Mike Norvell out to continue Memphis’ resurgence

Published 6:01 am Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Associated Press

New Memphis coach Mike Norvell wants to build on the momentum established by his predecessor.

Norvell begins his head coaching career this season by taking over for Justin Fuente, who turned around a traditionally losing program before Virginia Tech hired him away. Memphis has gone a combined 19-7 over the last two seasons.

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“I was excited about the direction of where our program has been able to go — and where I believe we can continue to help it grow in the future,” Norvell said. “It’s been a great transition. The excitement about the things we have in place and the places that we’re going is pretty remarkable.”

The biggest challenge facing Norvell is making sure the offense continues moving the ball effectively without Paxton Lynch, the quarterback who teamed up with Fuente to orchestrate one of college football’s most dramatic turnarounds. Lynch left school after his junior season and was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the first round.

Taking over for Lynch is former Tennessee quarterback Riley Ferguson.

“He’s got a great skill set,” Norvell said. “He’s got a strong arm, can really drive the ball down the field but is extremely accurate.”

Norvell spent the last four years at Arizona State, where he worked as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He previously worked on Arizona State coach Todd Graham’s staffs at Tulsa and Pittsburgh.

But he’s quite familiar with the Memphis area from his own playing days as a receiver at Central Arkansas. He believes Memphis has the elements in place to continue winning even in a new era that doesn’t include Fuente or Lynch.

“We’re excited about the things that are in place,” Norvell said. “We believe in the values of our program and what we’re going to accomplish. Now we just have to get out there and start getting it done.”

Here are some things to watch about Memphis.

Ferguson’s second chance
Ferguson began his college career at Tennessee but never played a down for the Volunteers. After redshirting in 2013 and participating in spring practice the following year, Ferguson transferred in the summer of 2014. After spending the 2015 season at Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College, Ferguson is back in the state of Tennessee as Memphis’ starting quarterback.

Another SEC export
Ferguson isn’t the only former Southeastern Conference player set to make an impact for Memphis. Safety Jonathan Cook, who spent the 2013 and 2014 seasons at Alabama, should give the Tigers’ secondary a boost. Cook had 61 tackles last season at Garden City (Kansas) Community College.

Experienced blockers
Memphis’ offensive line features four returning starters in tackles Gabe Kuhn and Trevon Tate, center Drew Kyser and guard Christopher Roberson. That group helped Memphis set school single-season records in total points (522) and yards (6,330) last year.

Solid special teams
Kicker Jake Elliott and punter Spencer Smith are both back after filling those roles last season. Elliott made all his extra-point attempts and went 23 of 28 on field goals last season and was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the nation’s top kicker.

Running back concerns
Although Doroland Dorceus is back after rushing for a team-high 659 yards last season, the transfers of Jarvis Cooper and Jamarius Henderson leave Memphis without much depth in the backfield. That could create an opportunity for freshman Darrell Henderson.

The losses of Fuente and Lynch make it natural to assume the Tigers take at least a small step backward. Memphis still features enough talent to produce a third straight winning season, but a 7-5 record plus a bowl invitation seems more likely than a repeat of the 10-3 campaign in 2014 or the 9-4 mark from last season.

Season opener
The Tigers host Southeast Missouri State on Sept. 3.