MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Another football season is upon us, and Middle Tennessee enters this year’s fall camp with questions, hopes and excitement surrounding its roster.
From new guys entering the fold to veterans vying for playing time, there are a lot of names to keep an eye on as camp ramps up. Here are a few that Blue Raider fans should keep in their memory banks:
A clean bill of health should pay dividends going into the season for the Blue Raider senior signal caller.
Stockstill, who missed all of the spring and summer in 2017 thanks to offseason surgery, heads into camp fresh and healthy. He’s already the program’s career leader in almost every passing category, and he’s also 15th nationally among active players in passing yards, sixth in passing yards per game, 15th in total offense and 16th in passing efficiency.
A healthy spring and summer should mean Stockstill is poised for a strong redshirt senior season after missing nine games combined the last two years. He finished 2017 with 1,672 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions in just seven games played due to injury.
If Stockstill is going to rebound this year and push for All-Conference USA accolades, he’ll need his offensive line to show it’s improved from a season ago.
Offensive line coach Rick Mallory and head coach Rick Stockstill will likely use a lot of different combinations through the first few practices. Seniors Chandler Brewer and Carlos Johnson may be the only two linemen with solidified starting spots, though redshirt senior Robert Behanan and juniors Josh Fannin and Amir Luckett each made starts last season.
Redshirt freshman DJ Delfendahl and redshirt senior Angelo Owens, who were forced out of the fold early last year because of injuries, could also push for big roles, and fans should also keep an eye on redshirt senior Jack Mitchell, redshirt sophomore Luke Harris and junior newcomer Will Gilchrist.
If surprise starters Conner Trent and Lucas Hamilton showed anything last season, it’s that new names could pop up in the MT line by the time Week 1 rolls around.
Cody Smith vs. Avery Jones
Middle Tennessee’s defense was much improved in 2017, and middle linebacker D.J. Sanders was a significant contributor because of his IQ and consistent ability to be near the football.
With Sanders graduated and no longer at MT, a new name will step in to quarterback the defense from the middle linebacker spot. Look for either Smith or Jones to take that role.
Blue Raider fans may not know a lot about Smith, since he took a redshirt as a freshman last year after playing in just three games (41 snaps), but they’ll surely see his name floating around the ball often. As a senior at Martin County High School (Florida), he racked up 124 tackles to go with five interceptions, two which were returned for TDs, in an all-state season.
Jones is a transfer from Golden West College. The junior had 45 tackles (second on the team), two sacks, eight tackles for loss, an interception and two fumble recoveries in a second team all-conference campaign in 2017.
Stamps was a high-profile recruit when he committed to play at Mississippi State as a senior at Warren Central High School (Mississippi). Now, three years later, he’s hoping to prove his merit again at the Division I level with Middle Tennessee as a redshirt junior.
After redshirting in 2015, Stamps played in nine games as a reserve in 2016 at Mississippi State before transferring to Northwest Mississippi Junior College last year, finishing with 34 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception for the Rangers.
He’ll push for a starting cornerback spot from the first practice, though the next guy on this list may make that tough.
If it isn’t Stamps starting opposite redshirt senior corner Darryl Randolph, it will likely be Johnson.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College transfer played well in his first year at Middle Tennessee in 2017, finishing with 11 tackles and three pass breakups while making one start. He also won the team’s Most Improved Corner award following this year’s spring drills.
If Johnson can find a way to carry his good spring into the fall, he and Stamps may have a fun battle to watch.
As was shown the last two seasons, if Brent Stockstill isn’t healthy, the Blue Raider offense can turn unproductive quickly.
With the redshirt senior missing nine combined games the last two seasons, backups John Urzua and Kyle Banks were forced into action regularly, and both are no longer with the team, meaning MT is in search for a new backup to its all-time leading passer.
Redshirt freshman Chase Cunningham, a Knoxville native, held the main backup role after spring practice , though he could get pushed by talented true freshmen Luke Shiflett and Chance Nolan.
Shiflett plays with more of a dual-threat style, racking up 5,000 yards passing and another 2,000 rushing at Northwest Whitfield County High School (Georgia). Nolan, a California native, is a gunslinger who set his high school’s career records in passing yards (9,000) and TDs (104).
If the last two seasons showed anything, no matter who slots in as Brent Stockstill’s main backup, he’ll have to be ready to play at a moment’s notice.
Thomas enters camp as the team’s starting running back, which is much different than where he was at this point in 2017.
He went into last year’s fall camp as a linebacker trying to find playing time. But, after the first five games of the season, injuries forced MT’s hand in the offensive backfield. Thomas stepped up, and now he’s one of the team’s projected weapons heading into the season.
The Texas native finished last year with a team-high 507 rushing yards on 93 carries and also a team-best nine touchdowns.
A full offseason of learning how to be a running back again (he played the position in high school) should pay massive dividends for the 6-foot, 245-pound bruiser.
The loss of Richie James to the NFL means a big hole has been left in the receiving corps, and it may take several players to replace his production. One new name that could help fill the void is Jackson, who comes to MT by way of Santa Ana College (California).
The junior was dynamic in his second year at Santa Ana, being named a CCCFCA First Team All-American after racking up 67 receptions for 1,270 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s a good route runner with some speed, but, most importantly, he features some of the best hands in the Blue Raider receiving corps. That will help him generate a lot of trust immediately with his new QB.
Kickers don’t usually generate a lot of buzz, but this year Middle Tennessee enters the season with a question mark at the position.
Canon Rooker, one of the best placekickers to ever don the Blue Raider uniform, exhausted his eligibility last season, meaning former Tennessee Mr. Football Kicker of the Year Crews Holt will take the reins.
Holt was maybe the best kicker in his class in the state of Tennessee coming out of high school, winning Kicker of the Year and state championship MVP honors as a senior in 2015 at Ravenwood High School. He knocked home 17-of-22 field goals and 64-of-65 extra points that year.
The redshirt sophomore has only kicked one field goal as a Raider, a 41-yarder he nailed against Old Dominion last year, so he enters the season with some questions needing answered.
After taking a year off of football, Dobson’s much-anticipated career will finally start this season at Middle Tennessee.
The Knoxville native and younger brother of the ESPY’s 2016 Arthur Ashe Courage Award winner Zaevion Dobson was a three-star recruit as a wide receiver coming out of Fulton High School, and he could factor into playing time right away.
Dobson has a similar playing style to current Blue Raider star receiver Ty Lee. Both are small with a lot of speed and versatility, and, like Lee, Dobson played in the backfield some at Fulton, finishing his career with 1,411 receiving yards and 2,824 all-purpose yards offensively to go with 80 tackles and five interceptions on defense.
Josh Vardaman is the staff writer for goblueraiders.com. Follow him on Twitter @J_Vardaman and also follow @MTAthletics for more on the Blue Raiders.