This could be a breakthrough season for coach Tommy West and the Memphis Tigers. Just look at what transpired last year as evidence of this potentiality. The Tigers not only defeated Southern Mississippi midseason but also found their QB of the future over the season's last five weeks.
Sophomore QB Danny Wimprine emerged last year as one of the bright young signal callers in college football.
A strong-armed and confident youngster, Wimprine tossed 14 TDs with just four interceptions as a freshman. He did a remarkable job of staying away from the big mistake, even with his inexperience. In just five starts, he threw for a Memphis freshman record 1,329 yards. Over the final three weeks of last season, with Wimprine at the helm, the Tigers averaged nearly 35 points per game against Tennessee (28), Army (42) and Cincinnati (34).
In the backfield, bruising senior Dante Brown rushed for more than 900 yards in nine games in 2001, averaging nearly 5 yards per carry and scoring 11 TDs. Expect Brown to average about 20 carries per game this season. Highly regarded freshman DeAngelo Williams(5-10, 205) will provide a change of pace behind Brown while looking to make his mark as the Tigers' featured back of the future.
Wimprine has plenty of options at wide receiver. This group is equipped with more impressive physical skills than in recent years. All check in at 6 feet or taller: Sophomore Darron White (6-0), junior Antoine Harden (6-2), senior Travis Anglin (6-3½), juco transfer Tavares Gideon (6-4) and freshman Mario Pratcher (6-4).
Anglin, a converted QB, adapted extremely well to the position change in the spring, hauling in a number of long receptions with his sub 4.40 speed. White, a former prep tailback, had more than 400 receiving yards as a freshman last season, while Harden caught 31 passes for a whopping 19.0 yard average and four TDs. Gideon, whose cousin Sherrod was a standout at Southern Mississippi, has a great deal of promise, while the physically talented Pratcher excelled as a hurdler at the prep level.
Senior TE Jeff Cameron is a capable performer, and three starters return on the offensive line, led by senior center Jimond Pugh and senior RT Wade Smith.
On the defensive side, there are some holes to fill at linebacker and at strong safety. SS Glenn Sumter decided to leave the Tigers after his junior campaign last season. In 2001, Sumter led Conference USA with six interceptions and was second in the league with 137 tackles (90 solo).
The Tigers also will be without the services of junior DT Albert Means this season. However, Means is enrolled in summer school, with the hope that he will redshirt this year and retain two years of eligibility with the Tigers.
The key up front will be whether top-flight freshman Willie Henderson (6-6, 280) can seize control at one defensive-end spot, which would allow senior Tony Brown to shift inside to tackle. Last year, Brown led the Tigers with seven sacks, and his 69 tackles were fourth on the team.
Junior LB Greg Harper had a productive 2001 season, with 73 tackles (third on team, including 13 behind the line of scrimmage). Junior Derrick Ballard is shifting from outside linebacker to a rover spot in the Tigers' scheme. Ballard will be joined in the secondary by experienced CBs Jason Brown and Anthony Harden, who combined last year for three interceptions and 14 pass breakups.
West enters his second year as Memphis head coach after working as the Tigers' defensive coordinator in 2000 (last season the Tigers went 5-6). West is improving the skill-position talent and hopes to build on the momentum of late last season when the offense really began to click. The key entity now (and in the future) is QB Wimprine. He's a true leader, possesses a super-quick release and plays a smart game. The sky is the limit for such a talented young signal caller.
West landed impressive freshman RB Williams to go with underrated senior Brown. Plus, the Tigers have five physically imposing wide receivers; it will be fun to chart the progress of Anglin, a converted QB with the frame and vertical stretch ability to provide quite a boost. Expect the Tigers' offense to go with a one-back, spread look featuring four wideouts to create matchup problems for opponents. Wimprine's passing skills will be front and center the entire way. While not a superior unit, the veteran offensive line should solid, with five senior starters.
Defensively, Brown is one of the elite linemen in Conference USA, while Henderson is a physically gifted freshman who could have an immediate impact. Considered the top recruit in Tennessee, Henderson's signing was a recruiting coup for West and his staff. Without Sumter pacing the deep patrol, the Tigers will need Ballard to make the smooth transition to a rover spot.
Last year, the Tigers' defense allowed 30-plus points in six games, so improvement is needed. While the D doesn't figure to be upgraded significantly, I expect the multidimensional and potent offense to outscore opponents when a shootout presents itself. Memphis will prove to be an underrated, dangerous foe -- and I expect the Tigers to qualify for a postseason bowl.