The Memphis Tigers roll into Annapolis this weekend, full of confidence and high expectations after giving National Champion* UCF all it could handle last season in the AAC Championship Game and being picked to win the West Division again this year.
As we will do each week in our Mission Planning segments for each team, let’s break down exactly what makes this Memphis team so dangerous and what things Navy needs to be prepared for in order to take the lead in the race for AAC West Division champion.
First, let’s give you a rundown on the man under the headset, head coach Mike Norvell. Norvell is one of, if not the most likely coaches to make the leap from the #Power6 to the Power 5 in the near future. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor Justin Fuente who stayed at Memphis just long enough to earn the gig at Virginia Tech, many pundits believe Norvell will be the next AAC up-and-comer to jump ship (though you will find Coach Niumat floating near Norvell’s name on both of these lists). Coming from Arizona State, where he was the offensive coordinator for two seasons, Norvell has a brilliant offensive mind which we will break down further in our film study, and evidence of his near departure can be seen in the fact that he has lost both of his offensive coordinators the past two seasons to Power Five jobs as teams look to replicate his production. Darrell Dickey made the jump this year to Texas A&M and Chip Long left two years ago for Notre Dame, even though neither was the primary play-caller for the Tigers.
While Norvell still calls plays, the man responsible for his offense this season is 28 year old wunderkind Kenny Dillingham. While some may scoff at Dillingham’s age, Norvell trusts him, having brought him over from Arizona State, and the two are apparently freakishly in sync with each other. With Norvell still calling plays, even with Riley Ferguson gone and Brady White insterted at quarterback this year, don’t expect too much of a dropoff in offensive production.
That brings us to what the Memphis Tigers return and add this season and what makes them just so dangerous to face. First, let’s start with special teams:
Special Teams: Tony Pollard will go down as one of the all-time greats
The Memphis kick returner can change the course of a game in a flash. Only a junior, Pollard has six kickoff returns for touchdown in his career, needing only one to tie and two to break the all-time record at the FBS level.
Some may suggest that the new kickoff fair catch rule would limit Pollard’s chances at the record, but he has proven in the past (with several 100 yard KR TDs) that he will bring it out from anywhere you kick it to him and take it to the house.
What makes Pollard so dangerous isn’t just his explosiveness, vision, or ridiculous speed, it’s his ability to trust his teammates to make the right blocks in their lanes and be patient. You will see Pollard wait for a hole to develop rather than simply bounce the kickoff return outside too quickly like many returners tend to do to get whatever yardage they can. Once Pollard finds a hole with some running room and doesn’t limit himself to just the sideline, he is off to the races, and chances are there won’t be anyone on kickoff coverage capable of catching him.
If you don’t account for #1, there’s a good chance you find yourself ending the game #2.
Defense: They only need to improve a little for this team to be scary good
Last year’s defense finished the season 103rd in points per game, 121st in total yards per game, and 123rd in pass yards per game. The crazy part of analyzing how bad the defense was is that the team got turnovers at an extremely high rate. They finished the season 4th in the nation in fumbles recovered, 19th in the nation in interceptions, and a whopping 3rd in the country in turnover margin.
They are an aggressive group, and expect themselves to be much improved after having to thrust a number of young players into the lineup last season following injuries to starters.
They bring back T.J. Carter in the secondary who had five interceptions as a freshman last year on his way to freshman All-America honors and being chosen as the AAC Rookie of the Year. He hasn’t slowed down one bit as he got his sixth career INT in the opening win against Mercer.
Add in an improved front seven led by senior linebacker Curtis Akins who led the team in tackles last year and you have the recipe for a team that will quickly move out of the three digit defensive rankings club while continuing to give their offense more and more chances to put up absurd numbers.
Offense: A well-oiled machine that’s nearly impossible to defend
Any question as to why Norvell is such a hot commodity begins and ends with his offense. First of all, I’m going to just throw this link out there to Football Study Hall’s breakdown of the Memphis offense under Norvell. This is an exceptional look at what makes this offense click so well and so hard to defend, and to be frank, most of what follows here is taken directly from there.
Yes, the team lost a terrific and very accurate quarterback in Riley Ferguson and an All-American and in my opinion future NFL star in Anthony Miller at wide receiver, but don’t think this team won’t find a way to continue to put up gaudy numbers.
They finished last year second in the nation in points per game behind only UCF and two key pieces of that success return in the tandem of running backs they have in Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. All Henderson did was rush for nearly 9, yes 9 yards a carry on the way to a 1,000 yard season on the ground last year. He picked up right where he left off against Mercer, gaining 76 yards and a TD at an 8.4 yds/carry clip.
Brady White, their new quarterback, was recruited by Norvell at Arizona State and will fit in nicely in Norvell’s system. What makes his system so hard to defend?
A lot of it has to do with how he uses the tight end position to set up his RPO’s and play action (see Football Study Hall article above). By keeping one TE or even two along the line as essentially an extra lineman, he is able to block down on a DE then get up the field against a LB. The danger for defenses is if you don’t line up against the TE, he is free to take on whichever strong side defender he wants. The defense becomes overstretched trying to figure out how to account for the TE during RPOs and even iso plays and then also having to worry about him running a route or getting open if the QB rolls out.
By keeping their offense centered around RPO, straight-line runs, and play action, Memphis is able to use the TE as an offensive threat receiving without him necessarily running routes. This forces the defense to account for the TE with a seventh man in the box nearly all the time, freeing up a ton of space for their wide receivers to operate in. With a team like Navy that tends to operate often in a “zone” coverage, this can spell disaster on the outside, or can simply lead to death by a thousand RPOs and bubble screens.
Having to account for the TE on the line means Mike Norvell can get his skill players favorable matchups and then once you adjust to that and maybe take away some of the coverage on the TE, all of the sudden the TE gets free down the seam for a big gain.
Add in play action, and Norvell has created an offense centered on the run, but deadly through the air. He does this to provide his quarterbacks every opportunity to succeed by keeping it simple and getting the skill players in as many favorable matchups as possible throughout the game.
For Navy to have any success in slowing Memphis down, they certainly are going to have to win more contested one on one throws than they did against Hawaii. Though some fans hate to see the “bend but don’t break” defense, and I know the coaching staff hates when schmucks like me call it that, I can see that working against this Memphis team.
You aren’t going to stop a team this explosive all game, but the big plays will kill you. You have to account for Joey Magnifico and Sean Dykes at the TE position and can’t let them get open behind the linebackers for 15 yard gains. You can’t get beat deep on the play action and give up the easy score. You have to win some one on one matchups on the outside. You have to defend the screen game well in space. And you have to limit Henderson in the run game. Everything comes back to working around the run game to open up the prolific passing game.
We know priority one this week for Coach Niumatalolo was to fix the mistakes from last week on the defensive front. This is a tall order with a team as prolific as Memphis coming to town, but hopefully, Navy will find a way. Last year’s game went down to the wire even with 5 turnovers from the Mids, and the defense was able to hold the Tigers below their average with the third fewest points scored by Ferguson and Co. all season.