Coach: Tommy West (5th season, 25–23) 2004 record: 8-4 (Lost to Bowling Green in GMAC Bowl) C-USA finish: 5-3 (t-2nd) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 18th (203.2 ypg) Passing: 25th (257.2 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 52nd (141.8 ypg) Passing: 114th (275.9 ypg)
at Southern Miss
Depth Chart: Offense
5 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
7 returning starters in red
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The fifth recruiting class of Tommy West's tenure at Memphis included such standouts as running back T.J. Pitts of Gainesville, Ga., and linebacker Jeremy Rockette of nearby Olive Branch, Miss. But there's little doubt that West's best recruiting job was convincing All-America running back DeAngelo Williams to stick around for his senior season.
Williams had the credentials and talent to declare for the NFL Draft. So when he announced at a packed press conference -- one that was broadcast live on a local radio station -- that he was returning, those in attendance erupted in a loud ovation that drowned out the final words of Williams' opening line.
"It was a real hard decision," Williams said. "I went back and forth. But I sat down with Coach West and after we compiled all the facts it boiled down to me loving the city of Memphis, loving the fans, loving my comfort level here and the relationships I developed with the team."
With one of the nation's top running backs in the fold, the Tigers will be a threat to earn an unprecedented third straight bowl trip. Williams' presence also takes pressure off whichever first-year starting quarterback emerges from the pack to replace record-setting four-year starter Danny Wimprine.
Freshman Will Hudgens has the arm strength and the size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) to become the frontrunner, but junior Patrick Byrne, who handles kickoffs, has taken lots of reps the past three seasons and is more comfortable with the Tigers' offense.
It's the old good news/bad news situation. Each of the team's starting linebackers -- Carlton Baker, Tim Goodwell and Quinton McCrary -- return, but that's after an underachieving season. In an effort to get better results from the position, defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn has stepped in to take over coaching the middle linebackers.
Dunn won't exhibit the patience he did a year ago. He'll go to fundamentally sound reserves if needed. Waiting in the wings are junior Mike Snyder and sophomores Heath Grant and Greg Hinds, the prize recruit from the 2004 class who is poised for a breakout season.
Secondary breakdowns haunted the Tigers a year ago. Memphis allowed 29 touchdown passes, the highest total in the conference, and ranked 114th in the nation in pass defense. In an effort to strengthen the shortcoming, the Tigers signed six defensive backs, including junior college standouts LaKeitharun Ford and Brandon McDonald.
The strength of the secondary is at free safety, where first-team all-conference pick Wesley Smith returns. A hard hitter who can go sideline to sideline, Smith has the ideal build (6-3, 194 pounds) and mentality to prosper at the next level.
Punting has been mostly handled by the team's quarterbacks, who booted on the run, rugby-style, the past three seasons. West signed junior college punter Michael Gibson to give the unit a more conventional look, but don't expect the Tigers to abandon the rugby-style kicks which, when executed properly, are difficult to field and get significant roll.
The placekicking chores will rest on the capable feet of Stephen Gostkowski, a first-team all-league selection last season.
Many observers thought a third straight bowl trip for the program was clinched in January when Williams announced he'd be returning for his senior season. But for the U of M to be back in the postseason, it must have one of its inexperienced quarterbacks emerge. If not, Williams will be a marked man.
Also, a Tiger defense that struggled mightily a year ago, particularly against the pass, must step up and embrace Dunn's attacking, blitzing philosophy.