Three Thoughts on Tiger Football


• Jackie Smith was a Hall of Fame tight end with the St. Louis Cardinals. Over 16 NFL seasons, he caught 480 passes and was named All-Pro five times. But it was a pass Smith dropped at the end of his one season with the Dallas Cowboys — in the end zone, late in Super Bowl XIII — that sportswriters tend to bring up four decades later. It's unfair, but such is the weight of playmakers in the sport of football.
Calvin Austin in full flight. - TYLER KAUFMAN
  • Tyler Kaufman
  • Calvin Austin in full flight.

Junior receiver Calvin Austin III is the most dangerous weapon currently deployed by the Memphis Tigers.
 The speed demon from Harding Academy is 49 yards from 1,000 for the season (he's averaged more than 100 per game). He leads the Tigers with nine touchdowns, his latest coming on a 59-yard pass from Brady White in the first quarter of last Saturday's game at Tulane. But alas, Austin dropped a pair of passes that would have been touchdowns, deflating drives that, had they produced 14 more points, would have changed a game the Tigers lost by precisely that total. Memphis wouldn't be 6-3 without Austin, but they might be 7-2 had his hands been a little stickier in New Orleans. It's an unfair assessment. Individuals don't lose games; teams lose games. But such is the weight of playmakers in the sport of football. Look for Austin to take a star turn this Saturday against Houston.

• The recent revolution in Tiger football was led by coaches Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell. Each departed after four seasons for the greener pastures of the Atlantic Coast Conference. How are things at Virginia Tech and Florida State? The Hokies are 4-6, not the kind of mark envisioned for year five of the Fuente era, particularly after Virginia Tech went 10-4 and played for the ACC championship upon the coach's arrival in 2016. (The Hokies are 37-26 since Fuente took over.)

As for Florida State, it's uglier. The Seminoles are 2-6 and will suffer a third straight losing season (their first under Norvell's watch). The program is essentially the inverse of Memphis, once so mighty a 10-win season was the starting point for discussions of championship dreams. Now Florida State is staring up at North Carolina State and Wake Forest in its division of the ACC. Deep breaths, Coach Norvell.

Fuente and Norvell will forever be heroes in these parts. And they're in a different tax bracket, having taken jobs at "Power Five" schools with much larger recruiting tools with which to play. But I wonder if either has been as happy as we saw them when they each raised a trophy at the Liberty Bowl to celebrate an American Athletic Conference title. Sports are funny that way. Happiness and success don't necessarily go hand in hand.

Since joining the AAC in 2013, the Tigers have only had one defensive back earn first-team all-conference honors (Bobby McCain in 2014). Look for Quindell Johnson to make it two this season. The sophomore safety intercepted a pass and forced a fumble for the second straight game at Tulane. He leads the Tigers with 50 solo tackles (fourth in the AAC and 12 more than any of his teammates). He's a game-changer, the kind of player on the defensive side of the ball who elevates the heart rate of opponents and captures the eye of NFL scouts. Just ask McCain, currently starting at safety in his sixth season with the Miami Dolphins.

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