Top 5 to watch Memphis Defense
1. MLB Charles Harris (6-2, 235, So.): Harris had a solid freshman season, totaling 33 tackles as a reserve in Memphis' now forgotten two linebacker system. This year the Tigers are back to a traditional 4-3 scheme and Harris has claimed the starting MLB position and held on to it.
Through three games he leads the team in tackles with 33, which includes 1 TFL. His 11.0 stops per game ranks third among Conference USA defenders, and is tied for 15th in the country. Harris has 12 tackles in his first game as a starter against UT Martin and followed up that performance with a 13-tackle game against Arkansas State.
Harris is well known to the Duke coaching staff who recruited him briefly as a high school senior.
2. SS Lonnie Ballentine (6-3, 215, Jr.): Was listed as a backup after the spring, but grabbed the starting position early in the preseason and hasn't let go. At 6'3 and nearly 220 pounds, Ballentine has been a help against both the run and the pass. He's second on the team with 10.3 tackles per game, and has recorded a pair of interceptions and one pass break-up so far.
Last week he tied with Harris for the team lead in tackles, the second straight week he lead or tied for the most stops in a game. He's recorded eight or more stops in each game this year. He ranks 13th in the nation early on for interceptions.
For a Duke team that has been somewhat prone to turnovers in the past, Ballentine could present a problem. Sean Renfree has thrown five TDs this year, but he's also been picked off three times - each coming when the opposition has gotten pressure applied. That may not be a problem this week as the Tigers have yet to record a sack through three games. If they cannot get to Renfree early on, it's likely the Duke passing game will pick apart the Tigers, which will help neutralize the big play threats like Ballentine.
3. OLB Akeem Davis (6-1, 200, Sr.): is one of 117 college football players to be nominated for the 2012 Allstate American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team along with Duke's Renfree. The award recognizes significant contributions to volunteerism and community service made by college football student-athletes across the nation. Davis is a graduate student who has already completed a degree in finance.
On the field he's been effective, helping the defense improve against the run from a year ago. Davis is averaging 6.3 stops per game, and leads the team with two forced fumbles. For most of his career, Davis has excelled in coverage, recording seven pass breakups in 25 games. He teams with Anthony Brown to form a productive linebacking group with Harris. Brown and Davis have combined for 43 stops in three contests. 4. NT Terry Redden (6-2, 285, So.): As noted above, the Tigers lost a lot of talent on the interior of their defensive line with both 2011 starters now playing for pay on Sundays in the NFL. The primary replacement has been Redden, a sophomore who played in just two games a season ago.
Without much experience, Redden is playing on a steep learning curve, but has been relatively productive. He's leading the team in tackles for loss with 3.5, and has nearly doubled last year's production with 9 tackles.
Of course, as noted above, the Tigers have had loads of trouble pressuring the opposing quarterbacks through three games. Things haven't been much better when it comes to the interior line stuffing the run either. Opponents are averaging 264.0 yards per game on the ground - something that neither Redden or his primary backup, and sometimes line- mate, NT Johnnie Farms have been able to cure. For a Duke team that has struggled to top the 100 yard mark on the ground in the first three games, it's an open invitation to attempt to run the ball - something the Memphis coaches are well aware of:
"Duke provides many challenges for us," said Fuente. "The fact of the matter is they're going to be a big, physical unit. We'll try to capitalize on some advantages we have or may not have. We'll definitely have to do everything we can to match the physicality of the game."
Matching that physicality will start up front with Redden.
5. P Tom Hornsey (6-4, 215, Jr.): As noted in our look at the five players on offense to note for Memphis, when a team is struggling to win, it's imperative to have a reliable special teams unit. On offense, the Tigers haven't had the needed consistency with their place-kicker, but they have enjoyed a great start to 2012 from their punter, Hornsey.
He's punted 14 times in three games for an average of 45.0 yards per kick. This includes a 63 yard long attempt. Included in his average are five attempts of more than 50 yards.
It's not just an ability to knock the ball long either, Hornsey is accurate and has showcased that trait by pinning opponents inside the 20 yard line on 10 of his 14 attempts this season. Against Arkansas State, Hornsey punted a total of eight times for a 46.8 yard average. Seven of the punts were downed inside the Red Wolves' 20 including four inside the 10. For his efforts, Hornsey was named the National Punter of the Week by the College Football Performance Awards.
As a team, the Tigers' 45.64 net punting averaging ranks fourth nationally.