COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25
C-USA East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Rick Stockstill, 43-44 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Buster Faulkner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Steve Ellis, Tyrone Nix
Senior quarterback Logan Kilgore, workhorse running back Jordan Parker and an experienced offensive line point to a big offensive year for Middle Tennessee. Kilgore has polished his game after passing for more than 4,800 yards and 34 TDs over the past two seasons. Parker rushed for a Blue Raider freshman record 851 yards in only six starts in 2012. He will be joined by speedy backs Reggie Whatley and Jeremiah Bryson, who can also contribute to the passing game.
Depth issues at receiver slowed the offense late last season, but junior college transfers like Devin Clarke and Chris Perkins could help fill that gap. Also, fifth-year senior Tavarres Jefferson, who led the team in receptions in 2011, returns from an injury that sidelined him last season. Four starters on a strong offensive line are back, but finding a center has been an offseason project.
Balance is the goal, as the offense will go as far as Parker and Kilgore can take it.
“We evolved into more of a run-oriented offense last year, especially late in the year when we had injuries at receiver,” offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner says. “We found out we could win games running the ball, so we did. But I see us trying to be a little more balanced on the passing end this year.”
In his first year, defensive co-coordinator Tyrone Nix stabilized the Blue Raider stop squad. It was solid but lacked a biting pass rush. Finding pressure is priority No. 1 for Nix.
“We want to be able to get pressure, so we don’t have to leave our defensive backs out on an island,” he says. “We have some guys that have had their moments. But we need them to show it more consistently.”
Defensive end Alexandro Antoine and hybrid linebacker/defensive ends Leighton Gasque and Stephen Roberts are the top pass-rushing candidates. If they can add some pressure, it will greatly help a secondary that gave up too many big plays last season. Cornerback Kenneth Gilstrap and 2012 Freshman All-America safety Kevin Byard are proven performers, but most of the defensive backs have more untapped talent than experience.
Senior middle linebacker Roderic Blunt and defensive tackle Jimmy Staten are defensive leaders, but sophomore outside linebacker T.T. Barber fits the bill as the playmaker Nix needs.
Whatley was one of the nation’s best kick returners last season, and Josh Davis is an experienced punter. Placekicker is wide open between Zachary Lopez, redshirt freshman Cody Clark and prized prospect Canon Rooker. None has attempted a college kick.
Last season’s Middle Tennessee squad overachieved with an 8–4 record, but it suffered a bowl game snub in its final season in the Sun Belt Conference. Now 14 starters return from that team, which still feels vexed by the exclusion as it enters Conference USA. The schedule includes several unknowns, as the Blue Raiders have not played seven of its 2013 opponents in the past decade. But head coach Rick Stockstill still believes his team could contend for a title in its debut season.
“Our goal is to win this conference,” Stockstill says. “Are we good enough to do that? I don’t know because I haven’t seen the other teams in Conference USA. There’s an unknown there of how we stack up, but our mindset is on winning the conference.”
Middle Tennessee’s C-USA slate should be comparable to past Sun Belt competition, so bowl-eligibility is realistic. But the Blue Raiders must keep Kilgore and Parker healthy and develop more playmakers on defense to make a serious run at the conference crown.