Middle Tennessee is eager to get back to work, mainly to put last year’s finish behind it as quickly as possible.
By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello
The Blue Raiders—and tenth-year head coach Rick Stockstill—have been a well-kept secret in Murfreesboro for some time. But 2014 qualified as an undisputed disappointment, with painful November losses to Florida International and UTEP nixing a bowl invitation. And Stockstill is going to remind his kids throughout this offseason how they felt after fumbling away a chance to appear in a second straight postseason game. It should serve as the necessary motivation for a program that has operated with largely underappreciated constancy for the better part of a decade.
Middle Tennessee was a picture of mediocrity a season ago. Six wins. Six losses. And a scoring average that was one-tenth of one point higher than opponents. Stockstill is determined to rise above the averageness in 2015, a goal that’ll require distinct improvement on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Blue Raiders are looking for more pop out of the passing game to support an established ground assault … and fewer turnovers, a particular bugaboo in 2014.
The defense is hoping to bounce back from its worst season since 2011. The Blue Raiders failed to hold an FBS opponent below 22 points, and generally struggled to stiffen at key points in tight games. The fallout was predictable, including putting too much pressure on the offense and first-time starting QB Austin Grammer. Tyrone Nix’s D has some flash in the form of SS Kevin Byard and LB T.T. Barber, but consistency and depth has eluded it. Two of Nix’s spring goals, which will continue to be pursued in August, were to incite the pass rush and plug the holes in a leaky secondary.
Stockstill has a good thing going in the ‘Boro, achieving an underrated level of stability and consistency during his tenure at the school. But last season was a departure from the norm, a detour that’s going to require a correction of sorts in 2015. After disappointingly finishing .500 with a largely veteran team, the Blue Raiders have doubled down their efforts this offseason in order to get back on track. Middle Tennessee is hungry to resume its winning games and turn last November’s collapse into a distant memory.
What you need to know about the offense: Middle Tennessee was good offensively in 2014, averaging 31.6 points per game. But coordinator Buster Faulkner is convinced his unit can be much better. In fact, he’s demanding it. The Blue Raiders, erected on the shoulders of a power running game, too often misfired in the form of stalled drives and turnovers. And while an unusually deep corps of backs, led by Shane Tucker and Jordan Parker, will be the calling card, Faulkner wants more from his passing game in 2015. QB Austin Grammer, the face of the attack’s up-and-down persona, has considerable potential as a dual-threat. But if he fails to reach it, he could be vulnerable to Brent Stockstill, the head coach’s son, who throws darts. The passing game must also overcome an unproven collection of pass-catchers and an untested pair of tackles protecting the pocket. Now that line leader Darius Johnson is practicing at guard, Middle Tennessee could have a redshirt freshman, Carlos Johnson, and a junior college transfer, Maurquice Shakir, guarding the flanks.
What you need to know about the defense: Soft. It’s the one word that best described the Middle Tennessee D a year ago. And neither the returning players nor coordinator Tyrone Nix is the least bit happy about it. The Blue Raiders buckled against quality opponents, and even some that weren’t especially potent in 2014. They do harbor a solid base on which to build, from star S Kevin Byard and LB T.T. Barber to 320-pound space-eating tackles Patrick McNeil and Shaquille Huff. But if Middle Tennessee is going to stop being shoved around, the supporting cast will need to make bigger contributions this fall. More specifically, someone, like former Marine Steven Rhodes, has to offset the lost sacks of Leighton Gasque and Shubert Bastien, and the cornerbacks have to make life more difficult on opposing quarterbacks. The Blue Raiders had all kinds of problems defending the pass in 2014, yielding 26 touchdown passes and just under 270 yards per game.
What to watch for on offense: Divvying up the carries. While there are question marks associated with the passing attack, the ground game in Murfreesboro is in great shape. The quarterback can scramble. The team’s best blocker, Darius Johnson, is moving inside to provide more of a push. And the backs are as deep as any in Conference USA. But the coaches need to maximize the ability of Shane Tucker, Jordan Parker and Jeremiah Bryson, who are all good enough to handle the feature role. Too bad Tucker or Bryson can’t moonlight at wide receiver, because the Blue Raiders are very thin and unproven on the outside.
What to watch for on defense: The search for new pass rushers. Middle Tennessee is set on the inside in 2015 with 320-pound bouncers Patrick McNeil and Shaquille Huff. But who causes mayhem off the edge now that the top two sackers, Shubert Bastien and Leighton Gasque, have graduated? The Blue Raiders are especially excited about the trajectory of junior DE Steven Rhodes, the former walk-on—and Marine—who continues to turn heads with his strength, speed and commitment to excellence.
This team will be far better if … it does a better job of protecting the ball. The Blue Raiders tied for No. 10 in Conference USA turnovers in 2014, including 13 picks and 11 lost fumbles. Even worse, their timing was horrible. November losses to Florida International and UTEP could be traced directly to carelessness with the ball. And those two defeats were the difference between a winning season—and a bowl game—to a .500 campaign that ended on Nov. 29.
The Schedule: The Blue Raiders will alternate a home game with a road trip every week of the year, beginning with a visit from Jackson State on the season’s opening weekend.
– Middle Tennessee’s two road games in September will be to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama and Champaign to meet with Illinois.
– One of the league’s thornier schedules of 2015 also features both of last year’s Conference USA Championship Game participants, Louisiana Tech and Marshall, in back-to-back games.
– For the second year in a row, Middle Tennessee will not get a bye week until after its eighth game, the Oct. 24 trip to Louisiana Tech.
– The Blue Raiders’ two meetings with West Division opponents take place on the final two weekends against teams that finished below .500 in 2014, North Texas and UTSA.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Vanderbilt. Sure, it’s in Murfreesboro, and the ‘Dores were dreadful last year, but Derek Mason has shaken up his staff, intent to turn things around in 2015.
Best Offensive Player: Senior LG Darius Johnson. Middle Tennessee is talented in the backfield, with the ability to run the ball consistently. A big portion of that success, though, is directly attributable to Johnson, one of Conference USA’s premier blockers. After 37 career starts at tackle, the hard-working all-leaguer is moving inside to address the team’s lack of physicality between the tackles. Johnson is the total package, and the move to guard, a better fit for his frame, will actually help his draft stock in 2016.
Best Defensive Player: Senior SS Kevin Byard. If there was do-over for Byard’s recruiting class, he’d land multiple SEC offers this time around. He’s flourished that much as a three-year starter with the Blue Raiders. Byard can do it all out of the secondary, from dishing out punishing hits to racking up 15 picks and four touchdowns during a decorated career. He’s spending this offseason tightening up his tackling and becoming a more vocal leader, with an eye on improving his standing within the NFL scouting community.
Key player to a successful season: Redshirt freshman LT Carlos Johnson. While it’s a lot of pressure on such a young player, Middle Tennessee really needs Johnson to hold on to the starting gig that was given to him in the spring. He’s young, but he’s arguably the most athletic of the Blue Raider O-linemen. And if he proves he can protect the quarterback’s backside, it’ll allow the team’s best road-grader, senior Darius Johnson, to remain at guard, where he’ll plow open holes for some of the league’s top backs.
The season will be a success if … the Blue Raiders get back to winning at least eight games. Middle Tennessee won eight in 2012 and 2013, and have a team that’s capable of being back in that neighborhood again this season. The schedule, save for the Sept. 12 trip to Tuscaloosa, isn’t so bad for a team with a veteran presence on both sides of the ball. Even the Raiders’ other two games with Power Five opponents, Illinois and Vanderbilt, could wind up as statement victories. After missing out on the postseason in 2014, Middle Tennessee ought to qualify with a little bit of room to spare this November.
Key game: Nov. 7 vs. Marshall. The Thundering Herd will be good again in 2015, but not as potent as a year ago, when QB Rakeem Cato was roaming Huntington. This could be a year that the Blue Raiders capitalize on a more vulnerable Marshall, especially since the schools will meet at Floyd Stadium. If Middle Tennessee has any hopes of competing for an East Division crown, it’ll have to win here, since the other divisional showdown takes place at Western Kentucky on Oct. 10.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Rushing touchdowns: Middle Tennessee 31 – Opponents 19
– Passing yards per game: Middle Tennessee 217.5 – Opponents 269.7
– Turnovers: Middle Tennessee 25 – Opponents 20
Players You Need To Know
1. SS Kevin Byard, Sr.
Byard has crafted a terrific career, far exceeding the expectations that accompanied his arrival from Georgia. He’s a three-year starter, finally getting the credit he deserves with last season’s First Team All-Conference USA honor. At 5-11 and 226 pounds, he hits like a linebacker, yet also excels as a turnover-machine on the back end of the D. Emblematic of Byard’s versatility and multi-faceted skill set, he delivered 66 stops, three tackles for loss, six interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2014. He now has 15 career picks and four touchdowns.
2. LB T.T. Barber, Sr.
Barber’s production slipped considerably in 2014. But he’s still one of the most disruptive linebackers in the league, earning Second Team All-Conference USA. Despite the drop in numbers, he led the team with 72 tackles to go along with 7.5 stops for loss, two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles. The Blue Raider staff is hoping its 6-1, 229-pound thumper can recapture his sophomore form, when money plays were far more commonplace.
3. LG Darius Johnson, Sr.
Johnson has been a rock up front for the Blue Raiders, and one of Conference USA’s most accomplished blockers. He’s started 37 consecutive games in Murfreesboro, ascending to the all-conference second team in 2014. At 6-3 and 305 pounds, he’ll be a guard at the next level, but until this year he’s been a top-flight pass protector, with the feet, agility and upper body strength to seal off the edge on opposing pass rushers. However, in an effort to bring more physicality to the interior, the coaches are moving him to left guard.
4. QB Austin Grammer, Jr.
While Grammer wasn’t anointed the successor to Logan Kilgore until late August, he might be entrenched as the starter for the next two seasons. Yeah, there’s work to be done, but the foundation is down. Grammer started every game of 2014, providing a running threat with 442 rushing yards and six touchdowns. And while the 6-2, 205-pounder needs to uncork the ball with more consistency, he did complete 221-of-338 passes for 2,557 yards, 17 touchdowns and 12 picks. The staff is confident the junior will make another stride in his evolution this fall.
5. RB Shane Tucker, Sr.
Tucker came off the bench in all but a single 2014 game, yet the role had little impact on his production. Even with touches divvied up between myriad Blue Raiders, the versatile 6-0, 217-pound still led the team with 12 total touchdowns and 837 yards from scrimmage, 486 on the ground and 351 through the air. Despite his impressive size, Tucker is one of Middle Tennessee’s most athletic skill position players, leaping over piles at the goal line and showcasing the ball skills of a wide receiver.
6. RB Jordan Parker, Sr.
After seeing his output drop for a second straight year, Parker is banking on a rebound in his Murfreesboro finale. He’s an all-around talented runner, with the 6-1, 222-pound frame to shoulder the load each week. But he lacked the same burst he had prior to suffering a sports hernia and hip injury the prior year. And his touches suffered accordingly, plummeting to a career-low 128 carries for 546 yards and two touchdowns. Parker has all-league tools, but he’ll first have to recapture his rookie form.
7. DT Patrick McNeil, Sr.
McNeil is the leader of an underrated collection of Blue Raider tackles that’ll help congest running lanes in the fall. He’s a veteran of 28 career starts, with the agility at 6-1 and 320 pounds to follow former linemate Jimmy Staten into the NFL next spring. McNeil was named honorable mention All-Conference USA, despite making just 15 tackles, two stops for loss and a sack, an indication of the respect he gets from around the league.
8. WR Ed Batties, Sr.
Batties started 11 games in his first season since transferring from Kilgore (Tex.) College, leading the Blue Raiders in receptions. The former JUCO All-American caught 45 passes for 474 yards and three touchdowns, but a lot more will be expected from him this season. Batties is a lean and agile 6-0, 197-pounder, who gets in and out of breaks quickly and needs to be put in the right positions to make more plays this fall.
9. DT Shaquille Huff, Jr.
Huff goes shoulder-to-shoulder with teammate Patrick McNeil to give the Blue Raiders a formidable pair of 6-1, 320-pounders on the interior of the defensive line. Huff exploited the attention McNeil received from opposing blockers, collecting 28 tackles, five stops behind the line and a pair of sacks in 2014. He’s thick and very strong at the point of attack, which often allows him to become an immovable object against the run.
10. FS Xavier Walker, Sr.
Walker is the other half of one of the premier safety tandems in Conference USA. He’ll bring 22 career starts into his final year of eligibility, along with a wealth of knowledge about the Blue Raider defense and opponents. At 6-4 and 212 pounds, he’s very long, which provides an edge when covering the league’s taller receivers. Walker made a career-high 61 tackles a season ago to finish third on the team, but the team wants to see him be more of a finisher in 2015.
|Sept. 5||Jackson State|
|Sept. 12||at Alabama|
|Sept. 26||at Illinois|
|Oct. 10||at WKU|
|Oct. 24||at Louisiana Tech|
|Oct. 31||OPEN DATE|
|Nov. 14||at Florida Atlantic|
|Nov. 21||North Texas|
|Nov. 28||at UTSA|
|Ten Best MT Players|
|1. SS Kevin Byard, Sr.|
|2. LB T.T. Barber, Sr.|
|3. LG Darius Johnson, Sr.|
|4. QB Austin Grammer, Jr.|
|5. RB Shane Tucker, Sr.|
|6. RB Jordan Parker, Sr.|
|7. DT Patrick McNeil, Sr.|
|8. WR Ed Batties, Sr.|
|9. DT Shaquille Huff, Jr.|
|10. FS Xavier Walker, Sr.|