By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
Phil Stukenborg, the University of Memphis beat writer for the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, is covering a completely different Tiger team in 2014.
Memphis, the Ole Miss Rebels’ opponent Saturday night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, has made significant strides under head coach Justin Fuente.
Prior to this season, the Tigers had only won seven games in two seasons under Fuente, but after a 2-1 start, and pushing No. 11 UCLA out in the Rose Bowl in Week 2, the excitement level has increased in the Bluff City.
“This a much improved team since the day (Fuente) took over. He’s adept at developing quarterbacks and we’ve seen that happen with Paxton Lynch, his starter,” Stukenborg said. “They’ve tried to build up the people around him, and they’ve done that. The talent level has increased. Their running back, Doroland Dorceus, has been a big boost to them this year. They’ve also got some new receivers that have come in and helped. They’ve got an eye for talent and it’s starting to show itself this year.”
Memphis has been solid on defense the past couple of seasons and so far, the Tigers appear to be just as good, if not better.
“(Fuente) has a defensive coordinator in Barry Odom who came from Missouri where he was an assistant. He is really drawn a lot of people’s attention,” Stukenborg said. “He’s been sought after each year he’s been here by some of the schools in the Power 5 conferences. He’s been happy to stay here and kind of stay with what the rest of the staff thinks is a rising star in Justin Fuente. The defense is for real in terms of what he’s done with it. They obviously have an incredible challenge Saturday, but for the teams they play in their league, I think they’ll be really solid.”
Stukenborg felt like the Tigers wouldn’t be intimidated of playing Ole Miss on the road after playing UCLA out in the Rose Bowl in front of 75,000 fans.
“There was a big moment in that game where UCLA takes the ball on their opening possession and scores, misses the extra point, and Memphis takes the ensuing kickoff, goes and scores and kicks the extra point and takes the lead,” Stukenborg said. “From that moment on, it was a dogfight. They put themselves in position to compete for four quarters.”
Something else Stukenborg has noticed from the players, based on practice, was how much more the players have bought into what Fuente expects.
“The first year he had a tougher time to get the players to understand what kind of pace they had to practice at and how in shape they had to be,” he said. “I guess that has changed the most. There is so much more teaching going on in year three rather than to get them to practice at a high pace and with a lot of focus. That part has been solved and I think it just creates more teaching.
“I think that’s part of the reason why they have been so competitive. This staff is doing what you have to do at Memphis. This staff has a good eye for talent and bringing in guys that are just slightly under the radar that they can project to be good players.”
A player that Stukenborg is somewhat overlooked, or a hidden gem for fans to keep an eye on Saturday, is inside linebacker Tank Jakes, who leads Memphis with 25 tackles, a year after being the top tackler in 2013.
“He ended up being the (American) Conference Defensive Player of the Week after having a safety and three tackles for a loss and a couple of sacks,” Stukenborg said. “He forced a fumble that led to a 59-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Middle Tennessee in the fourth quarter that kind of put the game away. Then after that, he intercepted a pass when Middle Tennessee was driving. And he ended up being the second leading tackler in the game. People weren’t aware of his big-play ability and it just all kind of came together in one night.
“He is one of those undersized guys that plays with a chip on his shoulder and feels like he belongs up there when no one else thought he did.”
From a Memphis perspective, the coaching staff feels like this year’s Ole Miss isn’t just good, but may be great.
“This may be one of the best groups that they’ve put together in a decade or so,” Stukenborg said about the Rebels and the feel he gets from Memphis coaches. “All the great recruiting that Hugh Freeze and his staff have done the last couple of years is really starting to take affect. It’s just amazing to see. I think the Memphis coaches knew they had an incredible challenge when they went to UCLA and they see this one as a greater one.”
Because the Tigers are off to a 2-1 start, and because this is the first time that the Tigers are playing the Rebels since 2009, Stukenborg felt like the Memphis fans would show up Saturday night.
“I think the fans are just happy that Memphis and Ole Miss were able to get together and put this game back on the schedule,” he said. “They used to talk about it being a great kickoff to the college football season here in the Mid-South. It’s a good series no matter when it’s played. If you ever try and drive back to Memphis after that game, even if you’ve been in the press box two hours after the final, you realize it’s pretty popular in Memphis. There are a lot of cars going back to Memphis.”