Labor Day will take on new meaning for the University of Memphis football squad when it takes the field at the Liberty Bowl next week for the 2005 opener against Ole Miss. Herewith, a look at the season ahead.
Known quantities: running back DeAngelo Williams, receivers Maurice Avery and Ryan Scott, tight end John Doucette, center Blake Butler
Variables: three rookie offensive linemen, rookie quarterback
As goes Heisman hopeful Williams, so goes the U of M offense in 2005. With junior Patrick Byrne taking over the quarterback duties from Danny Wimprine, coach Tommy Wests approach will be run first, pass when necessary. Which makes the development of this years offensive line so critical. The return of Andrew Handy at one guard position (he sat out 2004 with an ankle injury) will help ease the transition from guard to center for Butler. The three rookies -- tackles Willie Henderson and Abraham Holloway and guard Andy Smith -- each weigh more than 300 pounds. Will their feet be quick enough to open the kind of holes Williams attacks? This could well be the biggest question for the season ahead, particularly for any Heisman aspirations among Tiger faithful.
If the line develops and Williams stays healthy, life is going to be much easier for Byrne, who has a rather deep receiving corps to target. Senior tight end John Doucette converted three of his 11 receptions last season into touchdowns, not bad for a guy who pushes 270 pounds. Its unlikely the Tigers will average 35.8 points as they did a season ago. Wimprines talent and experience at the most important position on the field are too much to replace in one season. But with an All-America tailback as the engine, this machine should eat up ground, even with a few new parts.
Known quantities: end Marcus West, three starting linebackers, safety Wesley Smith
Variables: freshman nose guard, heightened expectations
Im of a mind that the nose guard in a 3-4 defensive scheme is the most underrated player on the field. He wont pick up sacks, wont even accumulate many tackles, but hes the first domino in a snap-sequence that determines if an opponent has the opportunity for a big play. If he can occupy a pair of linemen and prevent an interior gap, the nose guard allows the linebackers behind him to chase down ball carriers instead of fend off blockers themselves. That said, defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn appears to be trusting the position to a redshirt freshman, Ryan Williams. A 278-pound product of Christian Brothers High School, Williams replaces Albert Means and will be sandwiched between seniors West and Rubio Phillips.
As Rickey Ricardo would put it, the Tigers veteran linebackers have some splaining to do. Carlton Baker, Tim Goodwell, and Quinton McCrary return from a unit that gave up 31.2 points per game in 2004. This figure is going to have be shaved for Memphis to compete for the C-USA title. Veteran defensive backs Wesley Smith and O.C. Collins will be invaluable as the units watchdogs.
Known quantity: place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski
Variable: punter Michael Gibson
Gostkowski -- the schools career scoring leader with 268 points -- may get some All-America votes if Williams doesnt score so many touchdowns that his field-goal skills become a moot strength. As for Gibson (originally an Auburn signee), the junior-college transfer averaged 44.6 yards per punt at Itawamba Community College. Hell be an improvement on Wimprines fourth-down rugby kicks.
The Tigers have essentially five gimmes on their schedule: Chattanooga, Tulsa,UCF, Houston, and East Carolina. If they can win two of three games against UAB, Southern Miss, and Marshall, theyll likely play in the first C-USA championship game December 3rd. And if they can at least split their two games with SEC opponents -- Ole Miss and Tennessee (November 12th) -- theyll be on their way to a third consecutive bowl game.