The Memphis Tigers have established an identity as an offensive juggernaut since joining the American Athletic Conference. Memphis is one of five programs — joining the ranks of Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia — to win eight games or more in each of the last seven seasons. The Tigers’ sustained level of excellence is highly connected to the level of caliber quarterback play that has graced the campus in the last decade.
Each of Memphis’ last three quarterbacks is responsible for an AP Top 25 finish, marking tangible evidence of their illustrious tenures. Paxton Lynch leveraged his success in the Grind City into a first round NFL draft selection. Riley Ferguson lit the record books on fire by setting program single-season yards and touchdown records in 2017. Then, Brady White stepped into the light and became Memphis’ career leader in passing yards and touchdowns. In 2019, he led the Tigers to their first outright AAC Championship and first-ever New Year’s Six bowl appearance.
White rode into the sunset with a bowl win last December to write the final chapter of a storied Memphis career. For the first time since the 2018 offseason, the Tigers were pressed with finding a new quarterback to headline the program. Memphis previously lured in Ferguson and White as transfers and hoped to replicate that success again via the transfer portal. And they did just that. Grant Gunnell, a former Arizona Wildcat starter, committed to the program and was slated to be White’s successor under center.
But when Sept. 4 rolled around, Gunnell was unavailable to suit up. The quarterback suffered a lower-body injury in camp that will require surgery. His status to return later this year is currently unclear, forcing another quarterback to handle starting duties. What is clear, however, is that the true freshman stepping up in Gunnell’s place is capitalizing on an opportunity.
Seth Henigan, a 3-star prospect from Denton, TX in the Dallas metroplex, signed with Memphis after holding offers from Arizona and Houston, among others. The 6’3” quarterback led his high school to a 39-2 record, making an appearance in the state 5A Division I Championship Game in 2019. As a senior at Denton Ryan High School, he threw for 3,828 yards and five touchdowns and was no stranger to lighting up opposing secondaries.
Now, he’s authoring the same story in a Memphis Tigers uniform — the same uniform which has spanned the lineage of Lynch, Ferguson, and White. Henigan first took the field on Sept. 4 against a tune-up FCS opponent, the ideal collegiate debut for a first-time starter. He remained free of turnovers and free of sacks taken, and just let it rip. The true freshman’s collegiate debut resulted in a 19/32 showing with 265 yards and a touchdown delivery, as Memphis’ offense cruised to a 42-17 victory.
But Memphis’ defense didn’t necessarily replicate its Week 1 performance when facing Arkansas State in Week 2. Thus, Henigan was demanded to have the performance of a lifetime in order to sustain the Tigers’ unblemished record. The 18-year old delivered.
Henigan’s arm was scorching in the 55-50 shootout win over the Red Wolves. He amplified his completion rate to 22/33 and airmailed the pigskin for 417 yards and five touchdowns. While the pressure in the backfield was more prevalent than in the opener, he avoided committing a single turnover. Memphis’ offense totaled 687 yards under Henigan’s direction and the Tigers’ 55 points were their most against FBS competition since November 2018.
Look at Memphis’ record book for the single-game passing yards list and you’ll find White, Ferguson, Ferguson, White, Lynch, White, Ferguson, and then, Henigan at No. 8. The quarterback who is only several months removed from high school graduation is already joining his esteemed predecessors with his accomplishments.
One of those predecessors has established a close connection with Henigan. White’s presence has embellished the Memphis sideline over the past two games, and the program legend is taking the newcomer under his wing. Pregame and postgame, the two quarterbacks are often seeing conversing — connecting Memphis’ success from yesteryear to the present day.
One of White’s key targets from his final season was All-AAC wide receiver Calvin Austin III, who finished in the top 10 in receiving yards and touchdowns in 2020. When watching the chemistry between Henigan and Austin, it would seem like the pair has spent a half-decade perfecting their routes. The rapport between the two proved to be a lethal weapon Saturday night, as Henigan fired quick slants to his favorite target, play after play. Austin left Jonesboro, AR with six receptions, 239 receiving yards, and three touchdowns — all three stemming from at least 50 yards out.
Throwing quick darts out of RPO sets appears to be another one of the youngster’s specialties. Henigan got tight end Sean Dykes heavily involved in these concepts to the tune of nine receptions, 143 yards, and a pair of touchdowns. One of those scores was a perfectly-issued dime from Henigan to the veteran tight end, threading the needle past the Arkansas State defender.
Henigan owns a 2-0 record as Memphis’ starting quarterback, guiding an offense which averages the sixth-most points in the FBS at 48.5 albeit a small sample size. He ranks sixth in the country in passing yards per game and is one of four quarterbacks with six or more touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The AAC has been accustomed to true freshman talents over the past few seasons. Dillon Gabriel quickly established himself as one of the premier deep ball specialists at UCF in 2019. Michael Pratt earned the starting gig at Tulane last season and accounted for more touchdowns than any true freshman in 2020. Now, Henigan is emerging as the conference’s next freshman quarterback sensation. If he looks this poised two games into his career, what does the rest of his tenure look like?
It’s an exhilarating thought, but Henigan still has plenty of challenges in his way this season. An unbeaten and battle-tested Mississippi State squad enters the Liberty Bowl on Saturday in hopes of being the first unit to stall Henigan’s electrifying offense. The first two games have been filled with nothing but promise for the 18-year old quarterback, and Henigan hopes to make this hot streak a normality — and not a fleeting trend — for the rest of his Memphis career.