MEMPHIS, TENN. --- As is tradition for the Tiger football team, the Highland Hundred booster organization hosted the annual Senior Banquet at the Holiday Inn on campus and celebrated the careers of 25 Tiger seniors who will play their final games in the MagicJack St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 20 at Tropicana Field.
Each senior was presented a framed action photo and a special video presentation highlighted each of the seniors who have had a part in Memphis participating in four bowl games during their careers. Offensive lineman Brandon Pearce and Clinton McDonald were both recognized as being selected by their teammates as the permanent captains for the 2008 season. The selection was made prior to the Tulane game. McDonald is a two-time pick as he was the first junior under Tommy West to be hailed as a captain last year.
In addition to the seniors being recognized, awards were presented by the coaching staff. The Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year Awards were presented to running back Curtis Steele and linebacker Greg Jackson. Steele leads the Tigers in rushing with 1,175 yards and seven touchdowns on 206 carries. He logged his sixth 100-yard rushing game with his 135-yard effort versus Tulane. Steele ranks fourth all-time in single-season yardage and is the first Tiger to rush for over 1,000 yards since DeAngelo Williams did so in 2005. Jackson has started the last six straight games at linebacker and leads the team in TFL with 9.5 for minus 37 yards. He ranks sixth on the squad in tackles with 46. The junior has also registered three sacks, a fumble recovery and has forced a fumble. Jackson logged his first career interception against Tulane and made a 20-yard return on the pick. The Tigers scored on the ensuing drive as a result of the turnover.
Punter Brent Sutherland was honored as the Special Teams Player of the Year. Sutherland averages 40.7 yards on his 44 punts this season, and has dropped 14 of his kicks inside the opponent's 20. He has booted six punts over 50 yards, including a season-high 58 yarder.
Center Philip Beliles and right tackle Brandon Pearce shared the Offensive Lineman of the Year Award. Beliles has started his last 26 consecutive games at center and was one of four Conference USA centers listed on the Rimington Award Watch List this year. Beliles has logged action on 878 of the team's 912 offensive plays this year. Pearce has started the last 45 straight games for the Tigers. He was on the Lombardi Award Watch List this season, and was a semifinalist for the Draddy Trophy, which is considered as the "Academic Heisman." Pearce has worked 834 of the 912 offensive plays this year. Both Beliles and Pearce have been instrumental in the Tigers ranking 19th nationally in rushing offense and 22nd in total offense. The Tiger O-line ranks second in C-USA in sack denial, having only given way to 16 in 12 games.
Two key Tigers earned the Role Player Award this year, as receiver Maurice Jones and quarterback Brett Toney shared the honor this season. Jones has played in 11 of the 12 games and ranks second on the team in receiving yards with 490. He saw a shift in his role when Memphis lost two quarterbacks to injuries at East Carolina, and a third in the Southern Miss game a week later. Jones spent time working as the backup quarterback to Toney until Arkelon Hall returned to the field against UCF. Jones enters the bowl game with a 17-game active receiving streak and ranks 11th in school history in receiving yards with 1,356.
Toney went from serving as the team's holder on special teams to the primary signal caller when injuries to Hall and Will Hudgens thrust him into the ECU game on the road. Toney stepped in with confidence and led a valiant effort against the Pirates, completing 11 of 15 pass attempts for 65 yards. He made his first start against Southern Miss a week later and helped the Tigers to a win with an 8-of-16 passing effort. He threw for 125 yards and logged his first career touchdown pass - a 14-yard toss to Carlos Singleton in the Tigers' first drive of the game. The junior also started the next game versus SMU and passed for a career-high 130 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Mustangs. Toney continued to hold for PATs and field goals while also working as the quarterback.
The Black and Blue Award was added this season, and West presented the inaugural award to receiver Steven Black. The award is for toughness on the field. Black has started seven of the 12 games and is fourth on the squad in receptions with 32 and in receiving yards with 263. In the last two games, he scored four rushing touchdowns. His first career rushing TD was on a three-yard run in the fourth quarter against UCF. A week later, Black rushed for three scores off runs of 1, 2 and 36 yards and became the first Tiger to rush for three TDs since Joseph Doss did so versus UTEP in 2006.
Four Tigers were recognized for their roles with the scout teams. Offensive lineman Robbie Hardie and receiver Curtis Johnson earned Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year honors, while linebacker Derrick Odom and defensive lineman Tommy Walker picked up Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year accolades.
One of the most prestigious awards presented each year is the Top Tiger Award. The late Murray Armstrong was selected for the honor, as were receiver Earnest Williams and quarterback Will Hudgens. Armstrong lost his four-year courageous battle with cancer and passed away at his home on Nov. 29. He had served various roles within the Tiger football team and the Athletic Department over the last 46 years. During his tenure at the U of M, Armstrong worked under eight presidents, four athletic directors, nine head coaches and worked along side 126 of the 146 total football assistant coaches in the University's history. Armstrong has received numerous awards and honors including being recognized by the Memphis Chapter of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame in 1998 for his outstanding contribution to the University of Memphis. He was inducted into the University of Memphis M Club Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2000. Coach West announced that for future years, the award will now be known as the Murray Armstrong Top Tiger Award.
Hudgens has faced obstacles and adversity through much of his five-year career with the Tigers. He redshirted in 2004 as a true freshman while rehabilitating from an ACL injury he suffered during his senior season in high school, and later missed a majority of the 2005 and 2006 campaigns with a broken leg in each season. Hudgens was a utility player who worked as a backup QB, the deep snapper and even as a fullback in 2007, and was presented the Role Player Award at the post-season banquet. He had a productive spring working as a pitcher for the Tiger baseball team and was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the First-Year Player Draft. He spent a majority of the summer with the Billings (Mont.) Mustangs and opted to return this fall to play football. Eight games into the 2008 season, Hudgens was called upon at quarterback when Hall suffered a broken thumb on the first drive versus ECU. Hudgens was tackled on a three-yard run on the Tigers' second drive and tore both his ACL and MCL. He had surgery in November and will continue to rehab his knee.
Williams has often been lauded by Coach Tommy West as the guy who works harder than any other on the field. Williams may not have the size that many of the other Tiger receivers have, but he certainly has big-play ability. Williams leads the U of M receiving corps with six touchdowns. He totals 249 yards on 28 receptions, and also has logged 54 yards on nine carries this season. Williams ranks 19th all-time in receiving yards with 1,061 yards, and also ranks 10th in the record book with 104 career catches.
The Tigers will face the USF Bulls in the MagicJack St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 20. The game will be televised by ESPN2 and kickoff is slated for 4:30 p.m. ET.
Offensive Player of the Year - Curtis Steele
Defensive Player of the Year - Greg Jackson
Offensive Lineman of the Year - Philip Beliles and Brandon Pearce
Special Teams Player of the Year - Brent Sutherland
Role Player Award - Brett Toney and Maurice Jones
Black and Blue Award - Steven Black
Top Tiger - Murray Armstrong, Will Hudgens and Earnest Williams
Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year - Robbie Hardie, Trey Johnson
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year - Derrick Odom and Tommy Walker