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The Best Defense?

The U of M defense has dominated in practice. Can they do it for real again this season?



Athletes like superlatives. They can define a career: most points scored, most touchdowns, most tackles. Though such accomplishments can take a career to create, the process starts game by game, by making each outing the best of the season.

The 2000 home opener for the University of Memphis football team against Mississippi State was one of superlatives for both teams. The Tigers held the Bulldogs to season lows in first downs (7), rushing yards (45 yards), pass attempts (20), pass receptions (10), net yardage (82 yards), and overall offensive output (127 yards).

MSU held the Tigers to a season-low three points, allowed the fewest pass completions by an opponent in 2000 (10), forced a season-high five opponent fumbles, collected a season-high three fumbles, and converted two of those fumbles to touchdowns as the Tigers helpfully lost the ball on their own 25-yard line and six-yard line. And the three points the Tigers scored were the fewest scored by any MSU opponent in 2000.

The Tigers dominated the Bulldogs defensively unlike any other team in 2000. The Bulldogs dominated the Tigers defensively, also unlike any other team they played in 2000. But despite this parity, the Tigers scored three points; the Bulldogs scored 17. Welcome to University of Memphis football. Here's a question for new head coach Tommy West: What difference will a year make?

If you watch this year's Tiger offense practice against their own defense, the answer appears to be: not one heck of a lot. Sure there is a new offensive set, one with no huddle and lots of receivers. But the same players who achieved the second-worst passing and rushing stats in Conference USA in 2000 return, without any notable step-ups in talent. It doesn't help that they have to learn the new offense against the nationally ranked Tiger defense.

Truthfully, it probably won't matter what offense the Tigers put on the field. This first West-coached team will still rely heavily on its defense. Attending a U of M practice makes it apparent: The offense is going to have to struggle along and try to improve as the season unfolds.

Despite losing nose tackle Marcus Bell, defensive tackle Calvin Jones, end Andre Arnold, tackle Jarvis Slaton, and linebacker Kamal Shakir to graduation, this team is loaded defensively and easily picks apart the new offense. West has said publicly that this isn't surprising, since the defense has played this offense repeatedly and knows it well.

That's true, but as the early morning dragonflies buzz incessantly, zig-zagging the open practice field like defensive backs covering a receiver's route, the blue-shirted Tiger defense swarms the white-shirted offense again and again, making the players and the plays look bad. Worse, the constant whipping is taking its toll on the squad. While defensive players scream at each other, chatter on and off the field, and make good-natured comments toward the white jerseys (read: talk serious smack), the offense quietly watches (or looks away) as ball after ball is dropped or as play after play is buried by a mountain of blue. While the defense celebrates, the offense looks as if it were down by 30 points with three minutes left in the game.

It was so bad that West called additional practices last weekend. West, of course, is diplomatic about it. "I don't know if you are ever where you want to be after training camp," he says. "But I think we made progress." And that's a good thing. Then again, it's a whole new offense, so just learning the plays counts as progress.

Tiger senior linebacker DeMorrio Shank says he understands the reason for the extra time. "We needed a little more work," he says. "The more work, the better." But aside from that, is the offense really improving? "It's definitely a difference," Shank says. "Hopefully we will rub off on the offense a little more by the end of the season." You would think just by playing against one of the best defenses in the country day after day, the offense would get better, right? "It's got to prepare them," Shank agrees.

But here's an analogy. Take a person with an ugly face. Now bash that person's face into a brick wall for a couple of hours. Is that person prettier than before?

The point is that even though the offensive system and the offensive coordinator and the head coach are brand-new, this defense isn't going to let anyone see the light of day on its watch. That's the problem the offense has had during training camp.

Like a heavy and reliable blanket, the defense will suffocate whoever tries to score. Shank says that while the defense might have been nicer in the spring, the fall is something different. "It had to change sometime," he says. "Everybody comes in, everybody wants to be close, everybody wants to be good. But we have to think about winning. We don't want just to be close. We want to win these games."

Shank and the rest of the Tiger defense know that this team lost to four teams by less than four points in 2000, including national powerhouse Tennessee. They know that with a strong nucleus returning that they can compete with anyone. But only if the new offense can play ball.

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