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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...MTSU BLUE RAIDERS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Two years can be an eternity to a college coach.

Just ask Middle Tennessee’s Rick Stockstill (left), who, if he were being honest, might want to re-do events after the 2009 season if he had the chance.

We mention this because in a relatively short period of time, Stockstill has gone from being one of the up-and-coming “flavors of the month” in college gridiron coaching circles to one of several mentors who enter the 2012 campaign looking over their shoulders, worrying about job security.

This coaching carousel can be quite an interesting ride, can’t it? Especially for those who know when the time is right to move, and to always stay a step ahead of the posse.

Select football and basketball coaches have been able to figure out the game better than others, as time will almost always re-start for a coach when he moves into a new position. Think about basketball’s Trent Johnson, who has mastered the ability to jump at just the right time, while his stock is still hot, giving himself another full shot clock (in job terms) every few years. Johnson just made the outwardly-curious jump from LSU (where he had coached for only four years) to TCU hoops in the offseason, escaping Baton Rouge before the war drums began to beat too loudly. The man he replaced in Fort Worth, Jim Christian, did the same thing, escaping the pending pressure as a multi-season Horned Frogs coach for a clean and fresh slate at Ohio U. Johnson had similarly stayed at Stanford for the same four years as he did at LSU; before Stanford, it was five seasons at Nevada.

Select football coaches have been known to do the same, although Stockstill might have missed his chance when he had an opportunity after the 2009 campaign, one in which his Blue Raiders recorded a 10-3 mark, and won the New Orleans Bowl in impressive fashion over Southern Miss.

Stockstill was in demand at that time, but with a slew of starters returning for 2010, which even prompted wild talk in Murfreesboro of making a stealth run at the BCS, the former Florida State QB decided to sit tight for another year at MTSU and turned down a chance to succeed Skip Holtz at East Carolina. Many Sun Belt observers believe that Stockstill was gambling that his profile would be even higher after the 2010 campaign, which figured to be another big one for the Blue Raiders. Then, he could really sink his teeth into some juicy job openings that would inevitably be on the table.

Things, however, didn’t go as planned for MTSU in 2010. A bizarre late-summer suspension of star QB Dwight Dasher, implicated in a poker game/loan controversy, disrupted the preparation for the season. MTSU broke slowly from the gate without Dasher, and though recovering to get bowl eligible (barely) by the end of the regular season, the Blue Raiders were listless in a 35-21 GoDaddy.com Bowl loss in Mobile to a modest Miami-Ohio side. The whole season, which began with so much promise, was instead a considerable letdown.

As a result, Stockstill’s phone didn’t ring following the 2010 campaign. What is it they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men?

But things were only beginning to unravel for Stockstill, as 2011 turned into an unmitigated disaster in Murfreesboro. Not only did the Blue Raiders collapse to a 2-10 mark, they seemed to quit on Stockstill late in the season, losing their last six games by a whopping average of 28 points, and hitting absolute rock bottom in a 59-7 season-ending loss at North Texas (North Texas?).

Stockstill’s phone was certainly not ringing with calls from job suitors after last season. Angry boosters and alums, perhaps.

And winning is suddenly becoming a bit more important in Murfreesboro, especially as MTSU is now regarded as the next-likely target for an expansion-minded Conference USA, which has already conducted a semi-raid upon the Sun Belt (Florida International and North Texas committing to make the switch next season), and the movers and shakers at the school are not going to be keen on the football program driving into a ditch just at time when an invitation to a higher-profile league appears to be on the horizon. The recent emergence of Kermit Davis’ basketball version of the Blue Raiders has helped the improve the school’s athletic profile, although the damage done from 2-10 football seasons cannot be underestimated.

Regional sources suggest that MTSU’s central location, burgeoning population base in Murfreesboro/Central Tennessee, growing enrollment, good facilities (upgraded Jonny Floyd Stadium at right), an extensive alumni network in the region, and proximity to Nashville and convenience to its major airport (only about an hour north) make it a natural fit for CUSA, which is looking to fill some gaps after several members have made plans to make their own jumps to other leagues next year. Stay tuned for further developments.

In the meantime, Stockstill has a rehab job, not only for his coaching career, but for the Blue Raiders’ future, on the line this fall. It would be hard to be worse than MTSU was at the end of last season, and once those sorts of wounds are opened within a program, they are often hard to heal. Sun Belt sources confirm that Stockstill has his hands full trying to put the pieces back together in the fall, although the task is not impossible.

It was a defensive collapse that defined the MTSU meltdown in 2011, and Stockstill tried to make quick repairs in the offseason. The first order of business was a staff shake-up; after Houston Nutt’s regime crashed and burned at Ole Miss, a few respected assistants from the Rebel staff became available, including d.c. Tyrone Nix (left), himself regarded as head coaching timber not long ago and having previously established his credentials at South Carolina and alma mater Southern Miss. Nix thus becomes Stockstill’s fourth different d.c. in five years, although the job is accompanied by a bit more urgency in 2012.

Nix inherits six starters from a stop unit that could partially blame injury problems for being so strafed a year ago, but depth concerns make a re-run a possibility if injuries hit again. No matter, there is nowhere to go but up for this platoon after allowing a whopping 36.8 ppg in 2011 (ranking a poor 110th nationally) and subject to smashmouth tactics from opponents, most of whom able to run at will a year ago when the Blue Raiders allowed an embarrassing 230 rush yards per game (a lowly 114th-ranked). Without improvements against the run, it is unlikely MTSU can forge any meaningful turnaround this fall.

While three of the returning starers are up front in Nix’s 4-3 alignment, there was still some position shifting in the spring, with one of the few bright spots from a year ago, undersized DE Leighton Gasque (who led the Blue Raiders with seven sacks in limited snaps as a RS frosh in 2011), moved to an OLB spot in hopes of further unleashing his pass-rush potential. But the line underacheived a year ago, and despite the slew of returning starters, Nix opened up the competition in spring. Redshirt frosh DE Alexandro Antoine was one who took advantage, moving ahead of one of last year’s starters, Jiajuan Fennell, on the depth chart heading into fall. Another RS frosh, well-regarded 305-lb. DT J.D. Jones, is hoped to be recovered from the shoulder injuries that sidelined him last fall and spring.

Nix will continue to look for answers in the back seven when fall camp reconvenes. The possibility of Gasque emerging as an impact OLB motivated his position shift in spring, but only one starter (strong-side backer Roderic Blunt, in action at right vs. Tennessee last fall) returns from the 2011 LB crew. Similarly, only one starter returns in the secondary, speedy jr. CB Kenneth Gilstrap (the Sun Belt’s two-time champ in the indoor 55-meter dash), but immediate help could arrive in the form of Florida State jr. transfer Jajuan Harley, who has already moved atop the depth chart at strong safety. Soph RCB Khari Burke, though undersized at 5'8, might have been the MVP of spring work.

Stockstill’s offenses have usually been productive, which is why last year’s drop-off to a mere 22.3 ppg (ranking 96th) set off alarms at Jonny Floyd Stadium. It did not help a year ago that o.c. Willie Simmons resigned at midseason, forcing Stockstill and QB coach Buster Faulkner to assume those duties the remainder of the season. Faulkner has been given the job on a full-time basis for this fall.

Stockstill, a spread devotee, is simpatico with Faulkner, who will attempt to tweak the formula by adding some new variations and wrinkles to the mix. Mostly, however, Faulkner wants his QBs to be able to do their own audibilizing at the line of scrimmage rather than get those signals from the sidelines, a change in philosophy that Stockstill has enthusiastically endorsed.

Now, getting a QB to fully understand the offense, and properly execute the audibles, is the next step. And at the moment, there appears to be no other option than jr. Logan Kilgore (left), who has started much of the time the past two seasons and passed for 2231 yards a year ago. But Kilgore has also been occasionally mistake-prone (12 picks in 212 attempts LY), and other alternatives appear limited, such as sr. Jeff Murphy, who started a handful of games in 2010 but went down with a torn ACL late in spring practice, and is mulling whether to fast-forward rehab and a comeback in the fall or risk asking for a medical hardship waiver and a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA after the season.

There are no other returning scholarship QBs on the roster, although juco Cameron Deen is listed as a “preferred” walk-on and has impressed Faulkner and Stockstill enough to consider him as a more capable backup to Kilgore than RS frosh Shaun White (no, not the “Flying Tomato” of snowboarding fame).

The Blue Raiders also need to develop some deep- threat wideouts after completing just one pass for longer than 50 yards a year ago. The top returning receiver, sr. Tavarres Jefferson (right, vs. FAU last October), gained only 7.8 yards per catch on his 51 receptions a year ago, while jr. Kyle Griswould gained barely 12 yards per catch on his 31 receptions in 2011. Juco additions Marcus Henry and Jacob Bennett (cousin of former Vanderbilt star and current Chicago Bears WR Earl) might help better stretch opposing secondaries this fall.

Still, the offense will need to make better use of gifted sr. RB Benny Cunningham (left), an effective “dancer’ who gained 501 YR despite missing four games a year ago. But only twice did the playmaking Cunningham get as many as 20 touches in a game last year, and enters fall camp hopefully beyond a series of foot injuries that have impeded his past progress and kept him out of spring drills. Junior William Pratcher, who led the Blue Raiders with 585 YR a year ago but lacks Cunningham’s flash, and LSU transfer Drayton Calhoun are other infantry alternatives.

Faulkner and Stockstill also have some issues with an OL that fell apart down the stretch last fall as depth concerns surfaced. Only two starters return up front in what hardly can be considered a team strength entering fall. One of those returnees, Alex Stuart, has been moved to LG from his center spot of a year ago. Moreover, Stockstill must replace the Sun Belt’s career scoring leader, PK Alan Gendreau, although Carson-Newman transfer Carlos Lopez appeared to be more than an adequate replacement in spring.

Spread-wise, Stockstill’s MTSU has also headed south the past two seasons, covering only 7 of 25 chances on the board after mostly positive spread performances in previous years; the Blue Raiders failed to cover all six of their games in Murfreesboro last fall and are just 2-10 vs. the line at home since 2010 after recording a noteworthy 10-5 mark against the number at Jonny Floyd Stadium between 2007-09. With the recent defensive downturn, the Blue Raiders have also exhibited hard-to-ignore “over” trends lately (now “over” 13-2 their last 15 since late in the 2010 campaign).

Summary...Was 2011 an anomaly, or an indicator of a real downturn at MTSU? We’ll find out this fall, but the consequences for HC Rick Stockstill could be ominous if it’s the latter, as extended failures to compete in the modest Sun Belt are never advisable for a coach’s ongoing employment. For the moment, we’re inclined to give Stockstill the benefit of the doubt, as the combination of injuries and uncharacteristic internal discord (such as o.c. Willie Simmons’ midseason departure) might simply have been the rare, perfect negative storm a year ago in Murfreesboro. Stockstill has a chance to rehabilitate this fall, especially with a much easier early slate, with McNeese State, Florida Atlantic, and Memphis out of the chute as opposed to bowl-bound Purdue and Georgia Tech a year ago. We agree with most regional insiders who expect Stockstill to survive, as the Blue Raiders are expected to solve most of last year’s offensive problems and move back into the middle of the Sun Belt pack. But it will also require real upgrades from new d.c. Tyrone Nix and the MTSU “D” for the Murfreesboro bunch to get back into the minor bowl mix.


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