Memphis Football Midseason Awards: Recognizing the Difference Makers
We’ve officially hit the halfway mark of the Memphis Football season. Sitting at 4-2, the Tigers have essentially won the games they were projected to win and lost the matchups they were expected to lose. The final six games of the regular season will go a long way in determining the overall feel of the 2023 Tiger football team. Statistically, the Tigers’ on-field production remains around the same as it was a year ago. Memphis has the 4th ranked offensive and defensive units in the American Athletic Conference after finishing the 2022 season ranked 6th and 4th overall. New stars have undoubtedly emerged, though, and without the presence of certain players, games could have been easily swayed in a different direction. So who are the notable contributors through six games on the schedule? Bluff City Media awards our midseason picks.
Top Offensive Player — Blake Watson
This selection is rather indisputable. An argument could be made that Watson is quite possibly the Most Valuable Player on the entire Memphis roster this season. Through six games, the Old Dominion transfer is averaging 5.7 yards per carry with 468 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns on the year. Add 26 receptions for 233 yards and a touchdown to the equation, and Watson has been nothing short of a transfer portal steal for Ryan Silverfield and staff. Watson’s 706 all-purpose yards rank second in the American Athletic Conference and 26th nationally. Starting the season as a fringe NFL Draft prospect, Watson has moved to a Top-100 grade on some draft boards during his brief time in Memphis. After leaving the game in the 3rd quarter against Tulane, his current status for the Tigers’ matchup with UAB remains in question. If he’s unable to go, the Tigers will look to Sutton Smith to fill the huge void Watson will leave in the Memphis offense.
Honorable Mention — Roc Taylor
Before the start of the season, Taylor was billed as a major part of the Tigers’ offense entering his third season on campus. Six games in, Taylor has already doubled his production from the 2022 season with 34 receptions for 507 yards and two touchdowns on the year. With nearly 200 yards more than the second-leading receiver on the team, it’s clear Taylor has emerged as the second-best offensive option for Memphis OC Tim Cramsey, and he’s likely the biggest homerun threat on the team. Against the Tigers’ toughest opponent of the season, Taylor had a career-best 143 yards on seven receptions in St. Louis. He’s followed up that performance with back-to-back 100-yard games inside Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. If he continues the pace he’s on, Taylor could very well finish the year as the first Tiger to reach 1,000 receiving yards since Calvin Austin III did it in 2020 and 2021.
Top Defensive Player — Chandler Martin
Last season, Chandler Martin had 94 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 4 PBUs for the East Tennessee State Buccaneers. The second-leading tackler for the Bucs had 36 fewer tackles. Playing his first season at the FBS level, it was natural to wonder if the redshirt sophomore’s game would correlate to a higher tier of football. Finding himself again as the team leader in tackles with 46 total, I think Tiger fans have their answer regarding Martin’s contribution to this team. In a year where the linebacker position was a question mark entering the season, Martin’s addition to the Memphis roster is perhaps as equally as big as Watson’s on offense. With several more seasons of collegiate eligibility ahead, the Memphis coaching staff will undoubtedly look to make Martin the centerpiece of the Tiger defense going forward.
Honorable Mention — Geoffrey Cantin-Arku
Several Tigers could’ve been inserted here, but Geoffrey Cantin-Arku deserves some recognition through six games. From providing what could go on to be the play of the year in the FG block and return against Boise State to finishing near the top of each game’s box score, Cantin-Arku has filled the role as a key contributor in the Memphis LB in 2023. Off the field, he’s been mentioned multiple times by fellow Tigers as a go-to leader in the Memphis locker room. Coming off a tough loss to Tulane last week, he’ll be a big factor in a rivalry game against UAB this Saturday.
Newcomer of the Year — Simeon Blair
From the coaches, to the players, to the fanbase, no offseason addition was talked about more in Memphis than Arkansas transfer Simeon Blair. As the Tigers’ third-leading tackler through six games, Blair’s contribution to the Memphis defense is perhaps bigger than the stat sheet signifies. Whether it be forcing a fumble as Navy was driving to win the game or delivering a big hit to jar loose a scoring touchdown reception against Boise State, Blair seems to provide big plays when he’s needed most. Last season, the Tigers often looked to Quindell Johnson in run support, and with Davion Ross getting injured in the second game of this season, Blair has been called upon even more than perhaps initially intended.
Honorable Mention — Joshua Ellison
Leading the team in TFLs, Ellison’s big body has moved opposing offensive coordinators to account for his presence. It will be the game-ending 4th down stop that’ll be remembered from the Navy game, but it was Ellison’s clutch sack the play before that put the Midshipmen in a difficult 4th and 6 situation. When speaking to Bluff City Media earlier this season, Ellison mentioned his desire to make a mark on the game as influencing factor to transfer to Memphis for his final season of collegiate eligibility. A plug-and-play replacement for the outgoing transfer Cam’ron Jackson, Ellison has provided much-needed run-stopping ability through six games this season.
Position Coach of the Year — LB Coach Jordon Hankins
Depending on who you asked, there were varying levels of concern about the depth of the linebacker room entering the 2023 season. Two of the Tigers’ five leading tacklers (Xavier Cullens and Tyler Murray) were lost to graduation and the most (and only) experienced returners were Geoffrey Catin-Arku and Cincir Evans. In addition, Memphis lost young contributors Jared Nedd, Davian Mayo, and Andrew Jones to the transfer portal and essentially replaced that depth with FCS transfer Chandler Martin, JUCO transfer CJ Johnson, and redshirt sophomore Bryce Edmondson. Through six games, the linebacker room has been as stellar as expected at Memphis. Martin, Cantin-Arku, and Evans each appear as top five tacklers through six games and the third-year linebacker coach from Middle Tennessee has emerged as one of the best year-to-year coaches on Ryan Silverfield’s staff.
Honorable Mention — WR Coach Larry Scott
Make no bones about it, the production in the WR room at Memphis last season was, at times, downright frustrating. Consistent drops and an inability to create separation certainly had some contribution to the 37 sacks the Tigers allowed last season. There were moments where pass catching (or lack thereof) became a total hindrance to the Memphis offense. In 2023, former Vanderbilt QB Larry Scott found himself on the Memphis coaching staff after he wasn’t retained at UAB last season and, for various reasons, the WR room has looked decently improved this season. The Tigers currently sit as a top-three receiving offense in the American after finishing fourth last season. They are additionally on track to surpass last season’s total of 23 reception touchdowns with 13 through six games. Like the linebacker position, Tiger fans entered the season wondering who Seth Henigan was going to throw the ball to. Roc Taylor, Koby Drake, and others have adequately filled the role vacated by graduation and the transfer portal and WR coach Larry Scott seemingly deserves applause for that.
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