During Memphis’ remarkable 2014 season, which saw it finish with a 10-3 record and win a share of the AAC title, the team’s defense was its anchor. In fact, defense has been a focal point for the Tigers throughout Justin Fuente’s three-year tenure, which has seen the program rise from the ashes of dystopic futility to the top of the AAC.
However, the stalwart Memphis defense must replace eight starters and defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who accepted the same position at Missouri during the offseason. With so many questions looming over the defense heading into 2015, it’ll be up to the Tiger offense to shoulder the load this time around.
Luckily for Fuente and his staff, there’s plenty of reason for optimism on offense heading into the season.
Leading the way is quarterback Paxton Lynch, who could be in for a big year under center for the Tigers.
Lynch endured his fair share of struggles during his first season as a starter in 2013, where he threw for 2,056 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions on 58.2 percent passing. But Fuente stuck with him in 2014, a decision that paid off.
During his sophomore campaign, Lynch improved across the board statistically, throwing for 3,031 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions on 62.7 percent passing. In addition, Lynch completed over 70 percent of his passes in six of his 13 starts.
He was also fairly effective on the ground (especially in the red zone), running for 321 yards and 13 touchdowns. In fact, he finished second in the conference in rushing touchdowns.
It was a stark improvement for Lynch, who is in good position to make even further progress with most of his receiving corps back from last season.
Though leading receiver Keiwone Malone was lost to graduation, five of Memphis’ top six receivers are back in 2015. This includes seniors Mose Frazier, who recorded 506 yards and three touchdowns on a team-high 47 catches, and Tevin Jones, who posted 442 yards and three touchdowns on 33 receptions. Also returning are sophomores Roderick Proctor (259 yards and one touchdown on 27 catches) and Phil Mayhue (242 yards and two touchdowns on 15 catches).
Lynch will also have a reliable target at tight end at his disposal in senior Alan Cross, who recorded 373 yards on 15 receptions and tied Malone for the team lead with four touchdowns.
In the backfield, leading rusher Brandon Hayes in gone, but every other running back who saw playing time last season is returning. Additionally, Memphis landed a trio of three-star running back recruits, including highly touted prospect Jamarius Henderson, giving the Tigers a plethora of options in its rushing attack.
Ultimately, much of the offensive success will depend on the play of Lynch, who, despite his stellar sophomore campaign, did post a few lackluster performances in 2014.
Against Ole Miss, he completed just 13 of his 31 passes and threw a pick. Against Houston, he was picked off three times and lost a fumble. And in the Miami Beach Bowl against BYU, he completed 52.2 percent of his passes, threw three interceptions and fumbled twice.
If Lynch is able to cut down on these kinds of performances and not allow bad outing to turn into terrible ones, the Memphis offense has the potential to be among the conference’s best. And with so much uncertainty surrounding the defense, it’ll likely need to be if the Tigers are going to have a real shot at a second straight AAC title.