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Can the Tigers’ defensive line deliver a Breakout Season?

Memphis, returning 71 percent of its sack production and adding multiple pieces from the transfer portal, hopes it can put forth a formidable defensive line in 2023.
By Blake Mayfield - August 2, 2023, 3:39 pm - 0 comments

On a wet, dreary Saturday last November, the Tigers marched on the field at Gerald J. Ford Stadium looking to end the regular season on a three-game winning streak. After sliding on a four-game skid throughout October, Memphis was already out of conference championship contention, but capping off the season with a win over struggling SMU would be a positive conclusion to the year.

The Tigers came out strong, forcing punts on two of the Mustangs’ first three possessions. When Tanner Mordecai left the game with an injury early in the second quarter, backup QB Kevin Jennings stepped in, and Memphis fans hoped the Tiger defense could rattle the true freshman playing in his fourth collegiate game. It did not happen.

SMU kept Jennings upright, and he led the Mustangs on a 16-play, 91-yard touchdown drive to end the first half. With little pressure, Jennings completed 75 percent of his passes for 83 yards. Mordecai reentered the game in the second half and the Tigers and Mustangs traded touchdowns throughout the 3rd quarter until SMU eventually pulled away. Memphis’ defense ended the game with zero sacks and four TFLs. The Tigers completed the season ranked 105th in sacks, 105th in TFLs, and 93rd in 3rd down defense.

Failure to create consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks has been perhaps the biggest hamper to the Memphis defense since 2019. While the offense garnered the most national attention on the Cotton Bowl roster, the Tigers’ defense ended the year ranked 19th in TFLs and 32nd in sacks. Names like Bryce Huff, Jonathan Wilson, and Joseph Dorceus emerged on what became the best defense in Mike Norvell’s Memphis tenure.

Memphis, returning 71 percent of its sack production and adding multiple pieces from the transfer portal, hopes it can put forth a formidable defensive line in 2023. Two of the most well-known players on the Tiger defense, Jaylon Allen and Cormontae Hamilton, return after combining for 74 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 16 TFLs in 2022. William Whitlow Jr. additionally recorded 27 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and 3 sacks in a rotational role as a redshirt freshman. Derick Hunter Jr., the 6th ranked JUCO player in the nation according to 247Sports, will enter the fold after recording 27 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, and 4 sacks last season at Hinds Community College. FAU transfer Jaylen Joyner and Oklahoma transfer Josh Ellison additionally project to contribute early for the Tigers in 2023. Highly ranked 2022 signees Joshua White, AJ Odom, and Eric Gaston should also compete for playing time in fall camp after redshirting last season.

The Memphis DL room will be an experienced unit with 47 percent of the position group being classified as juniors or older. DL Coach Kyle Pope will enter his fourth season with the Tigers and will add the role of run game coordinator to his game planning duties in 2023. For the first time in many years, there appears to be good depth on the front-end of that defense.

The ability to generate a reliable pass rush would mean everything to the Tigers’ defense in 2023, and if the Tigers want to compete for an AAC title, the defensive line has to be better. On paper, it at least appears that they should be improved. Expect the defensive line position group to have one of the most highly-contested depth chart battles as fall camp starts this week.


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