First Look: Ifedi, defense pace Memphis Tigers
Ifedi, a native of Houston, Texas, was one of the lone bright spots for the Tigers in 2013. He finished with a team high of 14.5 tackles for loss, including 11.5 sacks, a figure that ranked seventh best in the nation.
Memphis went just 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference in Justin Fuente’s second season as head coach. They were better than the record appeared — 10 or less points decided five games — and the defense was the biggest reason why so many games were close.
The Tigers were only one spot behind Ole Miss in total defense last year at No. 39 in the nation, allowing 370.7 yards per game. Ifedi, who has been named to the Lombardi and Chuck Bednarik Award watch lists, is one of 23 seniors on the roster and one of several returning defenders. Three of the Tigers’ top four tacklers, Tank Jakes, Andrew Gaines and Ryan Coleman return this year.
Jakes, a senior linebacker, has ties to the state of Mississippi, having played at Holmes Community College. Jakes finished with 71 stops last season, while Gaines and Coleman, who are also both former community college players, finished with 64 and 60 tackles, respectively.
Senior Bobby McCain is back to lead the secondary. Last year he tied Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt with six interceptions, a figure that was tied for most in the nation.
Unfortunately for Fuente, his Tigers didn’t posses the ball and they couldn’t score in 2013, averaging just 19.5 points per game, 110 out of 123 teams in the FBS. Following the annual Blue-Gray spring game, Fuente wasn’t upbeat about the performance and the way that unit performed.
“We’ve got a long way to go to be what we envision here offensively,” Fuente said. “At times, we flashed something that had the chance to be explosive. We just have a lot of work to do.”
Paxton Lynch, a sophomore, returns at quarterback. The 6-foot-6 Florida native completed 58.2 percent of his passes his first year, but he threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). Brandon Hayes, a redshirt senior, led the Tigers last season with 860 yards on the ground and five touchdowns. The next leading rusher is Lynch, who had 211 yards.
Any significant depth is going to have to be from a newcomer. Lynch’s top two receivers from 2013, Joe Craig and Sam Craft, are back. Craig and Craft combined for 68 catches, but only one touchdown.
If the Tigers’ offense is able to get into field goal range, they have a quality kicker in Jake Elliott, who was 16-for-18 in that department last year. He was also a perfect 24-for-24 on extra point attempts. He was named to the Lou Groza Award watch list, given annually to the nation’s top kicker.
Memphis opens the season Aug. 30 against Austin Peay and then travels to play UCLA, a team that will likely be highly ranked. The Tigers will play at Ole Miss on Sept. 27, a week before Alabama visits Oxford.