Marshall Opponents: Game 5, Memphis Tigers

This is a preview of the Marshall Thundering Herd's upcoming football opponent, from our friends in the Network at ( Memphis is the fifth game of the Herd's season, a Tuesday night game in the land of Elvis and Beale Street on ESPN2, and head coach Tommy West is trying to rebound his Tigers from a down year. They will play three times in 11 days.

That's because Memphis had a game that was suspended before kickoff in week two at Arkansas State, a team that upset the Tigers last season. Thus, they lost at UCF to open Conference USA play, 59-20, in a game coach Tommy West called, "not what we needed coming into this stretch. It was humid and it was physical." They play Ark. State on Thursday in Jonesboro, then host the Herd on Tuesday, five days later, so it will be three games in 11 days and two games in fives days on either end.

The Tigers' streak of three straight seasons with a bowl game ended with a thud in 2006. The program lost ten games for the first time in two decades setting off a major turnover in staff that has just four of nine assistants back for 2007. With all the new faces, there could be a few rough spots early, but it's not as if the program wasn't ready for an infusion of new blood. One of the constants in Memphis is Tommy West, who's back for his seventh season as the head coach and determined to make last year a speed bump instead of the beginning of a trend. He's hired coordinators that match his philosophy in order to maintain continuity and scoured the junior college ranks to find immediate help and a talent upgrade. The greatest need areas are along the offensive line, which loses veteran Blake Butler, and in a depleted secondary that'll be without quality starters Wesley Smith, Brandon McDonald and Dustin Lopez.

Team Information
Head coach: Tommy West
7th year: 35-40 (current through UCF game)
13th year overall: 69-73
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 26, Def. 20, Sp. Teams 1
Lettermen Lost: 24

Ten Best Players
1. RB Joseph Doss, Sr. (currently injured)
2. QB Martin Hankins, Sr.
3. OT Brandon Pearce, Jr.
4. LB Greg Jackson, Jr.
5. WR Duke Calhoun, Soph.
6. LB Tommy Phelps, Jr.
7. DT Freddie Barnett, Jr.
8. LB Jake Casser, Sr.
9. LB Quinton McCrary, Sr.
10. DE Josh Weaver, Soph.

2007 Schedule
Sept. 1 Ole Miss Lost 21-23
Sept. 15 Jacksonville State Won 35-14
Sept. 22 at UCF Lost 20-59
Sept. 27 at Arkansas State (make up of game suspended before kickoff because of lightning)
Oct. 2 Marshall
Oct. 13 Middle Tennessee
Oct. 20 at Rice
Oct. 27 at Tulane
Nov. 3 East Carolina
Nov. 10 at Southern Miss
Nov. 17 UAB
Nov. 24 SMU

Memphis QB Martin Hankins (13) had one shot at C.J. Spillman, but couldn't make the tackle. Spillman intercepted Hankins and returned the pick 85 yards for a score in the fourth quarter of Marshall's 41-27 win over the Tigers in 2006. photos by Greg Perry/HI staff

If the Tigers are to bounce back in 2007, the recovery will likely be paved by an offense that has the ingredients of being in the upper half of Conference USA, especially if the running game is a bigger factor. Last year, Memphis worked in seven new starters, but now all of those rookies are experienced, including quarterback Martin Hankins and five of his top six receivers. Beyond the depth chart and Xs and Os, Memphis needs to learn how to win close games, going 0-5 last year in games decided by a touchdown or less. It also has to prove it can win without star back DeAngelo Williams, the catalyst during that prosperous three-year run. After going 2-10, the only way is up for the Tigers, but the height of the ceiling will depend on a slew of newcomers, both on the field and on the sidelines.

What to watch for on offense: New coordinator Clay Helton was promoted from receivers coach, so there'll be a smooth transition and a flatter learning curve for the holdovers. He inherits a group with potential, headed by Hankins, who debuted with 18 touchdowns and 2,550 yards, but has to improve his consistency and cut down on mistakes. The Tigers got pushed around last year, which puts the onus on the offensive line to become more physical, while creating holes for shifty Joseph Doss. Duke Calhoun is a prototypical Memphis receiver, big, fast and ready to blossom into one of the league's stars.

What to watch for on defense: New coordinator Rick Kravitz will install an attacking defense that takes chances and uses a four-man front, which means he's a disciple of West's defensive philosophy. The unit was awful last year, tackling poorly and allowing more than 30 points and 400 yards a game. To improve, Kravitz needs to get sacks from more than just end Greg Terrell, while turning Greg Jackson into a disruptive playmaker from outside linebacker. Without pressure, the inexperienced secondary will be easy pickings for the league's quarterbacks.

The team will be far better if: Doss develops into the league's top rusher. He has that potential if the line cooperates and keeps him from taking his first contact behind the line of scrimmage. With Doss as a threat, the passing game will open up and the Tigers will have a 30-point a game offense capable of pulling out the barnburners.

The Schedule: The potential is there for a quick turnaround with a pillow-soft non-conference schedule with only one game, the opener against Ole Miss, that'll likely be a loss. Getting Southern Miss on the road might make winning the East tough, but missing Houston and Tulsa from the West is a big help. Playing three home games in November should make a winning season all but certain if the wheels don't fall off like last year.

Best Offensive Player: Senior RB Joseph Doss. While he's not DeAngelo Williams, Doss is an ultra-quick, surprisingly tough back who can crank out yards in chunks when he gets into a groove. He was a big disappointment last season, mostly because the line struggled so much, but if he gets room and the offense starts to revolve around him, he should come up with a 1,000-yard season after running for 910 last year.

Best Defensive Player: Junior LB Greg Jackson. The team's best defensive player could change by the day. End Greg Terrell and linebacker Quinton McCrary were the two top returning defenders, but they were relegated to backup roles after spring ball. The 6-2, 205-pound Jackson is an active playmaker on the outside with the speed to grow into an even bigger overall defender.

Key player to a successful season: Junior CB Dontae Reed and Senior CB LaKeitharun Ford. The defense that was so lousy last year gets enough talent back on the front seven, and enough depth, to hope for a big turnaround. Any hope of improving rests on the new starting corners, who have to make more plays than last year's tandem and have to be consistent from day one.

The season will be a success if: Memphis goes back to a bowl game. It shouldn't take too much to get back to a big season after losing four games by three points or fewer. The experience is in place, the talent is there, and there's a new energy, albeit a nervous buzz, from all the new coaches. Seven wins, better play from the defense, and a fourth post-season appearance in five years are attainable goals.

Key game: Sept. 22 at UCF. The 26-24 loss to the Golden Knights late last season was more important than it might have seemed. It showed the team hadn't given up even after everything had gone wrong, and led to a near-upset over Houston the following week. This year the Tigers need to beat UCF just to be in the East race from the start. A win could mean a big run with four winnable games (Marshall, Middle Tennessee, at Rice and at Tulane) to follow.

2006 Fun Stats:
- Sacks: Memphis 17 for 108 yards – Opponents 14 for 86 yards
- Average yards per pass: Opponents 9.0 – Memphis 6.8
- Fourth down conversions: Opponents 8 of 12 (67%) – Memphis 14 of 22 (64%)

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