Last week I defended University of Memphis head coach Larry Porter's decision to start Cannon Smith at quarterback for the second game of the season. Smith, who is the son of FedEx founder and Tiger benefactor Fred Smith, has been at the center of a debate focused on whether he has earned his starting position or if it has been bought by his father's billion dollar bank account.
I defended Porter's decision based on the fact that Smith's potential replacement, true freshman Ryan Williams, did not significantly outperform him in the Tigers' 49-7 loss to Mississippi State. Also, Smith's game against the Bulldogs was his first start and he was playing in a hostile road environment. Finally, there has been no evidence the elder Smith has attempted to exert his influence.
Regardless of the reason, Smith did start today's game against East Carolina. On the Tigers' first two offensive series, he was responsible for two turnovers—the first a bungled exchange with his center, and the second an interception thrown at least 10 feet over the head of his receiver. Smith did manage to lead the Tigers to field goal before being replaced by Williams late in the first quarter.
Williams entered the game and immediately drove the Tigers 68 yards for a touchdown in just four plays. The Tigers would come up empty the rest of the first half, but the freshman played poised and looked the role of a starting quarterback.
In a move that elicited groans in every bar in Memphis, Porter went back to Smith to start the second half. The Tigers managed just one first down before Williams made his return. The change resulted in two consecutive touchdown drives.
The skeptics will now be question motives more than ever. Porter may have his reasons for sticking by Smith, but after the Tigers' 49-27 loss to ECU he definitely owes everyone an explanation.
It might be as simple as he does not want to permanently damage Cannon's confidence. Smith does have two more seasons to improve and could even be called upon this season depending upon injuries. Porter also has a built-in excuse if he does not start Smith next week. After the game, he was taken to the hospital for suspicion of a concussion suffered during the game. He could always cite injury concerns when making the decision.
Last week I said you could not blame Porter for playing Smith when the Tigers were expected to compete within Conference USA. Why risk alienating your biggest financial supporter when you are not going to win anyways?
This week though, the Tigers showed with Williams at the helm they could win some games in the conference this season. While they likely cannot win six to qualify for a bowl game, the team is loaded with talented freshmen who have an opportunity to develop together this season.
Williams is clearly the better player and the future of the program. Each week that he outperforms Smith and is not named the starter, the more likely it becomes that money and influence are driving the quarterback battle in Memphis.