Bulls have witnessed Lynch's evolution
He came into Raymond James Stadium two Novembers ago as a raw and mostly unproven redshirt freshman, a collegiate novice only slightly greener than most of those surrounding him.
Friday night, Memphis junior QB Paxton Lynch returns as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate.
"I heard (Cincinnati) Coach (Tommy) Tuberville say last week he's one of the best quarterbacks in the country that he's seen," Bulls coach Willie Taggart said earlier this week. "And I agree."
A 6-foot-7 right-hander from Deltona, Lynch's stock -- and that of his team -- has reached virtually an unprecedented stratosphere. He has established a career-high for passing yardage in each of his last three games, and enters Friday's contest against USF ranked fifth nationally in pass efficiency (83-for-113, 1,230 yards, eight TDs).
His next interception will be his first of 2015.
"Everything he does, it's like he's already seen it, he already ran the play in his head, and there's no...holding the ball," Taggart said. "It's coming out now. And if he doesn't have it, he's athletic enough to run and get the first down or touchdown for you. ... I'm sure he could just go out and call the plays; he knows it that well."
That type of instinctiveness and seasoning was borne of trial and tribulation, as indicated in this story. Lynch, who has started every game for Memphis since the beginning of the 2013 season, has grown with most of the players around him.
Four of his five starting offensive linemen are seniors; as are two starting receivers and the starting tight end. Their early calamities (i.e. a 17-15 loss to Middle Tennessee in 2013) have been supplanted by continuity and clairvoyance.
"Were there times when I thought about giving him a little break his freshman year? Yeah sure, there were," said Memphis coach Justin Fuente, whose team went 3-9 in '13. "But we really felt like, between the guys around him playing better and him continuing to improve, that we were getting a lot out of it."
The perseverance was validated last fall. Lynch established a Memphis record for total yardage (3,352) and completed better than 70 percent of his passes in six games, highlighted by a then-career-best 78.3 percent (18-for-23, 232 yards) in a 31-20 win against USF.
The five sacks he has taken this season are only one fewer that the amount he sustained in that loss to Middle Tennessee two Septembers ago.
"I think all those things he didn't have his first year...you see it now," Taggart said.
"He can process everything; he's great at faking. You take that for granted, but he's great at selling the fake, and they're a huge play-action team. Throwing the ball on time, he can make all the throws, make the deep-ball throws. And then running with his feet -- when he doesn't have it, he goes. He doesn't hold the ball long at all. He gets rid of it or he's gone."
Friday marks Lynch's second consecutive non-Saturday game, which means another chance to showcase himself before a national TV audience. The Bulls' objective: pressure Lynch, confuse him into tentativeness, create takeaways. If all else fails, hope his pregame meal doesn't agree with him.
Otherwise, the Heisman whispers become more audible.