The University of Memphis football team is on a three-game winning streak. So what if this season's opener (September 7th, 3:30 p.m. at the Liberty Bowl against Duke) takes place 287 days after the Tigers' drubbing of Southern Miss to conclude the 2012 season? This is a program that's enjoyed a total of nine such streaks over the last 18 years. (The number of four-game winning streaks over the same period? Two.) Supporters of Memphis football will count winning streaks wherever and whenever they can find them.
Having taken over what he calls, in hindsight, a "broken group" after the 2011 season (the Tigers finished 2-10 that year under Larry Porter), head coach Justin Fuente sees indications that a philosophy emphasizing group over individual has begun to take hold and that Tiger football just may be on a path toward collective and community pride that will make three-game winning streaks seem incidental.
"It wasn't in good shape when we got here," Fuente says. "We're making progress daily in getting it straightened out. For me, it's been about the fundamental concepts of what a team is and to build those from the ground up. The kids had been through a lot. It's been enjoyable to see us display, at times, those characteristics of loyalty and trust and determination and toughness and accountability. Because there was very little of it to start with."
Fuente actually feels like an important corner was turned last November 3rd during a game at Marshall, one the Tigers would lose (and a week before the winning streak began). "We weren't playing well in the first half," Fuente recalls. "Our staff really got after the defense at halftime. But they came out and responded the wrong way; didn't play well. So I pulled them over to the sideline and basically said, enough. I don't think they believed they could win the game.
"We proceeded to make a few plays, faked a punt and ran it down to the two-yard line. Big momentum shifts. All of a sudden, we have a chance to win the game late. Now it's like, okay, we can win. I think they finally understood that they could do it, but they had to do it together. They had to put each other in front of themselves. Over the last four weeks, our team played together, got some things done, and won some ball games."
In learning his role as the man atop a rebuilding football program, Fuente has focused as much on training his players between the ears as in the weight room or on the practice field. "We let them know what they'd done in the past wasn't acceptable," he says, "but without crushing them, trying to build some self-confidence. Doing those two things at the same time was interesting. It had nothing to do with cover two or zone blitzes. That was secondary to the work we've had to do from a mental standpoint.
"My message to them is that they have to raise their level of expectations for themselves. We have humongous strides left to make. Their definition of what is good is different than mine. Just not being terrible is not what we're shooting for."
Early in his first year at the helm, Fuente recognized an eagerness for his new brand of discipline and organization. He's a list guy, charting priorities on a daily basis, while knowing no list of duties is ever complete in his line of work. "[Our players] are getting some comfort levels for where the lines are," he says. "I try to make it clear when we're at work how we interact, and when we're not at work how we interact. But those boundaries are redefined with every interaction. There really is a yearning for discipline, a yearning to be a part of something, a desire to please. The guys who didn't want to do what we asked them to do ... they're not here."
Junior cornerback Bobby McCain started nine games as a freshman under Coach Larry Porter in 2011, then started all 12 games last season. He's again a member of Fuente's leadership council, a select group of players tasked with bridging the gap between student-athletes and coaches. And he's not shy in drawing a distinction between the Tiger program before Fuente arrived and since.
"We're more of a family," McCain says. "The vibe on the team is different. You could tell things were coming together [during last year's winning streak], both offensively and defensively. [Coach Fuente] brought more discipline: going to class, nightlife. If you're not getting your grades, you're not playing. We didn't really have that before. When you're accountable to each other, you're accountable to yourself."
Adds senior center Antonio Foster, "[Coach Fuente] stressed team first. We trust the system he's brought to the table. Usually, head coaches don't really hang around the players. But he's a player's coach. He wants to know how we're doing. He's concerned about us."
The Tiger offense improved dramatically in 2012 under Fuente, averaging 318.3 yards per game (up from 274.2 in 2011). Better yet, the running game helped Memphis control the ball for lengthier, more productive drives, averaging 151.7 yards per game, almost twice the figure before Fuente's arrival (84.0).
The face of the offensive turnaround may actually be that of Foster. Five games into his first season as a Tiger, the Georgia native switched from right guard to the most demanding position on the offensive line. Which is right about when the program began a turnaround that culminated in the season-ending winning streak.
"Being a part of Coach Fuente's offense, you have to get used to the plays," Foster says. "We had a better understanding late in the season. It's a big mix [of run and pass plays]. It depends on what's working at the time. If something's going good, we'll stick with it."
Says Fuente, "There will be a young influx of skill players [on offense] who will have an opportunity to contribute, and early. We have legitimate competition now at the skill spots. Seven tailbacks, four of them freshmen and one a sophomore. Some of these young guys are going to get on the field. That's our challenge, and it's also exciting. Last year, it was just getting guys who would work hard and have a good attitude. Now, it's legitimate competition, and not just to play, but to play well."
Fuente surprised some followers of the program by naming redshirt-freshman Paxton Lynch the team's starting quarterback on August 17th, a full three weeks before the opener. If Lynch retains the job throughout the season, he'll be the seventh Tiger quarterback in seven years (dating back to Martin Hankins' final season in 2007). "I was encouraged by Paxton's development in the spring," says Fuente, who also noted the strength of Lynch's supporting cast. "Eric [Mathews] throws the ball better than anyone gives him credit for. And Jacob [Karam] was solid as well [in the spring]. The guy that makes the most plays is going to play."
Karam may not have the physical tools of the taller, faster Lynch, but his ability to control — and retain — the football is the first asset for any signal-caller. Karam threw 14 touchdown passes a year ago and only three interceptions among his 274 attempts (the fewest by a Tiger passing leader in 26 years).
Says Foster, "Paxton always has a smile on his face. But he's fast, has those long strides. And he's an accurate thrower. He'll be a great player for us."
Among Lynch's targets will be a pair of first-year speedsters — Mose Frazier and Joe Craig — and sophomore tight end Alan Cross, a candidate for all-conference honors. Tailbacks Brandon Hayes and Jai Steib (both seniors) return but will compete for playing time with sophomore Carl Harris and four freshmen.
It's on defense — particularly the defensive line — where the Tigers may prove to be most hazardous to an opponent's health. Four upperclassmen — each with at least six starts under his belt — will anchor the Memphis D: ends Corey Jones and Martin Ifedi and tackles Terry Redden and Johnnie Farms. Two more veterans will man linebacker positions: junior Charles Harris and senior Anthony Brown.
Fuente likes the familiar faces but wants to count more faces of impact on his defense, experienced or otherwise. "Bobby McCain has been really solid for us at corner," the coach says, "and Andrew Gaines has stepped up at corner. Bakari Hollier is in the mix. But we need a fourth [cornerback]. We've had three pretty good guys at safety, but we need a fourth. We're still trying to grow the team from the bottom up. We have more mature bodies on defense, but it's the guys behind them that we have to develop."
Among the mature bodies on defense is that of Harris, a graduate of Whitehaven High School who led the Tigers with 79 tackles a year ago. (Harris was named to the Tiger Academic 30 in the spring of 2012, having achieved one of the top 30 GPAs among student-athletes at the school.) Harris cites the strength of the linemen in front of him and the speed of the defensive backs behind him as components that could make this year's unit special.
"We will be one of the better-conditioned teams in the league," Harris says. "It will be a mindset thing: dominate practice. If we go as hard as we can on every play, in every practice, then we know it will carry over into games. With the effort also comes discipline. And we have to be disciplined on our side of the ball, everyone working as a unit. Trust that the next guy will do his job."
Harris is convinced the Tiger defense is gaining in an area that has been glaringly weak over recent years. "We practice fast," Harris says. "We run fast. We do everything we have to do to maintain our speed. And we gain the right weight, so it won't slow us down. Overall, our team has gotten faster."
Ask Fuente if his special teams can win a game or two, and he has a quick retort: "You can certainly lose games on special teams."
McCain — who had a 95-yard kickoff return against Duke last season — and senior punter Tom Hornsey have received preseason all-conference attention. Hornsey has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the first Memphis punter to accumulate 10,000 yards in his career. But he remains an asset for Fuente and, if you ask the coach, a weapon: "Tom Hornsey is as versatile a punter as anyone I've been around," Fuente says. "He can rugby. He executed a fake. He can red-zone punt as well as anyone. He's unflappable. He's a real football player."
Offense, defense, special teams — they blend into one as soon as a football season kicks off. How well the various units blend for the 2013 Memphis Tigers will determine just how cherished (or how quickly forgotten) the memories of a 4-8 season will be. Justin Fuente, for one, is measuring progress beyond wins and losses.
"The biggest mistake coaches make," Fuente says, "is when they win and praise their team, but shouldn't, or lose and get all over them when they shouldn't.
"I like our team if we can get them together. It's a huge roster. You've got guys who like each other and guys who don't like each other, guys from rich backgrounds and guys from poor backgrounds. From close [to Memphis] and from far away. Can we play as a team like we did near the end of last season? Can the old guys hold the rope? We need to bring the young guys along. Can we come together as a group? It sounds easy."
Nothing comes easy for the Memphis Tiger football program. It never has.