STOCKSTILL LIKES WHAT HE HAS SEEN FROM DEFENSE
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – The first step for Middle Tennessee in gearing up for the 2017 football season concluded Saturday, as the Blue Raiders took part in the Blue-White Spring Finale presented by Kroger to signify the closing of spring drills.
It was an overall successful spring for MT, according to its head coach.
“Overall, I’ve been pleased with the spring,” Rick Stockstill said. “I think you’ll always have expectations of individual players on your team, and some of those players are going to meet those expectations and some of them aren’t. But, I think we’ve consistently gotten better each day.”
Starting lineup and depth starting to take shape
The Blue Raiders have plenty of spots to fill, especially along its offensive and defensive lines, and the coaching staff had its first chance to see who will fill those holes during the 15 spring practices.
Stockstill saw some guys step into bigger roles for the first time, especially on the defensive front where his team lost a combined 230 games played and 106 starts from the departures of linemen Chris Hale, Steven Rhodes, Shaquille Huff, Jimal McBride and Raynard Felton.
“I’ve been really pleased with Malik Manciel,” the head coach said. “I thought he had an excellent spring, and I think he’ll be a good player for us in there. I think Rosheem Collins and Walter Brady are also going to step in and help us.”
He also saw some of his younger players start to play with a little more consistency, though they still have plenty of work to do.
“Some of the younger guys still have a long way to go, probably more from an effort standpoint than a talent standpoint,” Stockstill said. “They’ve gotten better, but they’ve still got a long way to go.”
On the offensive side, finding depth along the interior will likely have to come from different places.
Stockstill said he was happy with some of the progression of the offensive linemen during drills, but depth will likely be aided by incoming freshmen. The signing class included four linemen, and one of them, junior college transfer Amir Luckett, was on campus taking part in drills.
“We lost a lot of linemen last year, with four seniors and then you throw in the two guys who were medically disqualified in February and March,” the head coach said. “It really hurts our depth … these freshmen coming in are going to have to be ready to step up in a hurry.”
The injury bug bit
While Stockstill saw improvement in some key areas, the roster did have its fair share of injuries this spring.
The most notable Blue Raider who didn’t take part in drills was redshirt junior quarterback Brent Stockstill, but he wasn’t alone. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Tyshun Render and redshirt junior linebacker Darius Harris also missed all of the spring because they are healing from offseason surgeries to fix injuries from last season.
Other key starters or hopeful starters, such as cornerback Mike Minter, guard Chandler Brewer, defensive end Walter Brady and running backs Maurice Gordon and Terelle West, among others, missed valuable time due to being dinged up.
The running back group may be the most impacted by the nagging injuries.
Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has to find a way to replace I’Tavius Mathers, the school’s all-time single-season rushing king who became the first player in NCAA FBS history with 1,500 rushing yards, 500 receiving yards and 60 catches in a season. He could have taken a big step towards that this spring, but with Gordon and West missing valuable time it will be up to who has the best summer to determine who will see the most early playing time.
“I’Tavius had a phenomenal summer last year, and it carried over into August and he got better and better,” Coach Stockstill said. “If you look at the running backs we have, this summer will be as critical for all of them.”
Despite some key guys missing valuable time this spring, Coach Stockstill expects all of his team’s injuries to be healed by the time players report back for camp in July.
“I think we’ll be good,” he said. “Most of the guys will be ready to go when we come back this summer, and those three that are coming back from offseason surgeries should be ready to go when we come back during the summer. We should be ready to roll when we come back in June.”
Shafer’s new defense has good early returns
Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer was hired in the offseason to revamp Middle Tennessee’s defense, and his first crack at coaching the Blue Raiders came this spring.
It is his and Coach Stockstill’s hope that the defense will play with more aggression in 2017 than it has in years past, and they took a big step toward that playing style in the 15 practices.
“I go back to the first practice, and I was really impressed by what they were doing and how fast they were doing it,” Stockstill said. “I was really pleased with the defense. We’re playing with a better attitude and doing a lot of good things.
“We have all summer and all of August to continue to improve and implement, but I’ve been impressed by what we’ve put in defensively. They’ve handled it really well.”
Backup QBs see valuable time
The already mentioned absence of the younger Stockstill from this year’s spring drills created an opportunity for backup quarterbacks John Urzua and Kyle Banks to see all of the team’s reps, and they benefitted greatly from the work.
Urzua, who relieved Brent Stockstill for two and a half games in 2016 when he suffered an injury, is trying to develop more consistency after throwing eight touchdowns and interceptions apiece and completing just 59.5 percent of his passes a season ago.
“John was a little inconsistent to start the spring, but he improved,” Coach Stockstill said. “I think he’s getting more confidence in himself.”
Banks, who primarily ran the scout team last season, saw significant action for the first time since the Blue Raiders were prepping to take on Hawaii in the Hawai’i Bowl.
“Kyle has a long way to go, but this was really the first time he’s seen consistent live reps since the bowl practices,” Coach Stockstill said. “He has a great attitude and he’s working to get better.”
Now that spring drills have concluded, the players won’t meet for organized team practices until camp starts at the end of July.
That doesn’t mean they have a couple of months off, though.
They will be lifting weights and conditioning prior to exam week, then most will go home for the month of May with plenty of things to work on before coming back for summer school on June 5. Then, it’s time for conditioning and fine-tuning until reporting for camp in late July.
“They’ve got three months to make a lot of conditioning gains, strength gains or to improve their overall game,” Coach Stockstill said. “If you don’t improve, you won’t play come August. The ones that are out there working on their craft, whatever position they play, will get better. Our guys have always been good in the summer at really working and getting better.”