On the precipice: Justin Fuente, Paxton Lynch and Memphis's reinvention into a football contender
MEMPHIS—The kid's arm was a pipe cleaner, his legs spindles. He was all limbs and joints, the kind of frame so many teenagers struggle to harness, which well-meaning mothers assure their sons they'll one day grow into. On the football field that August day in 2012, standing at 6' 7" and 215 pounds, Paxton Lynch looked like a basketball player who'd lost his way—until he lined up on the right hash mark and lobbed a comeback route to the other side of the field.
A true freshman at the University of Memphis, Lynch entered fall camp that summer as the Tigers' third-string quarterback, likely to redshirt. Overlooked by most major colleges because of a knee injury that derailed his senior season, the quarterback had committed to Memphis without ever throwing a live pass in front of his coaches. They loved the highlight film they had seen, but this was different. As Lynch's pass arced into his receiver's hands, head coach Justin Fuente, offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey and much of the rest of the Tigers' staff exchanged knowing looks. "He could make the throw that keeps a lot of people out of the NFL as a high school kid," Dickey recalls. "He could do that with ease as a true freshman."
Lynch remembers those early practices well—the crazy abandon of the passes, the sense that he was doing something special without really knowing how. You see, at tiny Trinity Christian Academy in Deltona, Fla., the quarterback hadn't been much of a passer. His team ran the wing-T offense, which relies heavily on quarterback fakes and handoffs, and he never even had a position coach until he arrived at college. "I taught myself how to throw because I played baseball," Lynch says, "so I just threw it like a baseball."
Three years, 30 pounds and 30 consecutive starts later, Memphis's redshirt junior quarterback laughs. "I guess it's natural ability," Lynch says, more question than statement, and shrugs. He is right—but only sort of. It was natural ability, born of years of competing with his older brother, Evin, who is now a pitcher at Stetson University. The brothers' arm strength, Evin says, was always comparable, but what Lynch has done this season and last is the product of so much more than the sheer ability to wing the ball. Through five games in 2015, the quarterback has completed 70.5% of his passes for 1,535 yards, with another 116 rushing yards to boot. Of the eight starting quarterbacks who have yet to throw an interception this fall, only Arizona's Anu Solomon has more touchdown passes (11) than Lynch's 10, and his 181.5 passer rating ranks fifth among all FBS signal-callers.
With his Tigers off to a 5–0 start heading into a showdown with No. 13 Ole Miss on Saturday, Lynch has become one of the most talked-about quarterbacks in the game. His name is shooting up 2016 NFL draft boards, but somehow he's still the same kid who was ignored until the last moment of the recruiting cycle, who chose a school that had won three games in the two seasons before he arrived, who believed he had the talent to help turn it around.
For most of his college career, Alan Cross thought he knew what he wanted to do with his life. The Tigers redshirt senior tight end earned his degree in chemistry last May, and when he chose that major as an underclassman, he figured he'd go on to teach high school science and coach prep football. Recently, though, Cross has reexamined his plan. After playing for more than three years under Fuente, he has decided he'd rather coach at the college level, so inspired is he by what his coach has done at Memphis. But as he lays out his rationale, Cross offers one caveat. "The only bad part," he says, "is [Fuente] went from black hair to gray in like a year."
He's right. Halfway through year four in Memphis, Fuente, 39, has crossed solidly into salt-and-pepper territory. But that doesn't seem to faze the coach, who has his own thoughts on the subject of hair—in this case, Lynch's, and facial. Now 21, the still-babyfaced quarterback sports a smattering of whiskers. "He's been working on his mustache forever," Fuente says. "And it's horrible."
So here they are, the graying coach and the semi-bearded quarterback, not so much proud of what they've achieved as consumed with pushing it further. It can seem like yesterday that they were unproven and losing—until each looks in the mirror. These past three years have aged them, though for the better.
When Fuente arrived at Memphis after the 2011 season, the Tigers hadn't made a bowl game since '08. In '09, '10 and '11, they won a combined five games. After two seasons, former Tigers running back Larry Porter (3–21) was out as coach, and with the change Memphis faced reality; in order to truly establish its athletic department and vie for an eventual jump to a Power Five conference, the school needed football. And it needed Fuente.
Just 35 at the time of his hire, Fuente had spent the previous five seasons at TCU first as its running backs coach (2007-08) and then its co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach ('09-11). After watching his previous team surge up the Mountain West standings and realign into the Big 12, Fuente wanted to apply the same methods in Memphis and build a turnaround on relationships and what he calls a "factory-worker" mentality. "We wanted to identify with the blue-collar, roll-your-sleeves-up [personality]," Fuente says. "We're not into the fancy wine, women and song and moon and stars that you see in college football."
Even so, at his previous stop, Fuente got a glimpse of the glitz of college football's upper echelon through his role as coach and mentor to Andy Dalton, the 35th overall selection by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2011 NFL draft. And when Fuente arrived at Memphis, he was cognizant that the key to success would be to identify another high-level quarterback around whom he could shape his offense. When Taylor Reed, who started nine games for Porter in '11, left the school, Fuente was disappointed. But in early January, the coach landed Jacob Karam, a transfer from Texas Tech. Still, he wasn't ready to stop putting out feelers for potential talent. "We are the program that's got to look underneath the rocks," Fuente says.
And that's how the coach came to receive an odd piece of information soon after landing Karam. Bill Lofton, then the associate athletic director at Memphis, had been visiting Florida, and he read a story in a weekly newspaper about a 6' 7" local quarterback prospect who hadn't received the recruiting attention he deserved. Lofton wondered if Memphis shouldn't look into the kid, and once Fuente and his staff saw a few minutes of film from a postseason All-Star game, they were, if not sold, then at least curious. After doing more research, Dickey flew to Florida and met Lynch at his high school gym, where the teenager had just completed a workout. "I kind of looked at him like, when are they going to bring the quarterback in here?" the coordinator recalls of his initial impression. "He was as tall as he is now, [and] much, much thinner. … But his hands, when you shook hands, you could tell. He had a firm grip."
When Wynton McManis arrived back on Memphis's campus this summer, the senior linebacker was struck by the change. Much of his defense, which had allowed an average of just 18.4 points per game a season ago, had graduated. After finishing 2014 with a 10–3 record and the No. 25 ranking in the AP Poll, Memphis had finally turned a corner. It was the first season in which the team had notched double-digit wins in program history, but McManis and others felt less like they'd accomplished something and more as if their project had just begun.
Cross says he has never had to tell younger players how far the team has come. Most were recruited by and committed to a perennial bottom-dweller with hopes that they could be part of the rebuild—and now they have. And though the Tigers finished last year with a share of an American Athletic Conference title and a Miami Beach Bowl win, the team came away from the season with the sense that it could do even better. That made losing its seniors, the players recruited by Porter who stuck with Fuente, even harder. When Cross sees former teammate Charles Harris, a linebacker, on the sideline this year, it's a constant reminder to not be satisfied. "I kind of feel like [my former teammates are] playing through me," Cross says.
As a group, he explains, they went through so much. When Fuente was hired, Cross, a first-team all-conference tight end last season, was a walk-on long snapper who had just finished his redshirt season and had never flown on an airplane. Now, he is fielding exploratory phone calls from agents, which, he explains in his Millington, Tenn., drawl, is enough to boggle the mind. "We came from nothing," Cross says. "I know that. It's been a long run."
The nothing started with a 4–8 season, Fuente's first, in 2012. Yet the team won its final three games, lending players a sense that if they had bought into their coach's system earlier, they might have been bowl eligible. Karam, the starting quarterback in '12, became a fan favorite after a video of him playing piano with a patient at St. Jude's Hospital went viral. When he finished the season with a 76.9% completion rate over the last three games, he seemed like a piece Fuente might build around—until the coach did the opposite.
Winning streak be damned, Lynch would be the quarterback in waiting no longer. When news of the change hit, the Internet—and Memphis's campus—broke out into a #freethepianoman campaign. Lynch, just 19, was caught in the crosshairs. Opening 2013 with two straight losses, to Duke and Middle Tennessee, didn't help, nor did a four-game losing streak in October. The Tigers, who finished 3–9 that year, had entered the season thinking they had broken through. Suddenly, it appeared as if the program had taken a step back. For a freshman, Lynch's numbers were adequate—he finished the season with 2,056 passing yards and nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions—but that wasn't enough to appease the message board mob, which referred to the quarterback as a "giraffe" and demanded further change.
Fuente remained unruffled. Lynch was his guy, and the coach watched as his affable quarterback developed an edge as the season progressed. "I feel like if you don't get tested with what you love, you'll never know how bad you really want to do it," Lynch says. "How bad do I want to be good? How bad to I want to succeed? How bad do I really want this?"
For as long as he can remember, Lynch wanted to be a running back. Growing up as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan in Florida, his room was painted black and gold. His number of choice was 20, after Pittsburgh great Rocky Bleier, who won four Super Bowls as a fullback in the 1970s.
Football has always been Lynch's first love, even if his body screamed basketball with every inch he grew. Hoops just never took, though, and by his freshman year of high school, he'd given up baseball, too. Around that same time, he made the switch to quarterback. At 6' 5", he was simply too tall to play his position of choice—but he resolved that he'd never outgrow his ability to run the ball.
He hasn't. Since taking over as Memphis's quarterback, Lynch has rushed for 564 yards along with 16 touchdowns, and as he has gradually added about 30 pounds to his frame (he came in at 215), his running has become more powerful. "We do some things with him that you would normally see done with a 6' 1" guy in college, like running the read option and the speed zone," Fuente says. "We do some of those things with him, because …" The coach pauses. "Because he's really good at it."
Teammates love the novelty of watching their giant scramble. "He kind of looks goofy, like an ostrich that just got hatched running around," Cross says. "He's an athlete, I have to give it to him. Even though he looks goofy doing it." McManis, who admits he has been bulldozed by his quarterback in practice, says Lynch still fools opponents with a skill set so at odds with his size. Teammates, however, stopped being surprised ages ago. "Those long legs will get to running, and he'll pull away," the linebacker says. "There was a point where I was chasing after him, and he got away a little bit, and I was like, man, did that really happen?"
With that mobility comes a certain poise. Lynch sees the field better than most quarterbacks his age, and his comfort in the pocket has increased in spades since his first season starting under center. Dickey cites the quarterback's physical development as the key to his comfort; with the added weight has come a sense that he can take the hits, and that confidence has freed up Lynch's game. "It's not like he's got a glitch," Dickey says. "He can throw on the run. He can throw from the pocket. He can throw short with touch. He can throw deep. He can read defenses."
That maturation is also the product of a routine Lynch began last fall, which Fuente noticed immediately. On Tuesday mornings when the coach would show up at work, his quarterback would have already arrived at the football offices, usually around 6 a.m. He'd post up there with quarterbacks coach Brad Cornelsen and break down film until he had to go to class, and the extra effort showed on the field. Memphis started 2014 with a 3–3 record, but two of those losses came to Power Five foes, UCLA and Ole Miss. From there, the Tigers cruised, riding Lynch's breakout campaign and a strong, veteran defense to a six-game winning streak to close out the regular season. At the Miami Beach Bowl against BYU, the Tigers blew two 10-point leads. But in double overtime, Lynch threw two 11-yard touchdown passes to seal the 55–48 shootout win, his school's first in a bowl since '05.
"It was like the Super Bowl," McManis, a Memphis native, says. His face lights up at the memory of his family traveling to Miami, and of the reception the team got when it returned. But as quickly as those scenes play out in his mind, his smile is gone. Twisting a plastic bracelet that bears the words "EARN IT"—he wears one on each wrist—McManis qualifies his glee. "What you did last year is not going to mean anything this year," he explains. "Some teams still see us as Memphis, and we like that. We don't want to be the fat cats."
At halftime of the Tigers' 53–46 win over Cincinnati, a prime-time Thursday-night game on Sept. 24, Cross went rogue. His team was down, 30–28, and he was angry. The moment called for a speech, he decided, and when he opened his mouth, the words flowed out. "This team this year is better than last year's team, obviously," Cross told his teammates in the locker room. "We can score whenever we want to if we're doing the right things, if we execute the game plan. Defense, y'all can stop whoever you want if you're doing the right things and executing. ... I'm not going back to what it used to be. It was horrible."
The memories of those struggles remain too fresh for Memphis to presume it's created anything permanent, but entering Saturday, the Tigers stand on a precipice. A victory over Ole Miss would launch the team into the spotlight, which is coming regardless. The offense is averaging 47.8 points per game (sixth most in the FBS) and the Tigers are ranked 22nd in the Coaches' Poll. Plus, their quarterback is generating NFL attention as a potential first-round pick.
Lynch doesn't know yet whether he'll leave a year of eligibility on the table and bolt for the league come spring, and that decision rides on his performance and health for the rest of 2015. For now, he's trying to ignore the hype, with help from Fuente. "In my mind, he's still a big puppy dog that we need to protect," he says, but when the time comes, the notoriously direct coach will be happy to offer counsel. And the fact that those conversations will happen is a testament to the job Fuente has done. He inherited. He rebuilt. He yelled. Still does, sometimes. But if there's one thing Memphis players know, it's that they're getting the truth.
"The shortest distance between two points is a straight line," Fuente says, "and that's the way I prefer to communicate with our team." That's also the way he has reshaped his program, steady and sure, standing at 4–8, pointing at 10 wins and winding up there in short order. It's been direct, but it hasn't been easy.
When Memphis players are recognized on campus, in a restaurant, at a gas station, they still flinch. Are they being mistaken for the basketball team? Is someone going to mock their record? No, not anymore, but the past is just the right amount of fresh that these players are still running from it. Only now, there's a distinct difference: Heading into the biggest regular-season game in program history, they aren't running scared.