Long ago, in the year 2019, the Memphis Tigers enjoyed an epic football season. You may remember it. The U of M won 11 of 12 regular-season games, including an upset of 15th-ranked SMU a few hours after ESPN's GameDay crew made its debut on Beale Street. The Tigers beat Cincinnati for the program's first outright American Athletic Conference championship, right here in Memphis at the Liberty Bowl. Even with a season-ending loss to Penn State in the Cotton Bowl — the Cotton Bowl — Memphis finished the campaign ranked 17th in the final AP poll (the third time in six seasons a once-mocked program has finished in the Top 25).
Brady White saw it all. In his fifth season of college football — a foot injury and White's transfer from Arizona State have extended his career — White became only the second Memphis quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in a season, throwing three times as many touchdown passes (33) as interceptions (11). Once tagged with the tired euphemism, "game manager," White became a star quarterback in 2019. In its 2020 football preview, Sports Illustrated included the California native — and Ph.D. candidate, in case you hadn't heard — among five long shots for the Heisman Trophy. (Yes, that trophy.)
- Photographs by Larry Kuzniewski
- Memphis Tigers quarterback and Ph.D. candidate Brady White
With coronavirus and quarantine still operative words across the United States, White and the Memphis Tigers have September 5th circled on their calendars. The opening game of the 2020 season (when Arkansas State visits the Liberty Bowl) will be among a precious few across the country, four FBS conferences — including the mighty Big Ten and Pac 12 — having at least postponed their fall season. Two Memphis opponents — Purdue on September 12th and UT-Martin on November 21st — have already canceled their scheduled clash, leaving the Tigers with a 10-game regular season. Should Memphis manage to defend its AAC championship, rest assured it will happen in front of much smaller crowds.
Football in a season unlike any other.
Black athletes make up the majority of college football rosters, particularly at the FBS level. If you're remotely close to such a program today, ignoring the Black Lives Matter movement would be like ignoring the oxygen entering your lungs. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd in May — with the country under quarantine to fight the coronavirus — the Tiger football team gathered to walk as a group in protest of racial injustice. However the upcoming season plays out — if it plays out — count on similar unified, visible acts to keep awareness and activism alive. White recognizes this as a responsibility of his generation, whether or not you happen to wear shoulder pads on fall Saturdays.
- Star tailback Kenneth Gainwell has opted out of the 2020 season.
"We'll always be united," says White. "And we'll stand for what we believe in, what's right. It's a true brotherhood. We're bonded together, and we have each other's backs. We're not just football players. We're human beings and we're going to use our voices and our platforms for things like this. For me, it's about loving one another and treating everyone the way we would want to be treated. It's a principle we're taught at a young age. I was created in God's image, a person who's imperfect. I know He created everyone else the same. That's common sense and natural to me."
If anything, the summer of protest accentuated bonds between White and his teammates that each knew already existed. The bonds just added a few layers of meaning. "Some people speak out a little more than others," he explains, "but just because someone doesn't post on Twitter, it doesn't mean he doesn't have an opinion. To be able to talk with one another, to connect ... we're united. Everyone has their own mind and thoughts. We use our own experiences and knowledge to stand with one another and support one another. How can we be better as individuals, as a country, and be leaders for change?"
- Brady White is only the second Tiger to pass for 4,000 yards in a season.
The doctor will see you now.
White completed his undergraduate studies (business) shortly after his 2016 foot injury at Arizona State. He's earned a master's degree (sports and leisure science) since arriving on the Memphis campus and now finds himself in rarefied air: a student-athlete as interested in completing his doctoral dissertation as helping his team to another prestigious bowl game.
"I've been working my butt off for a while in the classroom," says White in speaking the obvious. "I've always prided myself on that, pushing myself in all areas. There's always room to learn, but especially in college."
White's Ph.D. program is classified under "liberal studies," which has some margin for focus. He hopes to work in sports when football is over and intends to concentrate his dissertation on this track. "I can communicate with my advisors to get classes that will help me with what I want to do in the future," he says. "I'm not just picking random classes, but I'm able to find classes or even tweak classes due to the flexibility of the program. I don't know if it's coaching or more on the business side [of sports], but I know I want to be involved in that."
- Brady White prepares to throw a pass under pressure.
In elite company.
Memphis just missed a spot in the AP's preseason Top 25, finishing tops among "others receiving votes." But nine of the ranked teams are from the Big Ten or Pac 12 (and won't play this fall), so consider Memphis among the country's elite programs. Again. And based on what we saw in 2019, the Tigers earned it.
"That was probably the best season in Memphis football history," says White. "When you're directly involved, you look back and see areas that could have been better. The leader in me always wants to keep improving. But it was special, and it was so much fun. Everyone involved had a great mindset the entire season. It was a no-flinch mentality. Competing for championships and getting those big bowl-game berths are the standard for our program."
White bristles at a suggestion that the 2019 Tigers enjoyed a season in which practically everything went right. (One exception, of course, being a late no-catch ruling on a White pass in the Temple game that may have cost Memphis an undefeated regular season.) He notes the considerable amount of work that went into making sure "everything went right." Film room. Weight room. Practice field. Places even the most devoted fans don't get to see on a regular basis.
"There are so many things that are out of your control," notes White, "and I've been a part of teams that were hit by the injury bug. So we were blessed. But when you focus on your job, the 11 guys on each side of the ball, special teams ... when they're together and focusing on executing and playing hard, you get the results. The work we put in, the preparation from week to week ... if we take care of our job, we perform really well. And it can be replicated in the near future."
With a third healthy season, White could topple a pair of longstanding Memphis records. He needs 2,906 yards to break Danny Wimprine's mark of 10,215 (set over four seasons, from 2001 to 2004). And 23 touchdown passes would break Wimprine's record of 81. Like it or not, White has become a star quarterback.
"I know who I am," says White. "I'm a genuine human being. With that comes belief and confidence. I'm a man of faith. I know who my creator is, and I know who he created me to be. I play for an audience of one. I love my family, my friends, and all of Tiger Nation, but I look to play for my audience of one, and that's my lord and savior. It frees me up, because I have that peace and comfort as a player. I'm able to maximize the abilities I've been blessed with. I'm not perfect, but I'm my own unique and special player and quarterback. I know what value I have. At the end of the day, I'm an uber-competitor, and I just want to win ballgames. Whatever the coaches ask of me, I will get done, as long as we win the game."
A star among stars.
College football's annual "watch lists" are seriously overrated. There are no fewer than 90 players on the watch list for the Maxwell Award, given to the country's finest player at season's end. (Yes, it's a poor man's Heisman, and not the only one.) Nonetheless, Memphis had three players on the list and is one of only four programs that can count as many (along with Indiana of the Big Ten, Louisville, and, ahem, Alabama). White's favorite target, senior wide receiver Damonte Coxie, made the cut, having caught 76 passes for 1,276 yards as a junior. Alas, the Tigers' third selection, sophomore running back Kenneth Gainwell (1,459 rushing yards and 610 receiving yards in 2019) announced last Sunday that he's opting out of the upcoming season.
With Coxie riding shotgun and even minus Gainwell, White will have the keys to one of the most powerful machines in college football. The Tigers averaged 40.8 points per game last season (eighth among 130 FBS programs) and it was no spike on the timeline. Memphis has averaged 40.7 points per game over the last six seasons, the 2017 squad putting up an astounding 45.5 per game (second in the country). Few scoreboards have been exercised like that at the Liberty Bowl, where Memphis has gone 35-5 since the start of the 2014 season. The Tigers win. And they score lots of points. Even with a second coaching change during this period — Ryan Silverfield takes over for Mike Norvell, who departed for Florida State — the Memphis program should be capable of winning shootouts, and regularly.
"Damonte and I love one another and we want what's best [for the program]," says White. "We're at it each day, trying to get better and make the most out of this last opportunity. It's nice to have guys around you who share the same goals. I'm super thankful to have that guy by my side. He's got great ability, but I love the dude's mentality. It's unique, extremely driven, competitive. He's a special human being."
Who will be taking handoffs out of the Tiger backfield in Gainwell's absence? Junior Kylan Watkins — pride of Whitehaven High School — is the top returning ground-gainer, having rushed for 325 yards (on 5.2 yards per carry) a year ago. Also in the mix will be sophomore Rodrigues Clark. Look for a committee, of sorts, to fill the void left by Gainwell, who last season became the first player in 22 years to finish a game with 100 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards (against Tulane).
In addition to Coxie and Gainwell, junior guard Dylan Parham and senior kicker Riley Patterson (134 points in 2019) have received preseason all-conference recognition. On the defensive side of the ball, senior cornerback T.J. Carter has an NFL career in his sights. Three others seniors on defense — linemen O'Bryan Goodson and Joseph Dorceus and linebacker J.J. Russell — will make game days rough for Tiger opponents.
As for the new man in charge, Silverfield spent four years at Norvell's side, most recently as the team's deputy head coach. He knows what's worked over the last four seasons and, with offense in his bloodstream, would seem the right man to keep this machine's engine roaring. "I actually worked with Coach Silverfield briefly at Arizona State, before he left for the NFL," notes White. "We're really tight. I feel like we have an understanding of one another. Everyone's confident in him as a coach. He's the man for the job and deserves it. We love him. This team rallies behind him. There hasn't been a lot of change. He's his own coach, so there are little things he does differently, but it's been an easy transition. There's been no awkward feeling-out period."
Reason to play.
Back to that AP poll. The defending AAC champions are not ranked to start the season, but two of their conference brethren are: Cincinnati (20) and UCF (21). If pandemic football proves manageable, the Tigers will face both the Bearcats and Knights in October, and they won't need 40,000 fans in the stands for motivation.
"I'm my teammates' biggest fan," says White. "I want to see them do well so that they can achieve all their dreams and aspirations, take care of their families, and do everything they want in life. It's a lot bigger than scoring touchdowns."
The new normal.
Masks and 12 feet of space between fan groups will be part of college football in 2020. Tailgating, for now, is a thing of what seems like a distant past. But few sports are as structured as big-time college football, practice sessions broken down to the precise minute, position groups meeting for strategy and tactics within the larger context of a weekly team venture. Perhaps health protocols can be adopted into such structure, and perhaps college programs — particularly those in the southeastern United States — will prove to be the morale- and budget-boosters they've been for generations.
"Everything's gonna be a lot different this year," acknowledges White. "But I've been working out pretty intensely, studying film. You need to have a different approach, be safe and make sure you stay healthy. But [the pandemic] hasn't changed my routine a whole lot. I'm still attacking it as if it's a normal season.
"We recognize [the uncertain conditions], and we accept it. You'd rather over-prepare and be ready to go than sit on your hands and find yourself behind the eight ball. I love the way we're doing it. The biggest thing is getting your mindset to go-mode, getting it cranked up. It's been different, a ton of time off. That mindset has to change. Physically, guys should be feeling better than ever. We should be locked and loaded, ready to roll."
Attending a Tiger game at the Liberty Bowl this fall will be significantly different than in previous seasons, allowing for social distancing and other protective measures against the spread of the coronavirus. For details, visit GoTigersGo.com/feature/2020football.