My favorite moment of every Tiger football season doesn't involve the pigskin. It's the line of senior players — with their families — across the Liberty Bowl field before kickoff of the season's final home game. We've reached an age where the notion of a senior college athlete is almost quaint. "What's wrong with him? Why isn't he a pro by now?"
That's silly, of course. The vast majority of college football seniors will play their final game in shoulder pads on Senior Day. For most, it's the end of a youth devoted to practices, weight rooms, film study, and training tables. And it's the last day they'll be "one of the guys" as defined in locker rooms from the lowest level of Division III right up to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. So here's to the 21 Tigers we'll salute Friday afternoon before the Houston game.
It takes a special kind of athlete — a special kind of person — to button your chinstrap every day knowing your name won't be heard on the p.a. system come Saturday. Whether it's taking hits or delivering them as a member of the scout team, these players shape the units we see in game action. And they're often the players sprinting downfield on special-teams units, establishing field position and exposing themselves to some of the sport's most violent hits. Among this year's seniors who played behind-the-scenes roles: wide receiver Drew Bishop
(from St. George's Independent School), defensive lineman Latarius Brady
(East High School), linebacker Lenard Harden
(Ridgeway), defensive back Deandre Jordan
, punter Evan Michael
(Christian Brothers), long-snapper Trevor Morgan
, defensive back Tye Northern
, defensive back Jahmahl Pardner
, quarterback Jason Stewart
(two touchdown passes in relief of Riley Ferguson to help beat Cincinnati last Friday), and running back Tearris Wallace
U of M Athletics
When B.J. Ross
crumpled to the Liberty Bowl turf after taking a hit on the opening kickoff of the USF game (November 12th), we had the scariest moment of the 2016 season. After several minutes on the field, the Melbourne, Florida, native was taken off the field on a stretcher, directly to a local hospital. We received news in the press box around halftime that Ross was moving his limbs and appeared to be stabilized, a full recovery to be expected. The Tigers' loss that night was hard to take . . . until you thought of Ross on that stretcher. He'll leave the program as a reminder of just how tough football players must be to survive this brutal sport.
(Central Baptist) took over at right tackle in the Navy game after starting the first two games of the season at left guard. He's helped pave the way for a Tiger offense that is only the fourth in program history to score 400 points in a season. (He also has the best beard the U of M has seen in years.) Tight end Daniel Montiel
had the daunting task of succeeding Alan Cross (now with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers). He's started every game, caught 25 passes and scored three touchdowns. Wideout Daniel Hurd
(Wooddale) has been a regular part of the receiving corps, averaging 12.4 yards on 16 catches.
Six seniors have played major roles for the Tiger defense. Lineman DeMarco Montgomery
has been a regular starter after not starting a single game as a junior. Defensive back Dontrell Nelson
(Olive Branch) has battled injuries this year, but intercepted at least one pass each of the last three seasons. Cornerback Chauncey Lanier
has been a regular starter each of the last two seasons and had an interception in this year's win over Temple.
Nose tackle Donald Pennington
, safety Chris Morley
, and cornerback Arthur Maulet
have started every game this season. Pennington and Morley have played in at least 10 games four straight seasons. Maulet has had two interceptions, a sack, and forced two fumbles this year alone.
Whether or not he wins the Lou Groza Award, Jake Elliott
has left his mark as the greatest kicker in Memphis Tiger history. With a powerful right leg and mental strength honed as a competitive tennis player, Elliott passed the great Stephen Gostkowski atop the Tiger record charts for scoring (426 points) and field goals (78). He's drilled no fewer than 10 field goals from beyond 50 yards. (Elliott's 56-yarder against USF as a freshman is the longest in Memphis history.) And Elliott has been clutch. His game-winner at Temple in 2014 gave the Tigers a third consecutive win in a streak that would eventually reach 15 games. And in the Miami Beach Bowl that same season, Elliott connected from 54 yards (the second-longest in Tiger history) to extend overtime in a game Memphis would win to earn the program's first year-end Top 25 selection. He has twice been named Special Teams Player of the Year in the AAC. With a third straight 100-point season, there's no reason to believe Elliott won't take home the hardware a third time.
The best tribute for members of this senior class, of course, is their being together for the most wins over a three-year stretch (26) in Memphis football history.