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Q & A with Justin Fuente: the season so far

<p>Memphis coach Justin Fuente after the Tigers defeated Missouri State in the season opener.&nbsp;</p>
Memphis coach Justin Fuente after the Tigers defeated Missouri State in the season opener. 

During Memphis’ bye week, The Daily Helmsman sat down with Memphis football coach Justin Fuente to discuss the first six weeks of the Tigers’ season.

DH: University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen recently signed a contract extension until 2019. How important has he been in turning around this football program?

JF: “Tom’s been great for us as a program. He understands the value of both football and basketball, and what they can do for this University. He’s been instrumental in trying everything he can to give us the tools to succeed.”

DH: The bye week for Memphis fell after five weeks this season. Is there a perfect time to have a bye week as a coach?

JF: “If coaches were just able to pick when they would want it ahead of time, (personally) I’d rather have one before a conference game than a non-conference game because we try to do our best to measure ourselves against the conference.”

“There are a lot of variables when you play non-conference games, but the bottom line is as the coach they give you the schedule and you got to make due with it the best you can. That’s fallen after five weeks, and before the Ole Miss game. We’ve got an incredible challenge not only are we playing Ole Miss, but also six days later we’re playing Tulsa, at Tulsa. That will be a short turnaround after what promises to be a pretty physical matchup. As a head coach, you can always nitpick and pick a different week to have it but it is what it is and you have to make the best of it.”

DH: You must be happy with the 2-0 start in American Athletic Conference play going into the bye week, however?

JF: “It’s nice to be 2-0 in the league. We have an incredible slate ahead of us, teams that are playing really well. The league seems to be incredibly competitive and balanced. It’s going to be very difficult for anyone to navigate either side of the two divisions. It’s nice to be 2-0 with a lot of work ahead of us.”

DH: I feel like we say this every week, but the competition level rises every week. Yes you guys are 5-0, but what do you have to work on to match the level of your upcoming opponents when the time comes?

JF: “That’s the key part for us. Understanding that we have to continue to improve. Obviously, we like where we are at, but we have some things we have to work on. We are a young defense. We got to continue to bring those players along, so that they are better players in week eight than they maybe they were in week three. We obviously worked in our bye week on defending the dropback pass, trying to get a better pass rush. Trying to do a better job of covering downfield.”

“Offensively, we’ve been working on the same thing. We’ve thrown the ball efficiently, but we’ve not been a dropback passing team, we’ve been a play action/run action type of team. We’ve worked on both of those. We also worked on defending and trying to run the football a little bit better. I think it’s been a good week, but we certainly have a lot of work to do.”

DH: What is the confidence level of the defense after their improved performance against South Florida two weeks ago?

JF: “I think they feel better. The bottom line is when the games have been on the line they’ve come through, and made the plays necessary for us to win games. I think they’ve drawn confidence from that. I think Galen Scott (defensive coordinator) has done a fantastic job of keeping those guys levelheaded and keeping them working hard. Understanding that they have to find a way to continue to get better. I’m not worried. I think their confidence level is good and they understand what they need to do to get better.”

DH: The team, as a whole, has shown a resiliency in the early part of the season. Is that from last year’s team, this year’s or a combination of both?

JF: “I think it’s probably similar (to last year). I think that group last year was a resilient group. They went on the road to UCLA played a really tough hard-nosed game and were really legitimately disappointed they didn’t win. Everybody else was happy that it was close, but our kids were really disappointed they didn’t win the game. But they found a way to bounce back time after time. I like the way our kids haven’t panicked. My message to them is we’ve got to find a way to play with more intelligence early in the game. Not playing hard, smart and tough early in the game. We are finding a way to do it late, but I like for us to start off a little better.”

DH: Is there anything you can say to them to change that?

JF: “Sometimes they get so excited. They don’t stop and think part of that is immaturity. Part of that is being young, and we need to fix it. It’s not all going to be perfect. We’re going to play other good people, and they’re going to score. They’re going to stop us, and they’re going to make plays. Those things will happen. I just would like our overall competency heading into games to be a little bit higher.”

DH: What do you guys have to do to get the running game going again, because the last two games have been a bit of struggle in terms of running the ball well.

JF: “Well we’ve had a couple of really difficult challenges. When I looked at the film at the last two teams Cincinnati and South Florida, I felt like the strengths of their entire team was their defensive front. They have a given us a hard time running the ball, and that has opened up some things in the passing game. But we haven’t been as efficient and I think that is two-fold.”

“The quality of defensive line and linebackers we’ve played in the last two weeks and we’ve got to do a better job whether it’s through scheme or technique of getting the running game on track, because in my opinion running the ball makes everything better.”

DH: Does the early kick off for Saturday (11 a.m.) bother the team?

JF: “I don’t think it bothers us. As the head coach, from this perspective I like it because of the quick turnaround next week. It’s gonna be a physical game. It’s just a little more time to for us to relax and get our wits about us before the Tulsa week. It’s certainly a challenge. We’ve played in some of these games before, not on national television but 11:00 in the morning. It’s certainly a different rhythm to things. You don’t have all day to sit around and think about the game. You’ve got to get ready to go. You kind of wake up and eat your Wheaties, get dressed and go play.”

DH: Does the fact Memphis has played on ESPN once this season makes this week easier?

JF: “I really hope so, I don’t want to say its old hat but I know our kids will be excited to play the game. They’ll be excited to play a team as good as Ole Miss on that stage in our home stadium. I don’t think getting them excited will be an issue; it’ll be making sure they are calm enough to execute. That I will be worried about.”

Memphis coach Justin Fuente after the Tigers defeated Missouri State in the season opener. 

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