Somehow, some way, University of Memphis football managed to steal a week in February from University of Memphis basketball. Tubby Smith's squad merely split a pair of games in Florida last week. At least in terms measured by the likes of Rivals.com and 247 Sports, second-year Tiger football coach Mike Norvell has secured the finest recruiting class in the program's history (or at least as far back as rankings history goes). And this is a very big deal if you like fall Saturdays at the Liberty Bowl. For it can be said that the finest college football programs have two things in common: a big day in January (at a bowl game) and a big day in early February.
When Memphis opens its season on September 2nd against UL-Monroe, count on true-freshman Obinna Eze
being among the five starting offensive linemen. You could well see two more fresh-out-of-high-school players in the starting lineup: receiver Nick Robinson
and cornerback T.J. Carter
. Each of these young men enters the program as four-star recruits (out of a magic five), and such sought-after talent does not arrive on campus with room for a redshirt in the locker.
True freshmen play major college football under one of two circumstances: the team's roster is so thin, they're forced onto the field . . . or they are exceptionally talented. We've seen plenty of the former scenario over the years with the U of M program. (Remember when Larry Porter didn't have a full allotment of scholarship players?) But the latter — exceptional talent — is something to anticipate.
It's a good time to remember that quarterback Paxton Lynch was redshirted before growing into a first-round NFL draft pick. Anthony Miller redshirted before becoming the most prolific single-season receiver in Tiger history. Neither was a three-star recruit, to say nothing of four. And Memphis has three of the four-star studs on the way.
A select few college football programs (the haves) are magnets: the top recruits in the country actively seek membership in their annual campaigns for league and national championships. Most college football programs (the have-nots) are fishermen: they cast lines hither and yon, hoping for a nibble from top recruits, settling for smaller fish more often than not.
The Memphis program is hardly a magnet. Not yet. Many more wins and a few league championships must be secured before remotely considering such status in these parts. But Norvell has landed at least three players who would have been welcome on most SEC and Big 10 campuses, three members of a class considered by some to be the best of any program outside the "Power Five" leagues. Add them to a team led by Miller and a quarterback (Riley Ferguson) who threw more touchdown passes as a junior than Lynch did as a senior, and you have as many reasons for optimism as Memphis football could count in a generation or two.
It's early February. An over-achieving basketball team under the guidance of a wise, accomplished coach is worth supporting. Twenty wins and postseason play (if only the NIT) are possibilities. As March Madness approaches, though, consider the strides taken last week by the Tiger football program significant, and in the direction of an important football game — someday soon — in early January.