Why Memphis' Justin Fuente is one of the nation's best young college coaches
It's been nearly a year since Memphis coach Justin Fuente's team lost a game. That's impressive for a once downtrodden program that won just five games in the three seasons before Fuente's arrival in December 2011. But he prefers not to talk about the Tigers' 10-game winning streak, which includes a share of the American Athletic Conference championship and a 55–48 victory over BYU last December in the Miami Beach Bowl.
"We made a pretty big deal out of last year being last year," Fuente tells The Inside Read. "We're trying to create the same urgency we had last year."
So far, Fuente and his team have done just that. Memphis is 3–0 entering Thursday night's home game against Cincinnati (2–1). It's a significant AAC showdown and will have implications for the Group of Five's one automatic berth in the New Year's Six bowl games.
Yet even with that importance and on the heels of the Tigers' wild 44–41 victory at Bowling Green last Saturday, Fuente remains unflappable. His calm, collected demeanor has made the 39-year-old one of the best young coaches in college football. It's also why Fuente's name will be a popular one whenever any Power Five jobs come open.
He deflects speculation about his future and says that he is focused on the identity of his team—which for the first time during his tenure at Memphis has an offense that is more experienced than the defense. "We're still trying to figure ourselves out," Fuente says.
The Tigers' explosive spread offense, which is averaging 54 points per game (fifth-best in FBS), is led by 6' 7", 245-pound quarterback Paxton Lynch, who's more athletic than many realize. The lanky redshirt junior has completed 76.6% of his passes this season for 818 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions.
Lynch broke out in 2014, throwing for 3,031 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. Fuente challenged him during the off-season by asking him how he would handle last year's success this fall. Lynch is still developing, but Fuente believes he will have a chance to play in the NFL.
"He's got a lot in front of him," Fuente says.
Lynch has benefitted so far from playing in an offense that returned nearly every starter from a year ago. Memphis is blessed with an experienced offensive line, as well as with enviable depth at both running back and wide receiver. No back has more than 36 carries this season and four have at least 26. The Tigers have also had 13 different wide receivers catch passes.
The depth has been part of the plan all along for Fuente, who inherited just 51 scholarship players four years ago. His offense was particularly barren, and he focused his recruiting efforts on that side of the ball.
"We don't have big-time, first-round NFL draft picks, but we've got good, solid competent players," Fuente says.
The Tigers' prolific attack is little surprise considering Fuente's offensive background. He laughs at the notion that some might have forgotten that he was previously TCU's co-offensive coordinator for three years, a stretch that included the Horned Frogs' undefeated 2010 season.
"As we've aged offensively, we've begun to score more points," Fuente says of his current team. "We've become more mature and guys that we were playing as true freshman are playing as true juniors."
Until this season, Fuente's teams at Memphis had primarily been known for their aggressive, physical defense under former coordinator Barry Odom. In December, Odom left for the same position at Missouri. His successor, Galen Scott, has had to replace eight starters from 2014.
"The thing they've kept is a gritty determination," Fuente says of his defense. "They don't give up on themselves. They don't get rattled easily. They stay the course."
Fuente says that he is interested to see if his defense can sustain that mindset the rest of the season with a schedule that includes a home game against third-ranked Mississippi on Oct. 17, as well as difficult back-to-back AAC road games at Houston and Temple in November.
But for now, Fuente says the Tigers are focused on the present. Even though Memphis has made inroads in recruiting and facilities expansion that might make the school a target for the next round of conference expansion, Fuente only wants to talk about the current season. He compares it to a book that's in progress.
"We'll just see how far we can take it," Fuente says.
Only this season maybe it'll have an even better ending.
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Losing Myles Jack is devastating for UCLA
How badly does it hurt ninth-ranked UCLA to lose All-Pac-12 inside linebacker Myles Jack to a season-ending knee injury? So much so that one FBS assistant coach says that he believes it will cost the Bruins victories this season.
"He's a really good player now," the assistant tells The Inside Read. "He's such a big playmaker. He's all over the place."
Jack suffered the injury in practice on Tuesday, just three days after his late interception sealed UCLA's 24–23 home win over 19th-ranked BYU. With 1:04 left in the game, the 6' 1", 245-pound junior picked off quarterback Tanner Mangum at the Bruins' 29-yard line to halt a potential game-winning drive.
"You have to make sure you know where [Jack] is all the time," the assistant says.
Entering this season, Jack had been projected as a first-round pick in April's NFL draft. He has started at linebacker for UCLA since he was a freshman in 2013, and has also moonlighted at running back.
Jack's game-saving interception against the Cougars is a prime example why the Bruins will miss him. He may be the team's fastest player, the rare linebacker who's able to both cover a receiver step-for-step down the field and rush the quarterback.
"Those guys," the coach says, "don't come along that often."
Along with defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau, Jack is the third defensive starter that UCLA has lost to a season-ending injury this year. The three have a combined 63 starts, and each earned at least honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last season.
The Bruins still have four ranked opponents remaining on their schedule, including No. 16 Arizona, whom they will play on Saturday night.
"How do you replace Myles Jack?" the assistant asks. "It's easier said than done."
Uncertainty at QB is hurting Ohio State's game plans
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer announced on Wednesday that he's sticking with Cardale Jones as his starting quarterback, ending speculation that former starter J.T. Barrett might reclaim the job after the Buckeyes squeaked out an unimpressive 20–13 victory over unranked Northern Illinois last Saturday.
But the reason that top-ranked Ohio State's offense has appeared so shaky in recent weeks isn't only because of the uncertainty at quarterback. Rather, it's because of the Buckeyes' offensive game plans, at least according to several coaches who spoke to The Inside Read.
"They have three different game plans every week," one coach says. "One for Cardale, one for J.T. and one for Braxton [Miller]. You know how hard that is offensively? Then they've got other guys that want to get touches too, in running back Ezekiel Elliott and their other wideouts. [If] you're more worried about touches than you are about moving the ball in your game plan … you look very average very quick. That's really, really hard on them."
Miller, a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year as a quarterback, made a highly-publicized switch to wide receiver this season after a shoulder injury forced him to miss all of 2014. The move was not only supposed to help alleviate a logjam at quarterback, but also make Ohio State's attack more explosive.
Instead, the Buckeyes' offense is, in the words of Meyer, "discombobulated." Jones and Barrett have split snaps under first-year offensive coordinator Ed Warinner.
"They've got to decide on one [quarterback]," the coach says. "If the other one's unhappy, tough s---."
The erratic Jones was 3–0 as a starter last season while leading Ohio State to the national title. He replaced Barrett—last season's Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year—after the starter fractured his ankle in the regular-season finale. But Jones has thrown more interceptions (three) than touchdown passes (two) this season, while Barrett has thrown two touchdown passes and only one interception in less playing time.
Several coaches believe that Barrett gives the Buckeyes the best chance to consistently win, but they're hopeful that the quarterback controversy will continue. "They're beatable," one coach says. "It's become a paralyzing thing."
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