2013 Middle Tennessee football's 10 things to know: A surprising turnaround

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A new offensive coordinator made a world of difference for Rick Stockstill and Middle Tennessee in 2012. The Blue Raiders bounced back after a 2011 collapse, and with a load of returning experience, could make a pretty smooth transition to Conference USA ball this fall.

Confused? Check out the glossary here.

1. The bad news first:

We've got good news and bad news. First, the bad: Middle Tennessee really wasn't a very good team last year. The Blue Raiders finished 8-4 and whipped Georgia Tech (I stand by my point that they should have been playing USC in the Sun Bowl instead of the 6-7 Yellow Jackets), but they lost to McNeese State, lucked (somewhat) into a 4-1 record in one-possession games, and fielded a pretty dreadful defense (114th in Def. F/+).

Yes, they kind of got screwed out of a bowl bid, but one can only muster so much outrage when a team that ranked 96th overall misses the postseason. That said...

2. A tremendous bounceback, considering

...96th is better than 115th, and 8-4 is better than 2-10. Rick Stockstill pulled off one hell of a bounceback season, switching his offense up and overcoming the loss of quite a few impact players from the skill position portion of the depth chart. With a terribly inexperienced team, he saved his job and pulled off enough of a rally that Conference USA came calling. MTSU may not have been a good team, but it was a much better team, and that is to be applauded.

2012 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-4 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 96
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
30-Aug McNeese State 21-27 L 18.8 - 59.5 L
8-Sep Florida Atlantic 31-17 W 37.8 - 34.2 W
15-Sep at Memphis 48-30 W 35.9 - 37.1 L
29-Sep at Georgia Tech 49-28 W 42.5 - 28.3 W
6-Oct UL-Monroe 17-31 L 31.9 - 28.0 W
13-Oct at Florida International 34-30 W 34.1 - 36.6 L
20-Oct at Mississippi State 3-45 L 16.7 - 42.2 L
27-Oct North Texas 38-21 W 34.0 - 31.6 W
1-Nov at Western Kentucky 34-29 W 30.3 - 39.0 L
17-Nov at South Alabama 20-12 W 28.2 - 27.9 W
24-Nov Troy 24-21 W 13.8 - 23.4 L
1-Dec at Arkansas State 0-45 L 14.1 - 36.1 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 27.4 73 28.0 62
Adj. Points Per Game 28.2 64 35.3 114

3. When it didn't work, it really didn't work

As a whole, MTSU teetered between competent and good. But in three losses -- McNeese State, Mississippi State, and Arkansas State -- the Blue Raiders were perhaps the worst team in the country in that given week.

Adj. Points Per Game (eight wins and ULM loss): MTSU 32.1, Opponent 31.8 (plus-0.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (three other losses): Opponent 45.9, MTSU 16.5 (minus-29.4)

When injuries and youth combine, this is perhaps what should be expected. Sporting a new run-first approach, MTSU got rocked by attrition at the running back position, losing its top two guys for the year and giving 20 carries per game to a freshman (Jordan Parker) and a receiver-turned-cornerback (Drayton Calhoun). One of the team's top receivers (Tavarres Jefferson) was also lost for the season early on. And to gauge the youth on last year's defense, simply look at the number of returnees. The secondary was run by a freshman and a pair of sophomores, plus three of the top five linebackers and two of the top six linemen missed time. Stockstill had to do a lot of shuffling in 2012, and while he was able to keep the ship afloat for the most part and engineer vast, clear improvement after a two-year collapse, the Blue Raiders did find a few icebergs along the way.

Offense

Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 66 59 53 60
RUSHING 47 72 77 69
PASSING 78 45 38 49
Standard Downs 47 41 48
Passing Downs 87 82 85
Redzone 79 64 85
Q1 Rk 42 1st Down Rk 68
Q2 Rk 91 2nd Down Rk 96
Q3 Rk 98 3rd Down Rk 34
Q4 Rk 61

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards Comp
Rate
TD INT Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Logan Kilgore 6'3, 194 Sr. *** (5.6) 212 335 2,571 63.3% 16 6 6 1.8% 7.4
Jeff Murphy


5 8 22 62.5% 0 1 0 0.0% 2.8
Shaun White 5'11, 210 So. *** (5.5)






Austin Grammer 6'2, 200 RSFr. *** (5.5)








4. Run-to-pass looks good on Logan Kilgore

The formatting is funky now, but go back and look at last year's MTSU stat profile. The Blue Raiders ran just 56 percent of the time on standard downs and just 21 percent of the time on passing downs. Logan Kilgore, then a sophomore, was done no favors by play-calling, facing a lot of "go out there and make a play on passing downs (with a pretty poor receiving corps)" situations. The result: a 59 percent completion rate, 12 interceptions, and a No. 107 Passing S&P+ ranking.

Enter Buster Faulkner. Despite his background -- before MTSU, Faulkner was Chris Hatcher's offensive coordinator at Murray State; Hatcher is an Air Raid disciple who served as a Hal Mumme assistant at Kentucky in the late-1990s -- Faulkner took the reins of the MTSU offense in his second year in Murfreesboro and actually doubled down on the run game. MTSU raised its run rates to 69 percent on standard downs and 35 percent on passing downs, making the Blue Raiders a pretty run-heavy team overall.

It suited the personnel well despite the injuries. William Pratcher and Benny Cunningham looked like a ferocious 1-2 combination of running backs, but Pratcher was lost for the season after three carries, and after a brief explosion, Cunningham was lost midway through the year. Faulkner ended up dipping further into the depth chart than intended, but for a freshman, Jordan Parker held his own pretty well. The run game was decent, but as importantly, it opened up the pass quite a bit. Despite the loss of Jefferson, 2011's No. 2 receiver, the top three receivers each averaged 8.0 yards per target or better. Receiver Anthony Amos departs, as does Cunningham, but Pratcher re-joins Parker in the backfield, and between senior Kyle Griwould, sophomore Christian Collis, and three junior college receivers, the supporting cast could be the best Kilgore has had at his disposal. A good offensive line is just icing on the cake.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
TD Adj.
POE
Jordan Parker RB 6'1, 207 So. ** (5.4) 166 851 5.1 6.4 3 +1.9
William Pratcher (2011) RB 5'7, 206 Sr. ** (5.2) 122 585 4.8 N/A 2 -5.6
Benny Cunningham RB 97 600 6.2 4.8 11 +12.9
Drayton Calhoun CB 77 270 3.5 3.6 2 -10.3
Jeremiah Bryson RB 5'8, 185 So. *** (5.6) 39 150 3.8 2.1 0 -3.5
Reggie Whatley RB 5'7, 175 Jr. ** (5.3) 39 172 4.4 3.9 1 -2.1
Logan Kilgore QB 6'3, 194 Sr. *** (5.6) 16 127 7.9 9.1 1 +7.1
Kyle Griswould WR-H 5'10, 200 Sr. ** (5.2) 7 17 2.4 1.1 1 -1.6
Kamani Thomas RB 5'9, 192 Fr. *** (5.6)





Shane Tucker RB 6'0, 208 Fr. *** (5.5)





5. Oh, Benny

For three years, Benny Cunningham was a decent backup; from 2009-11, he compiled 1,009 rushing yards (4.2 per carry) and 10 touchdowns: reasonably competent but far from spectacular. But the new offense gave him both freedom and opportunity, and he took full advantage. After carrying just 20 times for 91 yards in the first three weeks, Cunningham ripped off 217 yards and five touchdowns in the win over Georgia Tech, then rushed for 230 and two scores against Florida International two weeks later. Suddenly he was looking like a potential 1,500-yard rusher and all-Sun Belt performer. He made my Heisman column a couple of times. But late in the FIU game, he injured his knee and was lost for the season. A senior putting everything together in his final season, then going down with injury, is painfully disappointing.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Yds/
Target
Target
Rate
%SD Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Anthony Amos WR-Z 117 72 978 61.5% 8.4 35.6% 47.9% 8.6 140.0
Kyle Griswould WR-H 5'10, 200 Sr. ** (5.2) 67 45 547 67.2% 8.2 20.4% 56.7% 8.3 78.3
Tavarres Jefferson (2011) WR 5'9, 207 Sr. ** (5.4) 69 51 398 73.9% 5.8 14.4% 59.4% N/A N/A
Christian Collis WR-X 6'0, 210 So. *** (5.5) 26 18 195 69.2% 7.5 7.9% 50.0% 8.0 27.9
Vincent Van Horne WR-Y 20 9 121 45.0% 6.1 6.1% 55.0% 5.7 17.3
Jeremiah Bryson RB 5'8, 185 So. *** (5.6) 15 12 122 80.0% 8.1 4.6% 26.7% 7.0 17.5
Marcus Henry WR 6'0, 188 Jr. ** (5.4) 14 9 182 64.3% 13.0 4.3% 57.1% 13.3 26.0
Jordan Parker RB 6'1, 207 So. ** (5.4) 14 10 102 71.4% 7.3 4.3% 28.6% 5.0 14.6
Benny Cunningham RB 12 9 109 75.0% 9.1 3.6% 25.0% 5.7 15.6
Harold Turner, Jr. WR-X 12 12 77 100.0% 6.4 3.6% 75.0% 7.1 11.0
Reggie Whatley RB 5'7, 175 Jr. ** (5.3) 10 7 48 70.0% 4.8 3.0% 80.0% 4.1 6.9
Demetrius Frazier WR 5'10, 190 RSFr. *** (5.5)








Devin Clarke WR 5'11, 170 Jr. *** (5.5)








Ed'Marques Battles WR 6'0, 190 Jr. ** (5.4)








Chris Perkins WR 6'5, 215 Jr. ** (5.2)








Jevontey Smith WR 6'2, 189 Fr. *** (5.5)








Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 101.1 3.00 3.14 36.3% 72.1% 19.1% 259.8 1.4% 2.1%
Rank 69 59 69 89 42 66 8 5 8
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Career Starts/Honors/Notes
Micah James C 13 career starts; 2012 1st All-Sun Belt
Josh Walker LG 6'5, 319 Sr. ** (5.1) 21 career starts
Isaiah Anderson RT 6'4, 274 Jr. ** (5.3) 12 career starts
Darius Johnson LT 6'3, 280 So. *** (5.5) 12 career starts
Jadareius Hamlin RG 6'2, 291 Sr. ** (5.2) 9 career starts
Jesse Grisham RG 6'3, 284 Sr. ** (5.2) 4 career starts
Roberto Loya LT 6'5, 285 So. ** (5.4) 2 career starts
Patrick Hughes C 6'4, 303 Jr. ** (5.4) 1 career start
Nick Nunez LG 6'4, 273 Sr. ** (5.2)
Hunter Rogers RT 6'7, 337 RSFr. ** (5.2)
Adam Stickel RG 6'5, 317 RSFr. ** (5.2)

6. MTSU should have one of Conference USA's best offensive lines

When two-year starting tackle Alex Stuart decided not to return for his senior season, an inexperienced line became one of the nation's most inexperienced lines. His unexpected departure, along with the losses of a one-year starting guard, a two-year starting center, a three-year starting guard, and a four-year starting tackle, could have absolutely destroyed a line that returned just 14 career starts. Instead, the line held form. The Blue Raiders improved from 76th to 69th in Adj. Line Yards and regressed only from fourth to eighth in Adj. Sack Rate. Kilgore was rarely touched (MTSU's quick passing certainly helps with that), and a line that was consistently shuffled during the season held up on the ground, too.

In 2013, then, the line comes with expectations. Seven players with starting experience return from a line that was a pleasant surprise. If the running backs stay healthy this time around, MTSU should have a rock solid running game.

Defense

Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 94 110 116 103
RUSHING 86 106 113 89
PASSING 92 105 111 94
Standard Downs 109 111 103
Passing Downs 99 98 97
Redzone 106 101 108
Q1 Rk 94 1st Down Rk 110
Q2 Rk 119 2nd Down Rk 100
Q3 Rk 109 3rd Down Rk 121
Q4 Rk 112

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 83.6 3.23 3.17 41.1% 79.1% 14.3% 65.2 3.8% 3.5%
Rank 120 101 53 89 116 116 112 90 111
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Stephen Roberts DE 6'3, 230 Sr. ** (5.4) 12 27.0 3.7% 2 0 0 1 1 0
Omar McLendon DE 12 25.5 3.5% 5 2 0 0 0 2
Jimmy Staten DT 6'4, 300 Sr. ** (5.2) 12 25.5 3.5% 1.5 1 0 0 0 0
Shubert Bastien DE 6'5, 237 Jr. ** (5.4) 12 24.0 3.3% 6 3 0 1 2 1
Kendall Dangerfield DT 10 24.0 3.3% 4.5 2 0 0 2 1
Patrick McNeil DT 6'1, 301 Jr. *** (5.5) 10 18.5 2.5% 2 0 0 1 0 0
Dearco Nolan DE 6'2, 242 Sr. ** (5.2) 12 16.5 2.3% 2 0 0 0 0 1
J.D. Jones DT 6'2, 314 So. *** (5.5) 12 9.5 1.3% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Jiajuan Jennell DE 6'3, 240 Jr. ** (5.2) 10 7.0 1.0% 0.5 0 0 0 0 0
Alexandro Antoine DE 6'1, 243 So. *** (5.5) 12 6.5 0.9% 1.5 0 0 0 0 0
Raynard Felton DE 6'4, 265 RSFr. ** (5.4)

Derious Bennett DT 6'1, 301 RSFr. ** (5.2)

Shaquille Huff DT 6'1, 312 RSFr. ** (5.4)

Kenderson Obas DT 6'2, 275 Fr. *** (5.5)

Devante Lee DE 6'6, 230 Fr. ** (5.4)

Ismael Aurismond DE 6'3, 230 Fr. ** (5.4)

7. Can star ratings save a dreadful line?

The positive spin: MTSU had twice as many sacks as its opponent in 2012!

The less positive spin: MTSU had just 14 sacks in 2012, worse than all but a handful of teams; the Blue Raiders were bad at geting to the quarterback on standard downs and awful at it on passing downs. Also: they got pushed around against the run, particularly in short yardage situations, and made next to no plays behind the line of scrimmage.

MTSU's offensive line must have just dominated the defensive line in practice, huh? The DL was pretty awful as a whole, and improvement in 2013 will rely mostly on former three-star recruits actually becoming three-star players. Recruiting rankings have been relatively kind to MTSU as a whole -- each unit has its share of three-star guys (except the OL, one of MTSU's best units) -- but that only matters if production occurs. Big, three-star tackles Patrick McNeil and J.D. Jones did next to nothing last year (same goes for end Alexandro Antoine), and while the depth of experience is impressive ... again, that only matters if results follow.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Craig Allen LB 6'2, 230 Sr. ** (5.3) 11 70.5 9.7% 2 1 0 2 0 1
Roderic Blunt MIKE 6'0, 228 Sr. ** (5.3) 12 55.5 7.6% 2.5 0 1 2 0 1
T.T. Barber WILL 6'1, 215 So. ** (5.2) 9 35.5 4.9% 3.5 0 1 0 1 0
Christian Henry MIKE 6'0, 228 Jr. ** (5.2) 12 33.0 4.5% 1 0 0 3 0 0
Justin Jones SAM 5'11, 225 Sr. *** (5.5) 9 31.5 4.3% 3 0 0 1 0 0
Leighton Gasque WILL 6'2, 210 Jr. *** (5.5) 12 17.5 2.4% 4.5 4 0 0 0 0
James Roberson SAM 6'0, 205 So. *** (5.5) 12 9.5 1.3% 0 0 0 0 1 1
Ykeem Wells MIKE 6'0, 230 So. ** 12 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 0 1 1
Iman Smith LB 6'1, 224 RSFr. ** (5.4)

Jahmal Jones LB 6'2, 227 Fr. ** (5.4)






Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Kevin Byard FS 5'11, 220 So. ** (5.4) 12 61.0 8.4% 0 0 4 2 2 0
Jajuan Harley SS 12 56.0 7.7% 1 0 3 0 1 1
Khari Burke CB 5'8, 176 Jr. *** (5.6) 11 37.5 5.1% 2 0 0 1 0 2
Chris Sharpe CB 5'11, 179 Jr. *** (5.5) 12 25.5 3.5% 1 0 1 1 0 1
Kenneth Gilstrap CB 5'9, 181 Sr. ** (5.2) 10 23.0 3.2% 0 0 2 2 0 0
David Jones SS 5'11, 197 Sr. ** (5.4) 10 17.0 2.3% 0 0 0 0 1 1
Sammy Seamster CB 6'1, 201 Sr. ** (5.1) 12 15.0 2.1% 2 0 0 0 1 0
Reginald Farmer FS 5'10, 188 Sr. NR 11 4.0 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Robert Hogg SS 8 3.5 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 1
Herbert King CB 5'10, 174 Sr. NR 10 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jared Singletary CB 5'8, 167 So. *** (5.5) 6 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Drayton Calhoun CB 5'11, 186 Sr. **** (5.9) 11 1.0 0.1% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Anfornee Stewart S 6'1, 203 RSFr. ** (5.4)

Chris Brown S 6'1, 180 RSFr. ** (5.4)

Xavier Walker DB 6'4, 205 Jr. ** (5.2)

Shon Akins DB 5'9, 168 Fr. *** (5.6)

8. Sacrificing safety for play-making

Perhaps by necessity, MTSU was conservative as a whole, preventing big plays better than it made them. The bend-don't-break attack can work, but the Blue Raiders bent way, way too much in 2012. The team took huge leaps on offense and special teams last year, but MTSU will have to make a few more plays on defense for that to matter too much in Conference USA. Can this personnel, which really does have quite a few three-star (and one four-star) recruits involved, begin to translate athleticism to quality now that the two-deep features much, much more experience?

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Josh Davis 5'10, 215 Sr. 42 40.2 3 11 14 59.5%
Zachary Lopez 5'11, 198 Jr. 4 37.2 0 1 2 75.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB TB%
Carlos Lopez 66 59.7 10 15.2%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2013
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Carlos Lopez 36-36 15-17 88.2% 2-5 40.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Reggie Whatley KR 5'7, 175 Jr. 25 30.5 1
Kenneth Gilstrap KR 5'9, 181 Sr. 9 23.8 0
Jared Singletary PR 5'8, 167 So. 9 4.6 0
Kyle Griswould PR 5'10, 200 Sr. 7 0.9 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 8
Net Punting 97
Net Kickoffs 116
Touchback Pct 116
Field Goal Pct 37
Kick Returns Avg 8
Punt Returns Avg 118

9. All-or-nothing on special teams

Thanks mostly to place-kicking and kick returns, MTSU's special teams ratings were downright strong in 2012; knowing how much the field position battle matters in football, this was a huge boon to the Blue Raiders' 4-1 record in one-possession games. Star return man Reggie Whatley returns, which is great, but kicker Carlos Lopez does not. Can MTSU shore up its dreadful kickoff and punt return units to account for the loss of Lopez?

2013 Schedule & Projection Factors

2012 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
29-Aug Western Carolina NR
7-Sep at North Carolina 32
14-Sep Memphis 113
21-Sep at Florida Atlantic 116
27-Sep at BYU 27
5-Oct East Carolina 81
12-Oct at North Texas 112
19-Oct Marshall 79
2-Nov at UAB 105
9-Nov Florida International 99
23-Nov at Southern Miss 87
30-Nov UTEP 108
Five-Year F/+ Rk 103
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 109
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* +10 / +5.4
TO Luck/Game +1.9
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 18 (9, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin** -1.4

10. How does a lucky-and-unlucky team handle a step up?

I keep calling the move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA a "step up," and it is, but only marginally so. If Middle Tennessee's offense indeed improves as I expect, and if the defense can become a bit less of a sieve, the Blue Raiders should be able to crawl into the 80s, or perhaps even the mid-70s, in the F/+ rankings. Do that, and there are quite a few wins to be found.

Aside from rough trips to North Carolina and BYU (neither of which will be unwinnable), every game is within reach here if MTSU can capitalize on last year's step forward with another one. The Blue Raiders were not as good as their record last year, but they were good enough to build optimism for what could be a pretty damn nice squad in Murfreesboro this coming fall. I love what Buster Faulkner did with this offense last year, and I think it could carry MTSU to a lovely 2013 season, defensive warts and all.

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