MEMPHIS – The quarterback is a JUCO transfer. The star receiver is a former walk-on. The dynamic tailback is a grayshirt. The Memphis football roster features 11 blueshirts, and the entire program is a rollicking kaleidoscope of the overlooked and the under-recruited.
Heading into the American Athletic Conference title game against No. 14 UCF (11-0) this weekend, No. 20 Memphis (10-1) finds itself in a familiar position – as an underdog. The school hasn’t won an outright conference championship since 1971, when it played in the Missouri Valley, and has long toiled in the shadows of neighboring SEC big brothers Ole Miss, Tennessee and Arkansas.
It’s appropriate that Memphis’ first appearance in the AAC title game has been a footnote nationally, as the focus of the game has locked in on UCF coach Scott Frost’s inevitable departure to Nebraska and the Knights being snubbed in the College Football Playoff ranking. And nationally, the only relevant story in Tennessee this week is the university’s meltdown during perhaps the most chaotic coaching search in college football history.
In many ways, Memphis coach Mike Norvell, 36, has the Tigers lurking in their comfort zone of anonymity. Norvell is over-caffeinated enough that he once routinely drank 12 Dr Peppers a day. That number has been cut down to one, but his energy, personality and offensive acumen have continued Memphis football’s remarkable transformation from local afterthought to nationally ranked. “They’ve upgraded the entire operation,” said Steve Ehrhart, the executive director of the Memphis-based Liberty Bowl for 24 years. “But you could tell from the second Mike Norvell got here, he was a rock star.”
There’s little doubt that Memphis’ hiring of then-obscure TCU assistant Justin Fuente in December 2011 has been the catalyst of this revival. Fuente went 19-6 in his final two seasons and was one of three teams to tie for the league title in 2014. In retrospect, that’s proven to be one of the savviest hires of the past decade.
Athletic director Tom Bowen’s hiring of Norvell, a relatively unknown assistant at Arizona State, to replace Fuente (now at Virginia Tech) has pushed Memphis from a winning program to one that resonates both locally and nationally. Memphis has gone from averaging 20,000 fans per game in 2011 to having more than 22,000 season ticket-holders, a sign of community investment. “People can relate to our football team,” Norvell said in a recent interview in his office. “That’s what this community has gravitated to.”
In an underdog town, the Tigers have built a connection. Quarterback Riley Ferguson is a junior-college transfer who’d left Tennessee and went home to North Carolina for a few months to power-wash fences and detail cars. He committed to Norvell out of Coffeyville Community College soon after Norvell got the job, and they’ve thrived together. Ferguson has become one of the country’s most prolific quarterbacks (32 touchdowns and 3,500 yards). Former-walk on Anthony Miller has the seventh most receiving yards nationally with 1,212 and 14 receiving touchdowns. (Norvell jokes that Miller should be the hands-down favorite for the Burlsworth Award given to the nation’s top walk-on, but his competition just happens to be the Heisman Trophy favorite, Baker Mayfield, who won the Burlsworth the past two years). “We’re enjoying some of the best this program has ever had,” Norvell said. “It sets the standard for who is coming in behind them.”
Figuring out what’s next may be where Norvell has proven most deft. While at Arizona State, he watched former USC coach Lane Kiffin utilize a strategy called blueshirting as a technique to navigate USC’s NCAA sanctions. A blueshirt is basically a player whom the school can’t officially recruit, but he applies to school, walks on to the team and he can be given a scholarship on the first day of practice. If the school has used its 25 allotted scholarships for that cycle, this technique pushes the scholarship forward to count against the following year. “His thinking is so far ahead of most head coaches I’ve ever worked with,” Bowen said. “He’s thinking both about the present and two years from now.”
Norvell has recruited 13 of Memphis’ 22 starters, which includes sophomore defensive lineman Jonathan Wilson, an example of a blueshirt who turned into an immediate contributor. Norvell did receive a parting gift from Fuente in tailback Darrell Henderson, who graduated from high school in 2015 but didn’t officially enroll at Memphis after grayshirting until January 2016 after Norvell arrived. Henderson averages 9.1 yards per carry, as Memphis’ identity in its tempo-based spread offense is tied to a physical run game. “Mike is a nice guy, but he’s an intense guy, and his team reflects that,” said Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who faced Norvell in the AAC when he coached Temple. “There’s going to be explosive plays in that offense, but they can run the ball. There’s a physical swagger to them.”
Norvell has gone 18-6 in his two seasons at Memphis, a beneficiary of the strong program he’d taken over from Fuente and his own creativity pushing things forward. Memphis is No. 5 nationally in total offense and No. 6 in turnover margin, an example of the controlled chaos from Memphis’ spread attack.
Norvell is expected to be strongly considered at Arkansas if the Hogs can’t land Auburn coach Gus Malzahn this weekend. Bowen was up-front about the reality of losing Norvell, but mentioned confidence in his own track record in hiring coaches – Mike McIntyre and Dick Tomey at San Jose State – if Norvell chooses to leave.
“I knew he’d be the best fit, the right coach to lead us to the next level of competitive greatness,” Bowen said of hiring Norvell. “I believe he’s going to be here for a long time. If that changes, we’ll go out and hire another great football coach.”
Bowen mentioned that the financial gap between the AAC and Power 5 leagues forces schools to be creative. Norvell figured out a way to navigate the roster to win 10 regular-season games for the second time in program history. It could have been 11 if a game with Georgia State hadn’t been wiped out.
Memphis lost to UCF 40-13 earlier this season, another reason why it’s been given little notice this weekend. And with the league’s first conference title in more than a generation on the line, Memphis tiptoes into this weekend in a familiar role. Don’t be surprised if it figures out a way to pull off another upset.
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