It’s already year three of the Ryan Silverfield era in Memphis. Where did the time go?
Silverfield took over for Mike Norvell as the interim head coach for the Tigers’ biggest game in program history — the 2019 Cotton Bowl against Penn State. Silverfield eventually shed the interim tag following the bowl and subsequently guided Memphis to an 8-3 campaign in 2020, complete with a postseason victory.
However, the wheels started to fall off last year as the Tigers finished 6-6, marking the first time they failed to exceed .500 since 2013. That campaign featured a roller coaster of results, ranging from thrilling upset victories over Mississippi State and SMU at the peaks to head-scratching blown leads to Temple and UTSA at the troughs. The Tigers were granted an opportunity to etch a seventh win at the Hawaii Bowl, but Hawaii opted out of the matchup less than 24 hours before scheduled kickoff due to COVID-19, injuries, and the transfer portal causing a shortage of available players.
Silverfield returns with aspirations to revert Memphis to the level it was when he first arrived. But he will operate without key members of his 2021 coaching staff. It’s become commonplace for Memphis’ top coaches to serve short stints, and that recent tradition continued as the Tigers lost both coordinators this offseason. Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns joined first-year head coach Mike Elko’s staff at Duke, while defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre accepted a head coaching position at FIU. Those respective vacancies were fulfilled in January by Marshall offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey and Ohio State secondary coach Matt Barnes.
Elite offenses are the signature of Memphis football. The Tigers exhibited top 25 scoring offenses every year from 2014 to 2019, including three seasons in the top eight. There was slight deviation from that brand last season, as the team finished 52nd nationally by assembling 30.1 points per contest. Still, there were stellar aspects of the unit, most notably in the passing game. Memphis checked in at 16th overall and second in the AAC in aerial output, but the ground attack sat below the median in terms of production.
Memphis’ 2021 starting quarterback announcement occurred just moments before kickoff in Week 1, and it was a bit of a surprise. After bringing in an established transfer in Grant Gunnell, true freshman Seth Henigan ultimately got the call. Gunnell, now at North Texas, underwent surgery that September after suffering a lower body injury in fall camp, leaving Henigan in a starting role he never relinquished.
Henigan didn’t look like a backup providing relief duties for an injured starter. He enjoyed immediate success in his first season out of high school, firing for 417 yards and five touchdowns without an interception in just his second career start. One week later, he delivered two second half touchdown passes to spearhead a comeback against Mississippi State. At the season’s conclusion, Henigan proved to be one of the team’s strong suits with final stats of 3,322 yards, 25 touchdowns, and eight interceptions on a 59.8 completion rate. Only SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai averaged more aerial production than the 18-year old Henigan, who compiled 302.3 passing yards per contest — 0.3 yards shy of Mordecai’s mark.
One facet of the offense which helped Henigan seamlessly assimilate to the collegiate game was the presence of Calvin Austin III. The two-time First Team All-AAC receiver was Henigan’s overwhelming No. 1 target in the prior year, distancing himself by 26 receptions and 492 yards from Memphis’ second-most utilized target — tight end Sean Dykes. Memphis not only is forced to replace Austin’s 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns, but the Tigers also must account for the reliable red zone production they lose following Dykes’ graduation.
Memphis’ receiving corps doesn’t necessarily take on a youthful form, as several seniors are in the mix, but it is one yearning for more experience. Javon Ivory led all incumbent receivers with totals of 29 receptions and 413 yards last season, while Eddie Lewis played a supporting role with 22 and 349. Ivory is most likely to serve as the premier option, but without Austin on campus, expect a more balanced distribution in the receiving corps with Gabriel Rogers, Koby Drake, Marcayll Jones, and Iowa State transfer Joseph Scates all earning ample reps.
The Tigers didn’t frequently utilize any other tight end besides Dykes, so junior Caden Prieskorn will be thrust into the starting role after just four receptions in limited action last year. Memphis’ starting tight end ranked among the team’s top three receivers in four of the previous six seasons, so Prieskorn’s statistical résumé is bound to skyrocket if recent history repeats itself.
While Memphis mainly made its mark as an established passing attack last year, the Tigers had one of the nation’s most effective running games early on. Brandon Thomas led all FBS running backs through the first two weeks of the season after amassing 338 rushing yards. But a slight decline in yardage outputs, combined with injury absences hampered Thomas’ production, and thus, Memphis’ ground attack later in the year. Overall, the team finished with fewer than 90 collective rushing yards in five separate outings.
Thomas’ capabilities are well documented and he should return as the feature back in 2022. He has a heap of experienced depth alongside him, ranging from 2020 leading rusher Rodrigues Clark to often-utilized halfbacks Asa Martin and Marquavius Weaver. The running back room got even more crowded when Northern Illinois’ Jay Ducker committed to the program in January after surpassing the 1,000-yard barrier as a redshirt freshman in the MAC.
On the offensive line, Memphis is tasked with replacing First Team All-AAC talent in Dylan Parham. The Tigers’ starting right guard for four-straight seasons warranted a third round NFL Draft selection last spring after refusing to allow a single sack in 2021. Former TCU transfer Austin Myers should serve as the replacement, and Myers comes armed with substantial starting experience. He started in all three games in his first year as a Tiger in addition to tallying 18 starts as a Horned Frog. First arriving at TCU in 2016, Myers provides welcome veteran experience on a relatively young offense.
Three returning starters man the trenches — tackles Jonah Gambill and Matt Dale, as well as guard Jacob Likes. Rounding out the main front five is likely Ira Henry, a transfer from Mike Norvell’s program at Florida State who saw action in all 12 contests a season ago.
Even during Memphis’ most spectacular years, the Tigers primarily boasted an offensive-oriented brand. The most recent top 50 scoring defense was fielded in 2014, when Memphis first burst onto the scene before serving as perennial AAC contenders. Last season, the Tigers yielded over 29 points per game and landed 96th in the FBS in total defense. Memphis began toward the cellar in terms of containing the air, but the group steadily improved (and faced Navy) as the games progressed, checking in at 102nd overall at season’s end.
Contributing to the turnover battle was neither a forte nor weakness for the Tigers, aligning in the middle of the road in that facet of the game. But the most impressive improvement seen in the defense when compared to previous Memphis teams was heightened discipline. Penalties were a rarity and only 10 FBS teams were flagged for fewer yards per game.
As expected with disciplined defenses, a vast array of seniors dominate the defensive landscape for the Tigers. The most notable figure on this unit is free safety Quindell Johnson, who secured All-AAC honors with a loaded stat-line of 104 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, and an absurd 11 pass deflections. Johnson thrives in several action-packed roles in the Tigers’ 4-2-5 scheme, from delivering linebacker-esque hits at the line of scrimmage to operating as a trusty centerfielder in deep zone coverage.
Johnson wasn’t the only Tiger with a ridiculous number of pass breakups in 2021. Greg Rubin broke onto the scene as a true freshman and logged 14 to rank fourth among all FBS players. Rubin was on an FBS record-setting pace after batting down 10 passes in his first three collegiate games. He wound up ranking fifth on the team in tackles and should only hone his skills as he strolls into 2022 with a year of experience under his belt.
Strong safety Rodney Owens, who tied for the team-lead in interceptions and ranked second in tackles among defenders returning for 2021, should form a sharp safety tandem with Johnson. Another familiar face providing support in the starting secondary is Sylvonta Oliver, a former community college transfer with 44 tackles and two interceptions in a pair of seasons with the Tigers.
The linebacking corps lost its centerpiece in J.J. Russell, a ferocious hitter who racked up an AAC-best 123 tackles a season ago. Still, the veteran presence at the position group remains encouraging thanks to the arrival of several transfers. Geoffrey Cantin-Arku arrives from Syracuse after notching 10 starts complemented with 104 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and five sacks across the last two seasons. Additionally, Tyler Murray joins the group after serving as Charlotte’s leading tackler in 2020 and 2021. Those two should see plenty of action alongside middle linebacker Xavier Cullens. One of the last major contributors remaining from the 2019 Cotton Bowl squad, Cullens tied his career-high with 69 tackles in 2021 and looks poised to surpass that number with Russell no longer on the roster.
Memphis issues four defenders on the line, and one obtained all-conference honors in 2021 — John Tate IV. However, the 6’4”, 295 pound Tate can no longer provide his duties as the plug in the middle after graduating, so a new starter must be unearthed at that position. One of the candidates to fill that role was Maurice White, but he recently announced a transfer to Central Michigan. Thus, the Tigers must fill not only massive void on the interior defensive line, but also develop the next wave of supporting depth. That leaves true sophomore Zy Brockington and 6’6”, 340 pound disruptor Cam’Ron Jackson as the nuclei of the defensive line, and they’ll look for an exponential rise in their numbers after combining for 14 tackles as freshmen.
The edges are contained by Jaylon Allen and Wardalis Duckworth, a pair of seniors well acclimated to Silverfield’s program. Allen and Duckworth led the race in getting to the quarterback last fall, finishing first and second on the team in sacks, respectively. Duckworth operates with his head on a swivel at all times, picking up a pair of fumble recoveries including a scoop and score in his most productive season to date.
Memphis has a claim to Kicker U after sending out the likes of Stephen Gostkowski, Jake Elliott, and Riley Patterson over the years. However, that was far from the case in 2021 as the Tigers converted just 12-of-19 attempts while alternating between two kickers. Those options, David Kemp and Joe Doyle, remain on the roster hoping to improve upon the results from last season.
Collectively, the 30-39 range should be a point of emphasis as Memphis sunk 40 percent of kicks from that area last year. A lack of trust in the kicking game caused the Tigers to line up for just 19 field goal attempts. And with that proclivity to shelve the kicking game in favor of the offense, Memphis tied for eighth in the FBS with 38 fourth down attempts.
Doyle also handles punting duties, where he saw unhinged success at his previous school of Tennessee. Four years ago while wearing the bright orange, Doyle was named a Ray Guy Award finalist for best punter in the land. While he didn’t replicate the honor last season, he averaged a career-best 46 yards per punt to situate himself within the top 20 in the category.
Wide receiver Gabriel Rogers possesses considerable experience as a kick return specialist, and that role should fall into his lap once again after cashing his runbacks in for an average of 25 yards. Javon Ivory also dabbled in the kick return game, and he is a potential partner alongside Rogers on kickoffs. For punts, Calvin Austin must be replaced after generating an average of 27 yards per return with a touchdown in 2021. The aforementioned receivers certainly can step up into this slot, but the logical candidate is Koby Drake who corralled four punts a season ago — the most of any incumbent player.
Memphis Tigers 2022 Schedule
|1||Sat, Sept. 3||@ Mississippi State||W, 31-29|
|2||Sat, Sept. 10||@ Navy||W, 35-17|
|3||Sat, Sept. 17||vs. Arkansas State||W, 55-50|
|4||Sat, Sept. 24||vs. North Texas||N/A|
|5||Sat, Oct. 1||vs. Temple||L, 34-31|
|6||Fri, Oct. 7||vs. Houston||L, 31-13|
|7||Sat, Oct. 15||@ East Carolina||L, 30-29|
|8||Sat, Oct. 22||@ Tulane||W, 33-28|
|9||Sat, Oct. 29||BYE||N/A|
|10||Sat, Nov. 5||vs. UCF||L, 24-7|
|11||Thu, Nov. 10||vs. Tulsa||L, 35-29|
|12||Sat, Nov. 19||vs. North Alabama (FCS)||N/A|
|13||Sat, Nov. 26||@ SMU||W, 28-25|
|14||Sat, Dec. 3||AAC Championship Game*||N/A|
Memphis opens its season with consecutive road games. Both signify revenge games for the home team after Memphis silenced both Mississippi State and Navy at the Liberty Bowl last fall. In the opener in Starkville, the Tigers aim to extend their win streak over the SEC to three games after downing Ole Miss in 2019 and the Bulldogs last September. The following game against Navy ushers in an early start to AAC play, and that’s a game Memphis certainly needs to circle after a rusty 0-2 start in the conference slate last year.
The third game on the schedule, a non-conference clash against Arkansas State, also classifies as a revenge match for the Tigers’ opponent following last year’s chaotic 55-50 shootout in Jonesboro, AR. That contest against the Red Wolves signifies the first outing in a four-game home stretch at the Liberty Bowl. Home has been a place of comfort for Memphis lately, and until UTSA roared back from a 21-0 deficit last fall, the Tigers’ hadn’t experienced defeat in their local confines since October 2018 — as the home win streak peaked at 17 games.
The Tigers finished 5-2 at home and 1-4 on the road last year, suggesting the team is unquestionably at its best inside the Liberty Bowl. Memphis dropped matchups to Temple and Houston on the road last year, so the team hopes a different location against those AAC foes could manufacture a different result this time around.
Road trips to East Carolina and Tulane transpire before a rather-late Week 9 bye. Then the Tigers enter the home stretch in their favorite venue, battling rivals UCF and Tulsa, as well as a seemingly out-of-place FCS matchup against North Alabama. To close the season, Memphis travels to Dallas to battle SMU — an opponent the Tigers have triumphed over in seven of the last eight meetings. If all goes in the team’s favor, an AAC Championship Game appearance bodes on Dec. 3 on the campus of the AAC program with the best conference record.
If Memphis attains six wins, the Tigers will extend their AAC-best bowl streak to nine years under three different head coaches. During that span, two postseason trophies have been hoisted and added to the program’s hardware collection — the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl and the 2020 Montgomery. Strangely enough, those are very exclusive trophies as both bowls that are no longer in operation. And after last year’s unexpected Hawaii Bowl cancelation, Memphis looks forward to the possibility of bringing home another bowl win to the 901.