of sophomore Bryce Huff, who played some last year, and senior Shareef White. Those other defensive voids will be filled by younger players. The aforementioned Goodson and Tate will take Gentry’s spot, while I expect redshirt freshman Tim Hart and true freshman JJ Russell to help replace Porter.