Here are five players who may ask big questions of the Duke defense at various times throughout the game.
Top 5 to watch: Memphis Offense
1. RB Brandon Hayes (5-8, 200, R-Sr.): Hayes made his season debut against the Blue Devils a season ago. Though he would play in just nine contests in 2012, the results were impressive. Hayes was the team's leading rusher, amassing 576 yards along with six touchdowns. In helping his team to three straight wins to close out the season, Hayes logged 100-plus yards in each of the final two contests. While his backfield partner, Jai Steib will look to pound the ball up the middle, Hayes is more apt to bounce to the corner and then turn on the speed. He's also a capable blocker in the run game, but isn't much of a threat as a receiver, accounting for just one catch per game a season ago. Against Duke last year, Hayes was just getting his feet wet and was handed the ball just twice. Once for a one yard gain, but the other was a 19 yard scamper off the right side. The fifth year senior will also have the benefit of pairing that flash of talent with a much more experienced offensive line this season.
2012 vs. Duke: Two carries for 20 yards
2. QB Paxton Lynch (6-6, 225, R-Fr.): Lynch is a Florida prospect that was a member of Coach Fuente's initial recruiting class after taking over the job. After redshirting a season ago, Lynch has beaten out senior Jacob Karam, a former Texas Tech transfer, for the starting gig in 2013. The Tigers' move to a new conference may have been the catalyst for the move, as Karam will graduate this year and Memphis probably isn't ready to compete in the reformed AAC. So, why not roll with your presumptive four year starter this year? Whatever the reason for the change, it is always impressive when a freshman beats out an upperclassman for a starting job. Lynch has a stronger arm than Karam, but may not be as mobile. What he will do, however, is look to thrown the ball down field to extend the defense. That's a change from last year as the Tigers weren't able to keep Duke (or most other opponents) honest. It allowed teams to load up in the box at times and slow down the Memphis offense as a whole. For all his potential upgrades in talent and ability, Lynch is a first year starter who has replaced a player that has arguably been the face of the team for several years. How will his teammates respond if and when things get tough?
3. TE Alan Cross (6-1, 245, R-So.): With a new quarterback in the fold, having reliable targets in the passing game at each level of the field will be important. Enter Cross, the third year sophomore tight end who led the team in receiving touchdowns a season ago. For most of 2013, however, Cross' time was monopolized as a sixth lineman (as Memphis attempted to figure out the run game). He was freed up later in the season and recorded three scores in the final two games - both victories. With a new quarterback looking for dump offs and easy targets in the short passing game, Cross will likely see his reception total bump up from 23 a season ago. Against Duke in 2012 he didn't factor into the passing game at all, was was targeted just once by Karam. Look for that to change on Saturday, especially if Duke is able to get pressure on Lynch early on.
2012 v. Duke: No recorded stats.
4. RB Jai Steib (5-11, 212, R-Sr.): is the more powerful of the two Memphis backs, preferring to run between the tackles and then line up a second level defender if possible. A season ago he carried the ball an average of 10 times per game, and recorded 3.6 yards per carry (427 yards on the season). This year the Tigers are looking to mix up the game plan a bit more, with an emphasis on improving the passing game. But, Steib will be an important option in balancing out the attack. He was the team's favorite red-zone runner a season ago, tying for the team lead with six rushing touchdowns. And he did it with an offensive line that was in need of improved production and depth. The Blue Devils did quite well against Steib (and the entire Memphis ground game) a season ago, limiting him to just 21 yards on seven carries. Nearly half of those yards came on a 10 yard run in the second quarter. The big break aside, Steib was able to muster just 1.8 yards per carry against the Duke defense. Most likely Memphis will start Hayes in the backfield, but Steib has proven a capable second option, and will likely be called upon when the Tigers are attempting to control the clock and hang on to the football.
2012 v. Duke: Seven carries for 21 yards.
5. WR Keiwone Malone (5-11, 155, R-Jr.): Malone certainly has some pedigree, having played at Alabama before transferring closer to home. At 5-foot-11, he's a big play threat in the passing game, but is also a capable punt returner. With the team in transition under center, and with the team losing last year's top WR option, Marcus Rucker, to the NFL there's no shortage of pressure on Malone to take his game to the next level. As the secondary option a season ago he was effective, hauling in 44 passes for 476 yards and three touchdowns. In the kick return game he returned 22 punts for an average of 261 yards (11.9/attempt) and 10 kick-offs for 180 yards (18.0/attempt). Despite his production, Malone is going to need help. He sometimes gets jammed at the line, and that's where additional targets for Lynch will help. One of those could be JUCO transfer Joe Craig, along with sophomore Tevin Jones, who caught his first career pass a season ago against Duke. Malone could very well lead the team in receptions and yards this season, but a lot will depend on whether Jones and Craig are able to help alleviate the burden by proving themselves as capable targets.
2012 v. Duke: Four receptions for 21 yards.