Here's a challenge for Memphis Tiger football fans: Find a preview or season breakdown of the 2006 U of M squad that doesn't mention DeAngelo Williams. (Oops.)
Life at the Liberty Bowl, A.D., began Saturday night with the Tigers' 33-14 victory over the Division I-AA Mocs of Chattanooga. Reflections of last year's All-America still fresh in its collective memory, Tiger Nation has been forced to mentally reboot for a team that appears will share starring roles like a country buffet -- a variety of tasty morsels to choose from and plenty on the table for second helpings.
In the season opener at Ole Miss, 10 Tigers caught passes from Martin Hankins in his debut at quarterback for Memphis, and no fewer than 20 U of M defenders made tackles. Saturday night at home, 12 players pulled down at least one reception and 24 Tigers were in on defensive stops. Head coach Tommy West stressed all summer that when a team loses a star, it often requires several players to fill the void. Just how many Tigers are in line for such duty?
You can start with the new tailback, Joe Doss. The junior from Melrose High won't gain half the career yardage his predecessor accumulated, but he appears to be the kind of runner a coach loves: a chain mover. While unlikely to break many 50-yarders, Doss is a regular threat for 10 to 20 and a safe option on third and short. Limited to six carries Saturday night by a mild ankle injury -- he'll be in the starting lineup this weekend at East Carolina -- Doss gave way to junior Jamarcus Gaither. The pride of Frayser High averaged almost five yards on his 10 carries and reached paydirt twice.
Sharing the backfield with Doss and Gaither, of course, is Hankins, the signal-calling transfer who threw for 294 yards against the Mocs yet was described by his coach after the game as being "slightly out of rhythm." There have been days at the U of M when 294 passing yards would have been worth a game ball and a discount on the next week's wind sprints. For such a total to be delivered on an off day? No quarterback controversy in these parts.
Considering the number of targets emerging for Hankins, the Tigers will force teams to rethink Chattanooga's eight-in-the-box defensive scheme. From the size of Carlos Singleton (6'8") to the experience of Ryan Scott (73 career receptions), Memphis sends a bevy of threats downfield, and you have to love the chants of "Duuuuuuuuke" every time freshman Duke Calhoun comes down with the pigskin (109 yards against the Mocs). If Hankins develops to West's liking, the Tigers may just have a pass-first offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, three-time all-conference pick Wesley Smith has already earned his laurels, but fellow defensive back and senior Brandon McDonald appears to be a difference maker himself. In addition to picking off an Antonio Miller pass and returning it 30 yards to set up a second-quarter touchdown, McDonald averaged about 10 yards on his four punt returns -- music to the ears of coaches who cherish field position. "[McDonald] probably gave us more energy than anyone on the field," reflected West. "The interception before the half was huge."
If there was a former Tiger conspicuously missed last weekend, it had to be kicker Stephen Gostkowski (now cashing paychecks signed by the New England Patriots). Sophomore Trey Adams missed a pair of field-goal attempts and a point-after against the Mocs, leading to a frank reflection from West during his postgame comments: "I thought we needed to send him right back out there [for what would be a successful attempt]," said West. "Either you're gonna be our kicker or you're fixing to be fired right now."
Kicking concerns aside, the U of M's first win sans DeAngelo seems to have expanded the stage for the season ahead. Tiger fans will simply have to grow accustomed to the relative luxury of cheering an ensemble cast.