COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2011 PRESEASON TOP 25
Sun Belt PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Rick Stockstill, 35-40 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Buster Faulkner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Steve Ellis, Tyrone Nix
Blue Raiders looking to rebound from two-win 2011, program's worst record in 30 years.
After filling in as play-caller the last seven games a year ago, new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner has installed his system for the 2012 season. He hopes that his more traditional version of the spread offense, with some two-back sets and occasionally a tight end, will highlight the team’s strength at running back. Benny Cunningham, speedy LSU transfer Drayton Calhoun and scrappy William Pratcher are all capable runners.
The young offensive line must replace 128 career starts lost from last year’s departures, but two line coaches (Glen Elarbee and Matt Moore) were hired to add a nastiness to the front five that perhaps was lacking from the previous pass-heavy offense.
Anthony Amos, Kyle Griswould and Tavarres Jefferson provide three proven pass-catchers for returning starting quarterback Logan Kilgore, but depth could be an issue at every position but running back. And Kilgore must show consistency and command. He was an all-conference candidate in the first half of last season but dropped off dramatically late in the year.
The team’s biggest offseason addition was co-defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, who previously had success in that role at Ole Miss, South Carolina and Southern Miss.
Nix’s first priority is forcing turnovers, but that may be like squeezing blood from a turnip. No current Middle Tennessee player has ever recorded an interception in an FBS game.
The secondary has been rebuilt and carries a lot of question marks. Kenneth Gilstrap is one of the fastest cornerbacks in the country, but his play has been hit-or-miss. Florida State transfer Jajuan Harley and talented redshirt freshman Kevin Byard bring high expectations at safety, but they both must learn on the run.
Linebacker was a weak area last season, and the concerns carry over to this year. Fortunately, that’s the position coached by Nix.
Rush defense was an issue last season, but defensive end may be the team’s most talented position, led by sophomores Jiajuan Fennell and Shubert Bastien and senior Omar McLendon.
Though he was replaced last season, Josh Davis was an All-Sun Belt punter two years ago and should fill the spot well. Senior Carlos Lopez, a transfer from Division II school Carson-Newman, should be a solid kicker from 40 yards and in — or he had better be, with no other options.
Middle Tennessee played in three bowl games in five years under Rick Stockstill before plummeting to last season’s 2–10 record, the program’s worst mark in more than 30 years. The extent of the letdown suggested that there were more issues with chemistry and character than talent. To turn the tide, Stockstill made some staff changes, implemented a new offseason weight program and put positions up for grabs more than in previous seasons. Stockstill hopes lessons of last season have been learned.
“We had a sense of entitlement, and that can never happen again,” Stockstill says. “We flushed away 2011, but we can never ever forget it. That was gut-wrenching, and we never want to go through that again.”
Aside from all the mind games, Middle Tennessee must correct its horrendous turnover margin of the last two seasons to return to past success.
The Blue Raiders will play only five home games, but they can build some much-needed confidence with a soft early schedule against McNeese State, Florida Atlantic and at Memphis. A 3–0 start is not out of the question before the competition stiffens.
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