No. 114: Middle Tennessee State
By Paul Myerberg // Apr 25, 2012
Middle Tennessee State was fairly competitive for six weeks. The Blue Raiders took Purdue down to the wire in the season opener, losing on a late field goal. Two weeks later, Middle Tennessee lost to Troy, 38-35, in the Sun Belt opener for both teams. That was followed by a win over Memphis, which was followed by an overtime loss to Western Kentucky; by December, the Hilltoppers would be recognized as one of the most improved teams in college football. Two weeks later, following a bye, the Raiders would beat Florida Atlantic, 38-14, to move to 2-4 at the midway point. With only Sun Belt play and a trip to Tennessee to go, M.T.S.U. was in a good position to earn a third consecutive bowl berth. What followed, from Oct. 29 through Dec. 3, was the program’s worst stretch of play since moving up to the F.B.S. in 1999.
11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 29
at Georgia Tech
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
at Mississippi St.
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 1
- Nov. 17
at South Alabama
- Nov. 24
- Dec. 1
at Arkansas St.
Last year’s prediction
The bottom line is that there are more questions than answers, both along the coaching staff and on the depth chart — beyond just quarterback. How could anyone — minus the most optimistic portion of the fan base — predict Middle Tennessee to do more than scuffle along in five-win territory? One thing I do feel has happened thus far in 2011, though I don’t this is a trend, merely an occurrence: Middle Tennessee is at best standing still while its prime Sun Belt competition is moving forward. I don’t think it will last, but I think this team will struggle getting back to last season’s win total.
In a nutshell The second half of last season began with a 45-20 loss at home to Louisiana-Lafayette, which snapped the Blue Raiders’ two-game winning streak in the series. A week later, Tennessee pitched a shutout. Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State and Florida International beat Middle Tennessee by 28, 26 and 13 points, respectively — and in the latter, the Blue Raiders made the score look respectable with a meaningless touchdown with 19 seconds left. Middle Tennessee saved its worst for last: in the season finale, the Blue Raiders rolled over and played dead against North Texas, allowing the Mean Green to rack up 464 rushing yards in a 59-7 win. Something was rotten in Murfreesboro over the final six games of last season. Is there a cure for what ails this team? The Blue Raiders need to start with the basics: begin with consistency — and this includes the coaching staff — and work from there. After the way last fall came to a close, it’s hard to tell what the future holds for Rick Stockstill and this program.
High point The first half of last season. The Blue Raiders won twice, beating Memphis and Florida Atlantic — wins, though not good wins — and lost three games by a combined nine points. You could easily make the case that M.T.S.U. should have beat both Purdue and Western Kentucky. The Blue Raiders had Troy in their grasp, but the Trojans pulled away in the third quarter.
Low point No loss stands out more than the 52-point shellacking at the hands of North Texas. Coaches mired in a painful two-year swoon have been fired for less. North Texas running back Lance Dunbar needed 188 yards for a 1,000-yard senior season and 140 to break Patrick Cobbs’ school record for career rushing yards. He gained 313 yards, leaving him with 1,115 on the season and 173 yards ahead of Cobbs in the record books.
Tidbit Over Stockstill’s first four seasons with the program, Middle Tennessee was plus-32 in turnover margin: plus-6 in 2006, plus-11 in 2007, plus-3 in 2008 and plus-12 in 2009. The latter margin, three years ago, tied the Blue Raiders with East Carolina for eighth-best in the country. It’s been a different story over the last two years, however. In 2010, Middle Tennessee ranked 120th in the F.B.S. in turnover margin at minus-19; the next closest was Cincinnati, which was minus-15. Last fall, the Blue Raiders tied for 100th nationally at minus-eight.
Tidbit (30 points edition) Since 2006, Middle Tennessee is 25-3 in games where it scores 30 or more points. The program’s record in such games heading into 2011 was 23-1, with the lone defeat coming in a 58-52 loss to Louisville in 2007. The Blue Raiders went 2-2 when scoring at least 30 points last fall, beating Memphis and Florida Atlantic but losing to Troy and Western Kentucky.
Former players in the N.F.L.
3 S Rod Issac (Jacksonville), LB Jamari Lattimore (Green Bay), RB Phillip Tanner (Dallas).
Arbitrary top five list
Recruits from Tennessee in the class of 2008
1. OL Barrett Jones (Alabama).
2. LB Dont’a Hightower (Alabama).
3. WR Randall Cobb (Kentucky).
4. DT Dontari Poe (Memphis).
5. OT Alex Hurst (L.S.U.).
Rick Stockstill (Florida State ’82), 35-40 after six seasons at Middle Tennessee. After going 7-6 and winning a Sun Belt co-championship in 2006, Stockstill slipped to 5-7 in each of the following two seasons before setting a new program record on the F.B.S. level with 10 wins in 2009. Over the last two years, however, the Blue Raiders have been a disappointment. The preseason Sun Belt favorite heading into 2010, Middle Tennessee finished below .500, though Stockstill did lead the team into bowl play. Last fall, as mentioned earlier, was an unmitigated disaster. His seven wins as a first-year coach were the most by a rookie M.T.S.U. coach since Charles Murphy won nine in 1947. Hopes were relatively low for Stockstill and the Blue Raiders that fall, as the program was coming off four consecutive losing seasons under his predecessor, Andy McCollum. Picked to finish sixth in the preseason media poll, the Blue Raiders won four of their final six games to win the conference and play in the program’s first bowl game since joining the F.B.S. in 1999; in all, it was the program’s first bowl appearance since 1964. Before being named the program’s 13th head coach in 2006, Stockstill spent two seasons as an assistant under Lou Holtz at South Carolina (2004-5), first as the team’s wide receiver coach (2004) before taking on the dual role of tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator in 2005. He is perhaps most well-known for an extended period as an assistant at Clemson (1989-2002), where he served, over varying lengths of time, as the team’s recruiting coordinator, wide receivers coach, quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. After struggling over the last 24 months, Stockstill needs to prove — prove again, rather — that he’s the best man for this job.
Tidbit (coaching edition) For the third straight year, Middle Tennessee will open a season with a new offensive and defensive coordinator. Sort of. After the 2009 season, Stockstill replaced offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who left for Louisiana Tech, with Mike Schultz; he replaced defensive coordinator Manny Diaz with Randall McCray. Neither worked out: Schultz and McCray were let go after one season, replaced by in-staff candidates Willie Simmons and Steve Ellis. Simmons lasted until last October, when he resigned following an arrest on charges of aggravated assault. He was replaced by Buster Faulkner, an Air Raid disciple who was then Stockstill’s quarterbacks coach. Ellis returns in 2012, though he’ll share defensive coordinator duties with former Southern Mississippi and Mississippi coordinator Tyrone Nix. So, to recap: Middle Tennessee has a new offensive coordinator, though he was in place for the final seven games of last season, as well as a new co-defensive coordinator.
Players to watch
Logan Kilgore was likely going to remain Middle Tennessee’s starting quarterback regardless, but senior Jeff Murphy’s torn A.C.L. — an injury he suffered with two practices left in the spring — removed the final obstacle from Kilgore’s path. Even though Stockstill said over the winter that nearly every position on the roster was open to competition, he did state that Kilgore would work with the first-team offense when the team retook the field in March. Even before Murphy went down, no quarterback had played well enough to unseat Kilgore from the starting lineup.
The two shared starting duties last fall, with Kilgore starting 10 games, as the Blue Raiders threw for more than 3,000 yards for only the second time in school history. On the year, Kilgore threw for 2,237 yards and 18 scores against 12 picks; Murphy, who played in nine games, starting against Arkansas State and Florida International, added 794 yards and 3 touchdowns.
A full offseason working in Faulkner’s offense should be helpful for Kilgore, who took a statistical slide after Faulkner replaced Simmons in mid-October. In addition, Kilgore, like any second-year starter, should see the game slow down thanks to last year’s experience. The most pressing issue lies at backup quarterback, where Murphy’s injury has the Blue Raiders turning to redshirt freshman Shaun White. While White is the future at the position, he’s not ready to take on a starting role if Kilgore misses an extended period of time. Murphy has said that he’ll try to play on the torn A.C.L., much like his head coach did as a senior at Florida State.
The receiver corps is headlined by juniors Tavarres Jefferson (51 catches for 380 yards) and Anthony Amos (27 for 379), two holdovers from last year’s rotation. What the Blue Raiders must replace, however, are touchdowns: Sancho McDonald and Malcolm Beyah combined for 12 of the team’s 21 touchdowns through the air last fall. In McDonald and Beyah, the Blue Raiders also lose two of their bigger targets in the passing game. By and large, the receiver corps leans small, with Amos, Jefferson and Kyle Griswold — a third potential starter — standing 5’11 or shorter.
This Air Raid-centered offense doesn’t demand lanky receivers, mind you, but there will be a role for bigger options like Marcus Henry, a winter addition, junior Arthur Williams and redshirt freshman Christian Collis — Stockstill pointed out the latter pair as two returning receivers who had a nice offseason. These taller receivers will start on the outside, leaving inside duties to receivers like Jefferson, Griswold and Reggie Whatley. If not a strong receiver corps, Middle Tennessee does have enough depth to field a competent crop of options for Kilgore to work with in the passing game.
Running back Benny Cunningham will also have a role as a receiver: he made 17 catches for 187 yards last fall, to go with 501 yards and a team-best 4 touchdowns on the ground. His rushing total was good for second on the team behind junior William Pratcher, who led the way with 585 yards on 4.8 yards per carry. Cunningham, Pratcher and junior Drayton Calhoun will share the load in the running game; Calhoun, a former L.S.U. transfer, is one skill player who could break out in 2012. Having this trio in the fold allowed Stockstill and Faulkner to move Whatley and Griswold over to receiver after each shuffled between both positions last fall.
The Blue Raiders are loaded at defensive end. There’s enough depth here, in fact, that Middle Tennessee could afford to move sophomore Leighton Gasque, a burgeoning star as a pass rusher, back to his more natural position at linebacker. Gasque became expendable — in a way — thanks to promising debut seasons from fellow sophomores Jiajuan Fennell (24 tackles, 5.0 for loss) and Shubert Bastien (33 tackles, 4.5 for loss), who will battle to start opposite of senior Omar McLendon (54 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Bastien, who has added about 30 pounds since last season, played in every game as a true freshman.
In addition, the Blue Raiders return sophomore Max Ugboaja, one of last season’s reserves, and get back a healthy Alexandro Antoine, who was penciled in as part of the rotation heading into last season before an injury ended his year in August. Increased numbers inside also allowed M.T.S.U. to move junior Dearco Nolan (13 tackles, 3.5 for loss) back to end, where his 250-pound frame can be put to better use. Few Sun Belt teams look better at defensive end, though the returning contributors need to do a better job at getting to the quarterback.
Two seniors will start up front: McLendon and tackle Kendall Dangerfield. While the interior of the line struggled stopping the run last fall, at least part of these struggles can be tied back to a thin rotation; there was little behind Dangerfield and junior Jimmy Staten, leaving that pair on the field well past their expiration date. With sophomore Patrick McNeil recovered from last season’s Achilles injury and a pair of redshirt freshmen — Morris Moore and Jerrold Frazier — in the mix, M.T.S.U. can field a far deeper rotation. But there’s no ignoring the issues this group had against the run last fall, meaning those newcomers, along with the holdovers, must do a better job getting stops on first and second down.
Nix will have a profound impact on Middle Tennessee’s linebackers. This group was awful last season, thanks in large part to its overwhelming youth and inexperience. Linebacker play should improve in 2012, if only because of Nix’s background with the position; linebacker play will also improve because of last year’s experience, which will come in handy as the Blue Raiders prepare for September.
The only major change on the two-deep can be found on the strong side, where Gasque (17 tackles, 7.0 sacks) is backing up junior Craig Allen (53 tackles), a five-game starter in 2011. Where Gasque stands on the depth chart doesn’t matter: his job will be to get to the quarterback, pure and simple, and he may often be moved down to end on clear passing downs. Junior Roderic Blunt, who split time with Allen on the strong side, moves over to the weak side, where he’ll replace Darin Davis. The middle will again be manned by some combination of sophomore Christian Henry and Corey Carmichael, with Henry holding a slight edge during spring camp.
What does Middle Tennessee have in the secondary? Not a whole lot. While the schedule isn’t loaded with high-octane passing teams, the Blue Raiders still must improve in defending the pass; last fall, the only team that didn’t do what it liked through the air was North Texas — and the Mean Green, behind Dunbar and company, didn’t need to. The two most looming holes in the secondary: cornerback and strong safety.
Junior Kenneth Gilstrap will hold one starting role at cornerback after sharing time last season with T.L. Edwards, who has since exhausted his eligibility. On the other side, M.T.S.U. must replace former JUCO transfer Arness Ikner, who held down the position over his two seasons with the program. The Blue Raiders have options: one is sophomore Sammy Seamster, who started twice at free safety last fall; another is sophomore Khari Burke, who worked primarily on special teams as a freshman.
When it comes to replacing Eric Russell — last year’s leading tackler — and Derrick Crumpton at safety, the Blue Raiders are hoping that two new faces are up to the task. One is former Florida State transfer Jajuan Harley, who sat out last season as a transfer. He’s nearly unopposed at strong safety, while Middle Tennessee will give redshirt freshman Kevin Byard first crack at replacing Crumpton at free safety. Byard was recognized as the defense’s most improved safety during the spring, if that means anything.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Middle Tennessee lost four offensive linemen who combined for more than 160 career starts, so it’s make sense that this position stands as a major concern as the Blue Raiders left spring ball. What the offense returns are a pair of linemen with solid starting experience in junior Josh Walker and senior Alex Stuart, who combined to make 18 starts a season ago. To fill the three remaining spots up front — not to mention the two-deep as a whole — Middle Tennessee will rely on a few returning linemen with adequate experience, a few new additions and a handful of younger, unproven linemen now pushed into larger roles.
Walker will remain at right guard, where he made eight starts as a sophomore. Stuart, who started at three positions in 2011, is expected to open the year at center, where he’ll replace Colin Boss. In a pinch, M.T.S.U. could swing JUCO transfer Micah James inside to center; in a perfect world, however, the Blue Raiders could flank Stuart with James at left guard and Walker on the right side. The bigger issue lies at the bookend tackle spots, where, as of today, the Blue Raiders have penciled sophomore Isaiah Anderson and junior Jadareius Hamlin in for starting roles.
Anderson, who started the final two games of last season at right tackle, will move to the blind side in 2012. Hamlin, a converted defensive lineman who started one game last fall, is simply not big enough to work well as a run blocker on the strong side. As a whole, in fact, Middle Tennessee lacks size up front: only two linemen on the current depth chart, James and Walker, come in at over 300 pounds, the average weight of the projected starting five is 289.2 pounds. Big when you’re standing in line at the D.M.V., perhaps, but when it comes to work between the white lines, the Blue Raiders are undersized.
Game(s) to watch
It’s not an overly difficult schedule. Where it hurts, however, is in the four Sun Belt road games. Three of the four come against the league’s frontrunners: Florida International, Western Kentucky and Arkansas State. That alone — as if there wasn’t more — will prevent the Blue Raiders from being taken seriously as a title contender. If this team is going to return to bowl play, it must beat McNeese State, Memphis, Florida Atlantic and South Alabama.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell I don’t have any major issues with Middle Tennessee’s personnel. There are some concerns, mind you, but none more pressing than those plaguing the majority of the rest of the Sun Belt. Kilgore is a fine starter, but can he avoid the multiple-game lulls that defined his 2011 season? Does Faulkner have the receivers his offense needs to move the ball effectively through the air? Can the interior of the line stop the run; can the ends get pressure on the quarterback without help; is the new-look secondary ready for the rest of the Sun Belt? Above all else, will this fairly raw and untested offensive line gel by September? These concerns are enough to project Middle Tennessee to miss bowl play for a second straight season, but to me, the bigger issue lies with this team’s mentality. It’s hard for a team to scrub off a disastrous season — like the one M.T.S.U. experienced last fall — and get back on the horse. I worry about a carryover from 2011, when the Blue Raiders went from a borderline bowl team in early October to the worst team in the program’s F.B.S. era down the stretch. Perhaps the new voices on the coaching staff can motivate this team forward over the summer and in August. As of today, I wonder if the program needs a more wholesale change — one that starts with the head coach.
Dream season Middle Tennessee opens with four wins in five games. While the Blue Raiders can’t get to the top of the Sun Belt, Stockstill is named the conference’s coach of the year after an eight-win regular season.
Nightmare season A win over McNeese State in the season opener is followed by a loss to Florida Atlantic. The Blue Raiders don’t recover from that painful defeat, winning only two games for the second consecutive season.
In case you were wondering
Where do Middle Tennessee State fans congregate? Not a lot of options, though you can find stellar Middle Tennessee sports chatter and recruiting news at Go Middle and Blue Raider Zone. Additional coverage can be found at the Web sites of The Tennessean and The Daily News Journal. Of course, list in the comment field below any sites I may have missed. If you post it, I’ll link to it.
Middle Tennessee State’s all-name nominee S Juno Prudhomm.
Through 11 teams 35,382.
Who is No. 113? When tomorrow’s team takes the field for the first time in late August, it will be against a team that has been outscored in a season only once since 2000.
Tags: Anthony Amos, Benny Cunningham, Buster Faulkner, Christian Henry, Drayton Calhoun, Jajuan Harley, Jeff Murphy, Kenneth Gilstrap, Leighton Gasque, Logan Kilgore, Middle Tennessee State, Omar McLendon, Rick Stockstill, Shubert Bastien, Sun Belt, Tavarres Jefferson, Tyrone Nix, William Pratcher
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