BLUE RAIDERS HIT THE FIELD WEDNESDAY
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – New Middle Tennessee defensive coordinator Scott Shafer enters his first spring practice this week with plenty to learn about his team.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Blue Raiders will be tasked this season with replacing five starters from 2016, including four along the line and their best defensive back, Jeremy Cutrer. They will attempt to find new guys to step up all while implementing Shafer’s famed attacking 4-3 defense.
“The first thing in the spring is there will be a lot of evaluations going on personnel-wise with regards to positions,” Shafer said. “There’s also evaluation in such a way where we can see who can learn well, who our football-smart and high football IQ guys are.
“From the player’s side, what we’re looking for are guys who come out with a great mindset and proper attitude and back it up with great effort. We always feel like those are controllable elements for the game.”
The most notable spot Shafer will have to focus on this spring from a personnel standpoint is along the defensive line. Four key starters – Chris Hale, Shaquille Huff, Steven Rhodes and Jimal McBride – were lost to graduation and took with them a combined 189 career games played and 102 starts.
The returners along the defensive line don’t have a lot of playing time among them. The group has only made four starts combined (three coming from redshirt senior Jahmal Jones) for MT, and only Jones and fellow redshirt senior Justin Akins have played in more than 14 total games.
One key addition who could help solidify the defensive line is redshirt junior Walter Brady. The Missouri transfer sat out last season, but in his redshirt freshman campaign for the Tigers he led the nation’s freshmen with seven sacks.
Even in spots like the linebacking corps in which there is a lot of talent returning – backers Chris Melton, Darrius Harris and DJ Sanders were first, third and fourth on the team in tackles last season – Shafer said he wants to see competition.
“Hopefully there’s a ton of competition, because no positions are sealed,” he said. “I told everyone it’s a clean slate and a competition to figure out who our best 11 players are with the goal being that we are playing 18 to 20 kids per game.
“The only depth chart that counts is the one when we line up against Vanderbilt. From Day 1 in spring to the last scrimmage of summer, positions will be won and lost. Then, when we start the season, it becomes a competition to keep your job.”
Being in his first spring with the Blue Raiders, Shafer will look at practices over the next four weeks maybe a little differently than the other coaches on the staff.
The practices between March 15 and April 15 will be his first chance to see his defense play at pretty much full speed, and he doesn’t want them to hold back. Though, he said they have to be cognizant of not pushing the guys too hard too early and risk injury to some of the offensive players.
“You have to do a good job of taking care of each other, like staying off the quarterbacks and holding off hitting the wide receivers until scrimmage situations,” Shafer said. “You have to do a good job of manufacturing physicality in practice with regards to your drill work. Your tackling, your shedding and your ability to get off blocks have to come in individual periods … so you can still practice in a physical way while being smart.”
More than anything, the spring will be a chance for Shafer to get some teaching done. After being a head coach at Syracuse for three seasons, he said he’s excited to be able to do some more one-on-one coaching now as a defensive coordinator.
“I love teaching. One thing that I didn’t enjoy about being a head coach was I didn’t get to go into a room full of players and work with them day to day,” he said. “It’s fun to be back into that mode of operation, because that’s what I got into coaching for. I’m anxious to get them back on the field and have some fun.”