Fueled by Brady White, Seth Henigan's historic Memphis football debut felt familiar | Giannotto

Mark Giannotto
Memphis Commercial Appeal

Seth Henigan kept running when he reached the sideline. Through the high-fives of teammates, a fist bump from Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield, and a few friendly butt slaps, he kept moving. Until he reached Brady White, dressed in a white Memphis collared shirt and black slacks just like the Tigers’ coaches Saturday night. 

That’s when Henigan stopped, perhaps unaware the image of the last great Memphis quarterback breaking down the first touchdown pass of his history-making successor carried significant meaning during the full-fledged return of football to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

“Congratulations on your first one,” White told Henigan. 

So much has changed since the last time more than 30,000 people gathered to watch the Tigers together in one place like they did when Memphis opened the 2021 season with a 42-17 win over Nicholls State. It had been so long since that glorious pre-pandemic American Athletic Conference championship game against Cincinnati.

Sep 4, 2021; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Tigers quarterback Seth Henigan (14) warms up before the game against the Nicholls State Colonels  at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

There’s a new coach and a new quarterback now. There’s a new lead running back who looks to have been underrated by the recruiting services, and even a new kicker who used to be a punter for Tennessee, of all places. 

There are new party decks for the fans to watch from and also new fears about where Memphis fits in college football’s future, the result of this week’s Big 12 expansion news that buzzed through the tailgating tents that returned in droves. 

But what was new eventually seemed old again, once all those new faces welcomed back everyone with a familiar feeling. At least in this opener, Memphis looked enough like Memphis to talk yourself into believing this team will be more than just a transition to whatever’s next. 

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GRADES:Memphis football vs. Nicholls State: Grades for offense, defense, special teams

That’s probably the most satisfying part of Tiger football at the moment. Through three coaches and three quarterbacks, through too many talented skill position players and kickers to count, a pattern of succession has fueled the success.

It’s what’s so frustrating about the Big 12’s latest apparent snub of Memphis. If conference realignment is really about football, well the football has never been better at Memphis than the past seven years. 

So out came Henigan to take the first offensive snap of this season, the first snap in program history ever taken by a true freshman quarterback in a season opener. And the offense looked an awful lot like it did when White was running it.

The Tigers didn’t punt the entire game. They rushed for more than 300 yards, led by intriguing redshirt freshman Brandon Thomas. 

There will be better gauges for how ready Henigan is over the next two games against Arkansas State and Mississippi State. But the first impression, albeit against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, was encouraging aside from a few red zone hiccups. 

He threw with velocity off his back foot, threw accurately to the back shoulder, and threw a few significant deep balls over the top of the defense. He showed better mobility than White evading the pass rush, and his poise doing all this as an 18-year-old was as noteworthy as the stat line he finished with (19-of-32 for 265 yards and one touchdown).

This was not the gaudy debut White had three years ago, when he had five touchdown passes in the first half. But it was better than what Paxton Lynch did in his starting debut. Same with Riley Ferguson.  And neither of those two made their coach question if they were old enough to shave yet, as Silverfield joked postgame 

“He has a whiteboard at home where he goes over plays,” Silverfield noted. “Dude loves football.”

Sep 4, 2021; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Tigers quarterback Seth Henigan (14) rolls out to pass against the Nicholls State Colonels during the first half at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Henigan won a high school state championship in Texas coached by his father less than eight months ago. Now, with his father in the Liberty Bowl crowd less than 24 hours after coaching a high school game in Denton, Texas, Henigan is the present and the future under center for the Tigers.

Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell went from “full go” on Monday, according to Silverfield, to fully on the shelf by the weekend. Gunnell spent the game in shorts on the sideline. Silverfield said he won’t be ready to play at least over the next “couple weeks.”

But he might not get another chance if you listen to the mixture of confidence and insight Henigan exuded Saturday.

“I kind of expected it coming into fall camp,” Henigan said of winning the starting job. “As I continued to get reps through fall camp, I kind of saw what was happening and what was going through the coaches’ minds.”

That apparently includes White. Sort of. 

Henigan referred to White as a staff member, although Silverfield clarified that White is just in Memphis  training in pursuit of a NFL job and helping out within the program while he’s here. 

But he was talking to Henigan before and after each series Saturday, breaking down what had just happened and what he had seen.

“Just take a deep breath,” White told Henigan before he began this new era of Memphis football, “and everything will play out how it should play out.”

The past was guiding the present, and everyone watching could breathe a little easier.

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto