Philadelphia, PA – 2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: In his first season at the helm for Memphis, head coach Justin Fuente continued an upward, albeit meager, trend for the Tigers. The Tigers have improved on their win total from the previous season in each of the last two years. However that hasn't yielded tons of victories as the Tigers were just 4-8 in 2012.
The route to that record began with a 0-4 start to the campaign that included an embarrassing loss to Tennessee-Martin (20-17) and routs at the hands of Middle Tennessee (48-30) and at Duke (38-14). Memphis finally got in the win column with a 14-10 win over Rice but then lost another four straight. The season ended on a high note for the Tigers who won their final three games by an average of 23 points per game.
Still the 4-8 finish was obviously not a rousing success though it was the program's best record since 2008, which coincidentally was the last time the Tigers earned a bowl bid.
OFFENSE: Though he did not exactly rack up huge totals in terms of passing, Jacob Karam provided stability and solid play at the quarterback position for the Tigers last season. The former Texas Tech signal caller was especially effective during the final three games when he completed 40-of-52 pass attempts, tossing seven touchdowns and just a single interception. In all Karam made good choices, completing 64.2 percent of his attempts for 1,895 yards with 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Karam is the starter to begin the season, but backup Eric Mathews could get some time with his ability to run the ball, while redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch looks to be the future.
Memphis did run the ball well last season and both of their most productive backs will return. Jai Steib (427 yards, 6 TDs) was as solid as they come while Brandon Hayes (576 yards, 6 TDs) showed more signs of a potential breakthrough. While averaging a healthy 4.9 yards per carry, Hayes notched a pair of 100 yards games in the last two contests of the season.
The receiving corps isn't lined with a ton of talent. Former Clemson receiver Joe Craig, who was dismissed from Clemson for an arrest on charges of domestic violence, will be making his debut with the Tigers. Keiwone Malone (44 receptions, 476 yards) is the only other wide receiver on the team to return with at least 10 receptions and 200 yards. Tight end Alan Cross (23 receptions, 301 yards, 5 TDs) has sure hands and will be utilized in the passing game, especially in the red zone.
Jordan Devey and his all-conference honors are gone from the offensive line leaving guard Chris Schuetz, tackle Al Bond and center Antonio Foster as the only returning starters. Taking the other spots will be sophomore Taylor Fallin and Micah Simmons.
"Our challenge as coaches are offensively to get our young kids to play older than they are; defensively, get our old kids to play their age and play together," Fuente said. "And that's our focus, and we'll go put a productive unit out there.
DEFENSE: Barry Odom instilled a lot of confidence in the defense last season as he went from a Missouri assistant to the Tigers' defensive coordinator. Memphis ranked third in Conference USA and was among the 50 best schools in the country in terms of total defense (383.6 ypg).
Memphis was particularly strong in creating negative plays for opposing offenses, ranking third in C-USA in sacks (29.0) and tying for fourth in tackles for loss (78.0). Leading the way in both of those areas was defensive end Martin Ifedi. The junior will be back on the edge again this season to anchor a proven defensive line. Ifedi racked up 11.0 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season and will be joined by fellow starters Corey Jones (6.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks) and Terry Redden (6.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) up front.
The Tigers' also bring back a number consistent contributors at linebacker. Charles Harris was the team's leading tackler last season with 79 stops, while Anthony Brown (71 tackles) was right behind him. Junior college transfer Ryan Coleman and sophomore Wynton McManis add further depth in this area.
The Tigers didn't create a ton of turnovers last season but one player that showed a knack for tracking the ball was Lonnie Ballentine. The safety is back for his senior season after he recorded team highs with three interceptions and eight passes defended last season. Cornerback Bobby McCain had 36 tackles and is the most veteran member of the secondary outside of Ballentine.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game will be taken over by a new face with freshman Jake Elliot handling the place kicking. The punting situation is in much less turmoil as Tom Hornsey will be in his third season as the full-time punter. Hornsey averaged 43.4 yards per punt a year ago.
In terms of the return game the Tigers are in good hands with McCain (25.8 yards per return) handling kickoffs and Malone (11.9 yards per return) holding down the spot in punt formations.
OUTLOOK: Like most teams that are in transition to a new conference it may take a year or two for Memphis to get its bearings. However, Fuente seems to have this team headed in the right direction and the 2013 roster has a number of players with potential.
"We're just solely focused on ourselves," Fuente said about the expectations for his team. "We made large strides last year. We'll make large strides this year. Where it all ends up, I don't know."
Memphis will begin the season with three non-conference bouts against Duke, at Middle Tennessee and against Arkansas State. The Tigers lost to all three of those squads a year ago. The Tigers' first three games in AAC play are against former C-USA rivals UCF, Houston and SMU. The first real taste of the new league will be a tough one as the Tigers play Cincinnati at the end of October. After that Memphis takes a break to face non-conference foe Tennessee-Martin before playing three of its final four games on the road.
The Tigers recent streak of improving records may be put on hold this season with some tougher teams on the schedule. A bowl game might be out of reach but just keeping the ship steady may be considered a success, albeit a minor one.