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AAC preview: Memphis

The SportsXchange

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- It was only appropriate that the Memphis Tigers were greeted with a miserably hot and humid first fall practice for 2013, with temperatures in the mid-90s and a heat index of 105. This season the Tigers will be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

After going 9-39 over the past four seasons, the Tigers are moving from Conference USA to the newly formed American Athletic Conference. The AAC is made up of 10 teams, mostly former members of the Big East Conference and Conference USA.

Memphis will open the season with nonconference games against Duke, Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State before beginning conference play at home against Central Florida on Oct. 5. The conference schedule also includes games against Louisville, Cincinnati, Central Florida, South Florida and Houston.

"We know that we are obviously faced with an incredible challenge to build a football program while simultaneously taking a step up in competition," said Memphis coach Justin Fuente, who is entering his second season with the Tigers. "But we're going into this with our eyes wide open and with a full understanding of what it's going to take to get the job done, and we're looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead."

Memphis returns 45 lettermen from a team that won its last three games in 2012 after going 1-8 to start the season. Expectations aren't very high for a team that was picked to finish 10th in the AAC preseason media poll, but junior cornerback Bobby McCain said the culture of the program is beginning to change.

The Tigers welcome back 17 starters, including eight from a defensive unit that led Conference USA in total defense in conference games last season. The top returning players include senior quarterback Jacob Karam, senior running back Brandon Hayes and junior linebacker Charles Harris.

"Some of the guys know exactly what they need to do now," McCain said. "Last year we were learning. This year we are a little more experienced, a little more together and know a little bit more about the game. We know the playbook. We know what Coach Fuente wants at practice, the energy and the enthusiasm."

As usual the quarterback is the key to success. Karam, a junior, started all 12 games last season but did so under constant scrutiny. He completed 64.1 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions, but he threw for just 134.1 yards per game.

The offense sputtered most of the season without big plays in the passing game and coaches experimented with backup Eric Mathews, but Karam solidified his status as the starter over the last three games of the season, completing 40 of 52 pass attempts with seven touchdown passes.

The offense expects significant help from Hayes, the 5-foot-8, 205-pound former walk-on running back who could be poised for a big senior season after emerging as Memphis' best ball carrier last year.

Hayes took over after starting running back Jerrell Rhodes was dismissed from the team. He rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns in the last two games of the season, finishing the year with 461 yards on 99 carries.

A newcomer who is expected to help is linebacker/defensive end Kewan Alfred. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior was a first-team All-Southwest Junior College Football Conference selection last season at Trinity Valley Community College in Beaumont, Texas. Alfred recorded 41 total tackles, including 32 solo stops and three quarterback sacks, garnering interest from New Mexico, North Texas and UNLV before signing with the Tigers.

Junior linebacker Martin Ifedi has been named to the preliminary watch list for the 2013 Lombardi Award, which is given annually to the nation's best lineman or linebacker. Ifedi was a second-team All-Conference USA selection after leading Memphis with 11 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks in 2012.

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Memphis will open the season against Duke on Sept. 7 at the Liberty Bowl before visiting Middle Tennessee on Sept. 14 and then coming home to play Arkansas State on Sept. 21. The Tigers didn't fare well against those three teams in nonconference competition last season. They lost all three games by an average of 15.7 points per game, including a 38-14 loss to the Blue Devils.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Memphis took a big step forward in the final weeks of the 2012 season, winning its last three games to finish the season with a 4-8 record. QB Jacob Karam was a little more effective in the passing game, RB Brandon Hayes emerged as an explosive ball carrier and the Memphis defense continued its season-long strides, holding its last three opponents to 18.7 points per game. After demonstrating marked improvement in those contests, they Tigers hope they can carry it into their second season under coach Justin Fuente.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Fuente has expressed concern that the Tigers are still young and inexperienced on offense. They return eight starters, but there are five freshmen listed on the two-deep depth chart. Karam showed some promise last season, managing games in an efficient if unspectacular manner, but the Tigers need to establish a big-play threat in the passing game. If Karam isn't capable of doing that, redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch could be asked to step in as the starter.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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