Spring football practice opened for the Memphis Tigers on March 1st this year, the first of 15 sessions that will culminate in the Blue-Grey Game at the Liberty Bowl on April 10th. After last years' rousing 10 win, 3 loss, bowl-victory, brawl-victory campaign, there is a high level of interest and excitement around the program, defensive departures notwithstanding.
However, before the analysis-overload of spring practice season gets into full gear, let's take a moment and evaluate the off-season moves that will almost certainly make the biggest impact this year.
Let's look at the coaching staff departures, promotions, and additions!
(It'll be great, trust me!)
The more things change...
Out with the old: Barry Odom
As noted by fellow Underdog Dynasty contributor cdjames84, DC Barry Odom left Memphis soon after the team's victory in the Miami Beach Bowl to take the equivalent position at Mizzou. Odom joined the program with head coach Justin Fuente in advance of the 2012 season, immediately bringing organization and determination to a sievelike defensive unit. His defenses improved each season at Memphis, with the most recent squad ranking 19th in rushing defense, and 24th in total defense.
In with the new: Galen Scott
Scott is an interesting case. A holdover from the disastrous tenure of former head coach Larry Porter, he was co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for the 2011 season. The defense that year was so porous, I hesitate to mention its ranking as it is unfit for polite society (it has three digits, if that helps give the idea). At first glance, therefore, his promotion might give a steady man pause.
However, there is more to the story. Upon his arrival in Memphis, Fuente retained Scott in his position coach role and as associate head coach. Given the tire fire that was Memphis football at this point, Scott's continued employment with the Tigers implied competence, overshadowed by mediocrity from above (though the fact that Scott and Fuente were colleagues at Illinois State may have had something to do with it too).
Scott's success under the improved leadership of Fuente is testament to his coaching ability. Current NFL draft hopefuls Tank Jakes and Charles Harris thrived under his tutelage, and, in an interview with Memphis' Commercial Appeal, outgoing DC Odom indicated Scott had played a vital role in the development of the defensive unit into its current form.
Scott will continue to coach the linebackers in 2015 in addition to his new responsibilities. Though the loss of eight senior starters from the defense may muddy the picture somewhat, there is good reason to be optimistic that Scott will be successful as DC.
Out with the old: Barry Odom
This guy again? In addition to his successes above, Odom's role as safeties coach was solid enough. He helped Fritz Etienne develop into a solid performer at the position, and helped bring the unit to respectability (though not to the same level as the run defense).
In with the new: Brent Guy
This Guy, again! Brent Guy, 30-year college coaching veteran, brings a wealth of experience to the Tigers' coaching staff. He's been around this old NCAA a few times, serving as defensive coordinator at Boise State, Arizona State, Louisville and Tulsa. He has had substantial defensive success, particularly at Boise and ASU (which he parlayed into a head coaching gig at Utah State from 2005 to 2008, which...did not go so well).
Memphis ties include a two-degrees-of-separation link to Fuente via former Tulsa head coach (and former Fuente high school coach) Bill Blankenship, and a short appearance in Undefeated; the documentary about Memphis' Manassas High School football team, in which he discussed the challenges of an inner-city football program (about 11:45 in, if you want to catch this awesome movie on Netflix).
The question is, how well will a long-time defensive coordinator scale to position coach? This remains to be seen, though one figures Guy's decades of experience coordinating the reactive side of the ball will contain more than a few golden nuggets for the safety position.
Out with the old: Ryan Walters
Walters only lasted one season at Memphis after another single season spot at North Texas, coaching cornerback in both cases. He's headed to Mizzou now to join Odom's defensive staff (fellow just keeps coming up, doesn't he?).
Walters has walked into and maintained two good situations in his two coaching stops. His cornerbacks at North Texas did their part to create a 17th-ranked defense and, at Memphis last year, he worked with NFL hopeful Bobby McCain, who's outstanding pass coverage led to an AAC All-Conference First Team selection.
In with the new: Troy Reffett
As defensive coordinator at Louisiana-Monroe for the past six seasons and cornerbacks coach for the past three, Reffett developed the Warhawks into a top defensive team in the Sun Belt Conference and, in some categories, the nation. Last year, his defense ranked 14th nationally in total pass yards allowed, which is a nice sign, as is the 2012 unit's 16 interceptions.
It's hard to evaluate what effect Reffett is likely to have on the cornerback position and pass defense. Losing McCain to graduation hurts. So does replacing both the safeties and cornerbacks coaches.
Coach Reffett isn't fooling around on his official team picture, though.
Co-offensive coordinators: Darrell Dickey and Brad Cornelsen
Assistant head coach: Darrell Dickey
The Tigers' offense, coordinated by Dickey, was pretty good last year, finishing near the top of the American in total offense and first in rushing offense. Quarterback Paxton Lynch and running backs Brandon Hayes and Doroland Dorceus exhibited solid development and production throughout the year.
So, why the staff movement? Dickey's promotion to assistant head coach carries with it a vague promise of "additional responsibilities" according to a recent press release. The exact nature of those responsibilities has not yet been elucidated, though one can assume he will take on some work that Fuente has been shouldering himself.
To make time for Dickey's assistant head coaching, QB coach Brad Cornelsen has been promoted to co-offensive coordinator. He and Dickey will split the load on developing and running the offense. Fans may appreciate this change, as one oft-repeated critique of Dickey was that his play calling was too conservative and ground-attack based. Perhaps the quarterbacks coach will shift the balance slightly more to the passing game? Who knows?
The more they stay the same...
Offensive line coach: Vance Vice
Quarterbacks coach: Brad Cornelsen
Running backs coach: Darrell Dickey
Tight ends coach: James Shibest
Wide receivers coach: Holmon Wiggins
Defensive line coach: Ricky Hunley
Linebackers coach: Galen Scott
Special Teams Coach
The most important name on this list of returning coaches is the one at the top. Coach Fuente's development of the Memphis football program took it from a disastrous, so-terrible-its-hillarious Poseidon Adventure
to a groovy, smooth, feel-good Love Boat.
The relative stability in the coaching staff is a good indication that this process can continue over the long term, as long as Fuente remains firmly ensconced in the captain's chair.
Perhaps, eventually, he can pilot this ship through the temporal vortex and capture some of the panache of the legendary Spook Murphy?
Or perhaps I stretch the analogy too far?
How will this affect the bottom line? As I predicted elsewhere, Memphis fans should expect a solid 2015 season with some "market adjustment" due to players graduating. I think the most recent coaching changes will do little to change that, but will put Memphis football on a solid foundation for the foreseeable future.