Since the team’s Media Day on Aug. 1, the Tigers have been hard at work to improve their 8-6 2018 record. With 25 allotted practices before their Aug. 31 game against SEC rival Ole Miss, the team is excited to return to the practice field.
Here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned from attending the team’s fall camp.
The defense is ready to make a name for itself
For the past several seasons, when college football fans think of Memphis football, it’s Memphis’ offense. Since 2015, the team’s offense has been ranked 25th in the nation or higher. The team has been a top six-unit for the last three seasons.
All signs indicate Memphis’ offense is poised to get the lion’s share of attention this season, yet this may be the year that changes.
Last season, the Tigers ranked as the nation’s 99th defense. The team allowed an average of 447.7 yards per game. That number alone would make them easy to dismiss.
The team is making big moves this season by replacing defensive coordinator Chris Ball with former Marshall defensive coordinator Adam Fuller. Fuller has spent the last six seasons as a part of the Thundering Herd. Last season was Fullers first season as a defensive coordinator.
In his single season as their defensive coordinator, Fuller helped the unit to remain one of the nation’s best, sitting as the 30th ranked defense and allowing 351.3 yards per games, nearly 100 fewer yards than Memphis allowed.
Junior linebacker JJ Russell spoke highly of Fuller to the media and said he’s been able to to pick up the new defense easily.
“Coach [Fuller] has me playing both middle and weakside linebacker,” Russell said. “It’s been easy to adapt to, and I’m looking forward to playing a bigger role on our defense.”
The offensive line has become the most intriguing group to watch
When you lose three starters along an offensive line that helped to give your program the fourth-best running game in the nation, it’s bound to raise questions.
The departure of seniors Trevon Tate, Roger Joseph and Drew Kyser from their positions as starting left tackle, right tackle and center after their graduation raised eyebrows. The role of teaching this year’s new starters now falls onto the shoulders of Dustin Woodard and Dylan Parham.
Woodard himself has a new position to learn after moving from right guard to center to replace Drew Kyser. The 2018 second-team All-American is taking snaps in the position since springs and his coaches are noticing his work ethic.
Offensive line coach, Ryan Silverfield he has been putting extra pressure on Woodard this offseason because of his talent.
“I’m pushing him to lead us,” Silverfield said. “Every day, I challenge him and I probably push him harder than anyone because I have very high expectations for him.”
Woodard isn’t the only offensive lineman to catch the attention of the media. Obinna Eze, former four-star and the team’s fourth highest-rate recruit in history, is finally beginning to take reps with the team as left tackle. He redshirted during his freshman season and was behind Tate on the depth chart last year.
Now he seems poised to start, but Coach Silverfield reminded the media that there were no guarantees.
“We’ve put a lot of time and effort into Obinna,” Silverfield said. “We’re excited to have him out there, but he knows that he has to come out and work hard every day. This job isn’t guaranteed, so it all depends on how he progresses over the next few weeks.”
When Eze spoke to the media during Media Day, Eze echoed Silverfield’s statements and said he still was working on getting better and on adjusting to the starting role.
“The biggest adjustment for me is building chemistry with this offensive line,” Eze said. “Obviously, I’m still a new member and I just want to fit in as much as I can. I want to find out how I can fit into this line to help it be as great as we want to be.”
The roster has the most depth it’s had in the Norvell Era
Even though most starters have their positions set in stone, we all know that injuries could happen at any moment in football. That means depth is essential to have.
When speaking with Norvell at the team’s Media Day, he endorsed his team to the press and said this team was one of the deepest it’s been in his four-year tenure.
“This is the best depth that we’ve had on our team since I’ve been here,” Norvell said. “I think there’s going to be battles at just about every position for starting roles and for guys that are trying to put themselves in impactful positions.”
Defensively, their recruiting philosophy was to add as many pass rushers to the fold as they could. Last season, they had 37 sacks, with Bryce Huff leading the team with an average of 9.5.
With Huff and Jonathan Wilson, both senior defensive linemen, the team knew they had to have players who could not only replace them when they leave but have a significant impact in rotational roles.
They seem to have found that in highly-touted pass rushers, Wardalis Ducksworth, Everitt Cunningham and Kayode Oladele.
The group sticking out the most to Coach Norvell was the tight ends. With seniors Magnifico and Dykes preparing to depart from the team, it has been the underclassmen who have been stepping up the most.
“I am extremely excited by what we’ve been seeing from our tight ends,” Norvell said. “They have had incredible offseasons and if they can continue that into the regular season, they can be really special for us.”