MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Though the season’s kickoff against Vanderbilt isn’t until Sept. 2, spring football practice got underway Wednesday for Middle Tennessee.
With graduation creating some holes on the roster, most notably along the offensive and defensive lines, the Blue Raiders are looking for a wealth of players to step up and fill voids this season.
The first look for head coach Rick Stockstill and his staff at those players will come in the next few weeks, as they evaluate and start to piece together the starting lineup heading into the summer. Spring practice lasts until April 15.
Here are some names you might want to remember as spring practice ramps up:
Walter Brady, DE: Brady, a redshirt junior in 2017, will finally see the field again this year after taking a season off in 2016 due to NCAA transfer rules. The defensive end could be one of the most talented players on his side of the ball in Conference USA, and his emergence will be crucial to a defensive line that is replacing five seniors.
As a redshirt freshman at Missouri in 2015, he led the nation’s freshmen with seven sacks on his way to being named a Freshman All-American. That number would represent the second-most ever in a season at Middle Tennessee. He also recorded 12.5 tackles for loss, tops in the Southeastern Conference among freshmen.
Robert Behanan, OT: With four offensive linemen lost to graduation, the Blue Raiders will need contributors to step up in a big way to protect quarterback Brent Stockstill and provide a rushing attack. Behanan, who made the first three starts of his career against Charlotte and FAU and in the Hawaii Bowl in 2016, could provide that assurance.
After being used almost primarily on special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2015 and through the beginning of last season, Behanan saw an uptick in his usage in the latter part of 2016. He was in on just 120 snaps through the first 10 games, but in the last two of the regular season he saw action on 167 snaps.
Malik Manciel, DT: Perhaps no Blue Raider is more excited to see Brady on the defensive line than Manciel. The two starred together on the same line in Brady’s only year at Florence High School in Alabama, and now they have the chance to play alongside each other again in Murfreesboro.
Manciel had a steady redshirt freshman campaign at defensive tackle in 2016, though he saw limited action. He played in 12 games, racking up 14 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. His impact in 2017 probably won’t be felt much in the pass rush, but he will need to step up as a run stopper for a team that lost two starters and its main backup at defensive tackle from a year ago.
Maurice Gordon, RB: I’Tavius Mathers had possibly the best season ever for a Middle Tennessee running back in his lone season in 2016. He became the first Blue Raider ever to eclipse the 1,500-yard rushing mark (1,561), and his 20 total (17 rushing, 3 receiving) touchdowns ranked third all-time in a single season at MTSU. The problem is Mathers was a redshirt senior in 2016.
With him gone, the Blue Raiders are searching for their next back to fit in offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s system. Gordon, who will be a junior in 2017, is expected to fight for a starting job after transferring from Navarro College, where he rushed for 903 yards and scored 12 (nine rushing) total touchdowns in 2016 en route to being named the seventh-best JUCO running back available in the 2017 class by 247Sports. He could prove to be the most important member of the 2017 recruiting class for the Blue Raiders this season if he can step in and provide some relief from losing Mathers.
Charvarius Ward, CB: How Middle Tennessee will fill the void of losing possible NFL draftee Jeremy Cutrer (six interceptions, 29 passes defended in two years as a Blue Raider) is a big question heading into 2017. Ward, a redshirt senior who transferred from Hinds Community College before last season, could be the easy answer for new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer.
Ward, who started two games in 2016 and saw action in 12, has similar size to Cutrer and seems to have a nose for the ball. While seeing far less snaps than Cutrer and fellow corner Mike Minter, Ward picked off two passes and defended seven. In comparison, Cutrer had three picks and 13 passes defended, while Minter had two INTs and 10 passes defended. If Ward, who was named the most improved cornerback after the 2016 spring practice, can continue that production while slotting into the starting lineup, he can more than make up for Cutrer’s loss.
Jocquez Bruce, WR: No other position for MT was impacted more in 2016 by injuries than the receiving corps. One of the group’s most notable losses was Bruce, who was penciled in as a starter by the coaching staff before being lost in the preseason due to a leg injury.
Bruce will get another chance to crack the starting lineup this season, though it could be more difficult with 22 wide receivers listed on the roster this spring. The redshirt sophomore does have the advantage of receiving playing time in the Blue Raiders’ biggest game in 2016, as he came back from his injury and played in his first collegiate game in the Hawaii Bowl. He caught two passes for 31 yards.
Khalil Brooks, LB: The linebacker spot is one area the Blue Raiders have some notable returners in 2017. Three of the team’s leading four tacklers returning – Chris Melton, Darrius Harris and DJ Sanders – come from the group. However, Rick Stockstill said his main focus defensively in the 2017 recruiting class was shoring up his linebackers and secondary. He may also have one guy already on the roster who could aid in that endeavor in Brooks.
After taking a redshirt year in 2015, the redshirt freshman saw significant time as the Blue Raiders’ fourth linebacker. Brooks played in all 13 games, finishing 11th on the team and fifth among the linebackers with 38 tackles. He also showed some versatility by recording four pass breakups and registered two tackles for loss. If he can show even more progression this season, Brooks could help provide the depth Stockstill is looking for in the linebacking corps.
Amir Luckett, OL: As previously mentioned, the Blue Raiders are tasked with replacing four offensive linemen from last year’s squad. One name that Middle Tennessee fans may not know that could sneak into one of those starting spots is Luckett, who joins the team this season after playing at Scottsdale Community College in 2016.
The sophomore from Waddell, Arizona, received just a two-star recruiting rating from 247Sports because he was listed at just 6-foot-3 and 266 pounds when he entered Scottsdale CC. But, he has added strength and now sits around the 300-pound mark, and Stockstill and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin are excited about his ability to step in and provide stability along the line.
Trae Philpots, DE: After redshirting in his first season with the Blue Raiders, Philpots, a redshirt sophomore, got in on some action in 2016. He appeared in limited action in nine games, registering five tackles and a tackle for loss.
While his output from last season may not look awe inspiring, Philpots could step into a bigger role this season with the aforementioned departures of four starting defensive linemen. The coaching staff raves about his athleticism, and at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, if he can use that athleticism he could provide some flexibility at the defensive end position.
Jordan Gonzalez, DE: Like Philpots, Gonzalez, a redshirt freshman, could sneak into a lot of action in 2017. After redshirting last season, the key to his progression will be seeing reps at the defensive end spot. Gonzalez only played football during his senior year at Dwyer High School in West Palm Beach, Florida, so getting him some action will be key this spring and summer as the season draws near.
One thing Gonzalez has in his favor is a lot of athleticism. The 6-foot-5, 252-pound end starred in basketball at Dwyer, averaging a double-double in his senior season, and he showed out on the football field in his only year, being named all-region and all-Palm Beach County. He was also named the Newcomer Ironman of the Year last season during his redshirt campaign.
Rakavian Poydras, DT: Along with Manciel, Poydras will be one of the guys counted on to step up and replace three lost defensive tackles from last year’s team. He redshirted last year in his first year in Murfreesboro, so the redshirt freshman is a relative unknown on the college level. But, some Blue Raider fans may remember him from his high school days.
Starring at Clarksville Northeast, Poydras was the 23rd-ranked player in the state of Tennessee in the 2016 class by 247Sports. He was named a first team all-mid-state selection and participated in the Tennessee East-West All-Star Classic. If he can show progression through the spring like he did during his redshirt season, the 294-pound tackle could see some serious action right away for the Blue Raiders.
Ty Nix, DT: The son of former MT defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, Ty Nix is hoping to see an uptick in his usage this season after redshirting as a freshman in 2016. His development along with Poydras and Manciel could prove crucial to the effectiveness of the rush defense for the Blue Raiders this season.
The Oakland High School product drew a lot of praise coming out of high school, and he caught the eye of plenty of Middle Tennessee fans because he was starring in their own backyard. He was named a 6A First Team All-State member in 2014 and 2015 after racking up 157 total tackles in the two years combined. If he can show improvements along with the same skill that garnered him a Tennessee Mr. Football semifinalist nod at Oakland, he could play a huge role in the defense this season.
Daniel Sargent, LS: While long snappers may not grab many headlines, this year Middle Tennessee enters an interesting situation at the position. Four-year starter Will Eads is gone, creating a void the Blue Raiders haven’t had to fill in quite some time.
Sargent, the only long snapper listed on the roster, figures to slot in to take Eads’ roll. The redshirt freshman hopes to provide Middle Tennessee with continued stability at the position.
Other names to keep an eye on:
Terelle West, RB
CJ Windham, WR
Wesley Bush, DB
Kamau Farrell-Burke, DB