As we head into the 2018 college football season, veteran sports writer Maurice Patton breaks down just where Middle Tennessee’s teams stand.
After all the hype over the offseason hires of first Phillip Fulmer and then Jeremy Pruitt at the top of the Tennessee athletic department and football program, Volunteer fans are going to eventually turn their attention to the gridiron.
Spoiler alert: There’s not a lot there.
To recap, UT’s worse campaign in its history — no other Vol team had ever lost eight games — resulted in the midseason firing of Butch Jones, the first-ever winless finish in Southeastern Conference play and a bungled coaching search that saw John Currie axed as AD. Come kickoff on Sept. 1 in Charlotte against West Virginia, it’s got to be better, right? Right?
Sophomore offensive lineman Trey Smith was the only UT player named to the first, second or third preseason all-Southeastern Conference team (though he was a first-team selection) — and he didn’t go through spring drills.
Still, there are enough guys in the program that have enough reason to play with a bit of an edge — call it the motivation of having something to prove — that being better than last year, while not much by typical UT standards, is reasonably achievable.
Defensively, there are some pieces to the puzzle in the form of senior lineman Kyle Phillips, a former Hillsboro standout who is more likely to figure in at end but has slid inside to tackle during his career, as well as Shy Tuttle and linebacker Darrin Kirkland.
On offense, Jauan Jennings is back to bolster the receiving corps after losing a season to first injury, then ‘dismissal’ by interim coach Brady Hoke. He and Marquez Callaway should make things a bit easier for whoever eventually emerges at quarterback, whether it be redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano or graduate transfer Keller Chryst. At running back, Montgomery Bell Academy graduate Ty Chandler should continue to build on a solid freshman campaign.
Hope springs eternal in Big Orange Country, but keeping it real, this team is likely to be plus/minus one game of .500 when all is said and done — which could make the Nov. 24 regular-season finale at Vanderbilt a matchup with bowl implications yet again. And if the spoiler role is all the host Commodores are playing for, expect them to embrace it to the fullest.
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
If you see Brent Stockstill out and about, make sure his full-body bubble wrap is intact.
The most important member of his family to Middle Tennessee State’s gridiron success in 2018 (his dad Rick Stockstill coaches the team), staying healthy — through no fault of his own – has been a challenge for the senior signal caller.
And it’s inarguable that it’s a different Blue Raider team when Brent is on the field versus when he’s on the sideline. With the lefty, MTSU can play with anyone on its schedule, as he’s helped the team to road wins against Missouri of the Southeastern Conference and Syracuse of the Atlantic Coast Conference over the past two seasons.
Without him? Since the start of the 2016 campaign, Middle is a piddling 4-5 when Stockstill has been shelved — compared to 12-5 when he plays. Besides the quarterback, who enters his final season as the program’s all-time leader in passing yardage, touchdowns and completions, MTSU features receiver Ty Lee (79 catches, 955 yards, five TDs in 2017), and its top three running backs from last season. Tavares Thomas, Brad Anderson and Terrell West teamed for 1,306 rushing yards and 13 TDs.
Up front, former Pearl-Cohn standout Carlos Johnson started all 13 games as a junior last season and has made 26 total over his three years.
Defensively, the Blue Raiders look to continue to make strides under second-year coordinator Scott Shafer. Linebackers Khalil Brooks (17 tackles for loss, 76 total) and Darius Harris (4.5 sacks) and safeties Reed Blankenship — an impact performer as a true freshman last year, with a team-leading two interceptions — and Jovante Moffatt (team-high 101 tackles) are expected to anchor the unit.
Over Rick Stockstill’s 13-year coaching tenure, MTSU has made seven bowl appearances with two victories, including last year’s Camelia Bowl victory over Arkansas State. But the Blue Raider faithful would sure like to go to one as a conference champion, which their team hasn’t accomplished since 2006, his first season. With Conference USA nemeses Florida Atlantic and Marshall looming in the East Division, it’s safe to say MTSU will need to beat at least one for that status to change this fall.
Where’s that bubble wrap?
Gaining traction hasn’t been easy for Derek Mason since taking over as Vanderbilt’s coach. Take his most recent season, for instance. After a 3-0 start was capped by a win over visiting No. 18 Kansas State — their first win over a ranked non-conference foe in 70-plus years — the Commodores were knocking at the door of the national Top 25 ranking. But then, they opened Southeastern Conference play.
In a game that barely registered as a speed bump for eventual national titleist Alabama, the Crimson Tide rolled into Nashville and out with a 59-0 decimation that admittedly sent Mason and crew into a tailspin.
It was the first of five straight losses for Vanderbilt — albeit one came against Georgia, who went on to win the SEC and lose to Alabama in the national championship game. The Commodore's 5-7 campaign marked the fourth sub-.500 finish in Mason’s four-year tenure.
While Vanderbilt won’t have to contend with Alabama this year, there is a mid-September trip to Notre Dame that could be troublesome, preceding their SEC opener against South Carolina.
Not letting the negatives snowball will be a key for a Commodore club that returns some experience in some key positions — including quarterback, where senior Kyle Shumur threw for 2,823 yards and 26 touchdowns a year ago. The former total is the third-best single-season mark in program history; the latter set a single-season record.
Receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney are set up to be Shurmur’s top targets, and the running game, despite the graduation of Ralph Webb, looks stacked. Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield stand to see more time, but Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn was a Mr. Football and Gatorade Tennessee Player of the Year at Pearl-Cohn and is itching to get back on the field after sitting out last year.
Bruno Reagan is set to lead the charge in the trenches. Linebacker Charles Wright will anchor the defensive unit, with a pair of local products — Joejuan Williams (Father Ryan) and Donovan Sheffield (Ensworth) in line for increased time at cornerback. Wright notched nine sacks, the most by a Vanderbilt defender in nearly 25 years, last fall.
With one bowl appearance in Mason’s first four years, a second isn’t out of the question. With the losses Vanderbilt suffered on the defensive side of the ball, though, the offense will have to lead the way to postseason play.
Tennessee State Tigers
Tabbed for the middle of the pack in the Ohio Valley Conference, Tennessee State has the motivation and the material to ‘overachieve’. Upward mobility may only come to a point, though, for the Tigers.
With Jacksonville State looking for a fifth straight league title and Austin Peay looking to continue an unbelievable climb from the conference cellar, TSU will have its challenges in getting to the top of the OVC.
Still, the Tigers — picked to finish fourth in the nine-team league by media representatives covering the conference, sixth by the OVC’s coaches and athletic media relations directors — are equipped to create a stir. Junior cornerback Dajour Nesbeth and sophomore safety Vincent Sellers, who teamed for four interceptions and 14 pass breakups last fall, were both named to the preseason all-OVC team at the league’s recent media day gathering. So was junior receiver Steven Newbold (34 receptions, 627 yards, four TDs in 2017.)
To go with that talent on the defensive side of the ball, ninth-year coach Rod Reed — a stellar Big Blue linebacker during his playing days — has his eye on a group of ‘backers that will include returners Blair Edwards and James Green, Illinois transfer Christian Abercrombie and former Cane Ridge standout Jahsun Bryant.
Offensively, ex-Hillsboro signal-caller Micheal Hughes emerged at the top of the depth chart last year following the arrival of former Florida quarterback Treon Harris. Though Harris has moved to receiver, TSU had another QB transfer in over the offseason, Demry Croft from Minnesota.
Whoever mans the position will have some talent to work with at the other end, including Newbold, Harris and Chris Rowland, a junior from Ravenwood.
The schedule will challenge the Tigers, as they’ll play just two home games before November — though one of their six consecutive ‘road trips’ is to Vanderbilt. Following the Sept. 1 opener at Nissan Stadium against Bethune-Cookman in the John Merritt Classic, TSU doesn’t get back to Nissan until Oct. 20 for homecoming against league rival Tennessee Tech. In the interim, three OVC contests — at Eastern Illinois, Austin Peay and Murray State — could go a long way toward dictating the team’s fate before its stretch run.
The Tigers haven’t won a league title since 1999 and haven’t reached the FBS playoffs since 2013. Snapping at least one string, if not both, would be a welcome sight.
Photo courtesy of University of Tennessee Athletics