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American Athletic Conference

American Stories – Pollard’s Retruns are Something Special

Mark Weber - The Commercial Appeal

Memphis keeps flexing its muscles in the American Athletic Conference.

The Tigers are becoming perennial contenders in this league. They roared to a 10-3 record last year with eye-popping offensive statistics, wins against UCLA and seven straight conference teams and a spot in the Liberty Bowl. The Tigers gave unbeaten UCF the ultimate scare, pushing the Knights to the limit during a 62-56 double-overtime loss in the American Athletic Conference Championship in Orlando – a game that was arguably one of the best in college football last season.

Tony Pollard knows exactly how close the Tigers were.

“That puts that determination behind everybody to want to get it since we were so close and fell short, so it makes you want to that much more and take the extra step to get there,” Pollard said.

The Tigers, who averaged 45.5 points, piled up 6,028 yards and a school record 74 touchdowns may have lost the dynamic duo of quarterback Riley Ferguson, who threw for 7,955 yards 70 touchdowns during his career, and wide receiver Anthony Miller, who was a consensus All America after finishing his career with 238 catches, 3,590 yards and 37 TDs.

But they haven’t lost their ability to create spectacular plays under third-year coach Mike Norvell – especially on special teams.
Pollard, a 5-11, 207-pound junior from nearby Melrose High School has been The American’s Special Teams Player of the Year for the last two seasons after scoring on six kickoff returns, including four last season. Pollard’s next kickoff return score will tie the NCAA FBS record held by CJ. Spiller of Clemson, Tyron Carrier of Houston and Rashaad Penny of San Diego State.

Pollard made an immediate impact as a redshirt freshman, averaging 28.1 yards on kickoff returns with two electrifying touchdowns. Pollard set a school record for longest kickoff return when he raced 100 yards for a touchdown against Navy and had a 95-yard TD against Temple.

Pollard’s kickoff return against Temple was the school’s first for a touchdown in 20 years and ignited a huge celebration at the family business, Pollard’s Bar-B-Que, which is located near Graceland on Elvis Presley Boulevard.

Pollard has gone on to lead the country in kick return average at 40.0 yards in 2017 and tied for the FBS lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns, opening the season with a 99-yard kickoff return against Louisiana Monroe and a second 100-yard return against Southern Illinois.

His biggest game of the year during a comeback victory over Houston. Pollard, who also is a regular in the Memphis offense, had a career-high 206 all-purpose yards, highlighted by a 93-yard kickoff return for a TD to cut a Cougars lead to 24-14.

“That was probably my favorite,” Pollard said. “Before that, it looked like the game was over.” Pollard closed the regular season with a third 100-yard kick return against ECU.

As the season progressed, teams started kicking away from Pollard, giving him fewer opportunities. This season, the NCAA instituted new kickoff rules that will allow teams to fair catch a kickoff inside the 25-yard line and start possession at the 25. But Norvell doesn’t think it will slow down his chances to make an impact so long as Pollard, who has a career kick return average of 32.5 yards, he can provide the Tigers’ new-look offense with good field position.

Pollard has been a game-breaker ever since he played for the Whitehaven Ravens in Little League football at age 4. When he was younger, his father used to promise him a treat after he scored a touchdown. “I thought he’d want to go to McDonald’s or someplace like that,” Tarrance told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “But he wanted to go to Houston’s and get a big steak. He scored so many touchdowns, we had to change the rules after that.”

Pollard, who attended high school just two miles from Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, was almost overlooked after a broken ankle forced him to miss most of his junior year. But when then-Memphis coach Justin Fuente put on a tape, he was impressed enough with Pollard’s raw skills to offer him a scholarship.

“When I was growing up, Memphis wasn’t as big as it is today, but I always cheered for the Tigers because I lived here and wanted them to do well,” Pollard said. “But it wasn’t like it was always my favorite. When I got older, talking to Coach Fuente and he told me how the program was getting better and I could see that. So, I decided that I may as well stay home.”

Pollard got heavy late interest from SEC schools Mississippi State and Missouri, but he stayed true to the first school to offer him, signing with the Tigers in the spring of 2015, the spring after Memphis won The American championship.

Pollard redshirted his freshman year while coaches decided whether to play him on offense or defense. Fuente tried him at cornerback and running back before finally placing him at wide receiver. But that changed when Norvell arrived and began using him at multiple positions.

It didn’t take long for Pollard’s career to take off. Norvell plans on utilizing Pollard’s speed and versatility all over the field, at running back, wide receiver and return specialist this season, much like former stars Reggie Bush of USC and Percy Harvin of Florida.

Norvell got a glimpse of how lethal Pollard could be last season when he had 36 catches for 536 yards and four touchdowns, yardage second only to Miller on the team. He  rushed for two more scores for a team that depends on big plays.

Memphis, which returns 16 starters, is the favorite to win the American’s West Division. Pollard and running back Darrell Henderson will have to play big roles as playmakers this season if the Tigers want to complete their mission.

“My goal is to become a better route runner at the slot. My goal is 2,000 all-purpose yards,” Pollard said.



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