When Justin Fuente arrived on campus and became the head coach at the University of Memphis, the football program was in shambles. The team had won five games in their last three seasons and needed a complete makeover.
One of the fastest turnarounds in the Fuente era thus far has been the defense. In 2011, Memphis ranked 117th nationally in total defense, 97th in rushing defense and 108th in total sacks.
Before he became the defensive coordinator at Memphis, Barry Odom was the safeties coach at his alma mater Missouri and developed quite the reputation over a long period of time.
“We graduated high school in Oklahoma the same year, so I knew about him when we came out of high school,” Fuente said of Odom. “That name in that part of Oklahoma because of his brothers and everything, you know about the Odom family.”
Still, Odom had spent 15 of the last 16 years in Columbia since arriving as a freshman linebacker in 1996. Fuente knew that he wanted him to be his defensive coordinator, but he didn’t think he’d ever leave Missouri.
“When he came in for an interview, he had more questions than I did,” Fuente explained. “He was just very thorough and very prepared and very professional. I had never worked with him, but I knew people that had, and he had certainly earned a really good reputation.”
Senior defensive back Anthony Watson credits Odom for the dramatic turnaround.
explained “He’s a big factor in that,” Watson said. “We look to him as our leader. Basically, he preaches domination from a physical and mental standpoint so we just back him up in whatever he says.”
Even though the Tigers won just four times in 2012, they won twice as many conference games as the previous three seasons combined.
In Odom’s debut season as defensive coordinator, Memphis led Conference USA in total defense in conference games, giving up just 331.6 yards per contest. The Tigers lowered their total yardage allowed in conference games by 30 percent from 2011.
“He’s the same every day,” Fuente added. “He’s very consistent with them and they know what to expect. The level of expectation is set for them and the kids have responded.”
Despite being off to a 1-3 start to the 2013 season, the Tiger defense has once again exceeded expectations. Before last week’s game against Central Florida, the Tigers led the nation in total sacks.
Now, Memphis sits at 16th nationally in total defense, 16th in rushing defense and 7th in totals sacks. The Tigers have also held its last three opponents to season lows in total yardage.
“We try not to look at the scoreboard when it comes to things like that,” Watson explained. “We just want to move on, try to get better at our craft and what we do. We can only control what we can control. If we’re ranked that high, then we are ranked that high. As far as getting better, that’s what we are focused on.”
Fuente believes that Odom has been so successful because of the job that he has done with the staff as well as the relationship he has built with his players.
“He’s great with the kids,” Fuente said. “He’s demanding, but they also know that he cares. He is thoroughly involved with his position groups and their lives, and he understands X’s and O’s and scheme and how to get players to play hard and do the right thing. He’s just a really well-rounded football coach.”
Throughout the week, Watson said the guys watch a lot of film outside of practice, preparing for that week’s game. He also added that they formulate their game plan quickly, in hopes of covering everything that they might see from the opposition.
“We prepare fast,” Watson added. “We try and get as many plays as possible and as many looks as possible. Basically our coaches prepare us for anything. We’re pretty much prepared for what we are going to face.”
The preparation during the week has certainly yielded results on the field this season. The Tigers have completely shut down three high-powered offenses in a row.
Although the offensive production hasn’t exactly equaled that of the defense, Watson said that his unit isn’t worried and that they are just focused on the next week and the next game.
“We just have to stay on track with what our coaches want to do with us,” he said. “We have to stay bought into the program and what our coaches expect from us.”
There is no denying how much of an impact Odom has had on the defense, and the perception of Tiger football in general. In just 16 games, he has completely turned around a defense that was one the worst in all of college football.
Fuente’s innovations certainly merit credit for the expedited inversion of the program, but what Odom has brought to the table is more than what any could have expected, except for Fuente of course. He has known all along that Odom is head coaching material.
“I don’t think there is any doubt about it,” said Fuente.