Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
Two years ago, in my 2017 MTSU preview, I used a premise that I wish I had saved until this season: that of MTSU as football commuter school.
Middle Tennessee State University has the reputation of a commuter school. It is a reputation the school fights as hard as it can, but with medium-sized enrollment and a big, easy-to-access city (Nashville) nearby, it is convenient for the lifestyle either way.
One thing is certain: MTSU is a hell of an effective commuter school for coaches.
Since Rick Stockstill took over at MTSU, the list of impressive passers-by has grown: current Miami DC Manny Diaz, former Cal DC Art Kaufman, former Cal OC Tony Franklin (who has since returned to the Boro), Prairie View A&M HC Willie Simmons, current Arkansas State coordinators Buster Faulkner and Joe Cauthen, Troy co-OC Matt Moore, Appalachian State WR coach Justin Watts, former Steve Spurrier assistant G.A. Mangus, etc.
Stockstill is used to replacing strong assistant coaches and excellent players in his 13 seasons in Murfreesboro.
He continues to produce results as well. In 2018, in fact, he and the Blue Raiders won their first division title and came within a late score of the C-USA championship.
The transition never stops, though. After the season, Stockstill found out that he would have to replace his longest-tenured assistant. He also had to replace his son.
Okay, not “replace his son,” as in, “Brent Stockstill is no longer his son.” They’re still related. More like “His longtime starting quarterback, who also happens to be his son, graduated.”
The younger Stockstill enjoyed a storied career as four-year starter in the Boro, one full of lots of yards and what-ifs.
- In his freshman season, the Blue Raiders lost to Illinois and Vanderbilt by a combined six points.
- As a sophomore in 2016, he led an upset of Missouri and was on pace for nearly 4,400 passing yards and a shot at double-digit wins, but an injury cut his season short.
- As a junior in 2017, he led an upset of Syracuse, then missed six games with another injury — the most impressive part of his 12,495 career yards is that they were basically in three seasons’ worth of games. 2017 MTSU went 5-2 with him and 2-4 without him.
- In his senior season, it looked like everything had come together. MTSU started 7-3, outgained Kentucky in a competitive loss, and smoked C-USA West champ UAB a week before a C-USA title game rematch. They led well into the fourth quarter but succumbed to a late score, 27-25. Then they got smoked by Appalachian State in the New Orleans Bowl.
It was a bitter way for Quarterback Stockstill’s career to end. But now Coach Stockstill moves on. A good portion of last year’s stars return — receiver Ty Lee, safeties Reed Blankenship and Jovante Moffatt, running back Chaton Mosley, RB/WR Brad Anderson, linebackers Khalil Brooks and DQ Thomas — but the Blue Raiders enter 2019 with a new starting QB for the first time since 2015.
The head coach has spent 27 of his last 30 years employed by two schools — he was a Clemson assistant for 14 years, and now enters his 14th year as MTSU’s head man. In a transient industry with constant roster churn, he’s found long-term success with only a few blips. But ahead comes a pretty important transition.
If there’s any reassurance to losing a four-year starting quarterback, it’s that MTSU’s offense peaked a couple of years back. The 2016 attack was truly dynamite, with Lee and Richie James combining for more than 2,300 receiving yards and running back I’Tavius Mathers producing nearly 2,200 combined rushing and receiving yards.
That offense finished 33rd in Off. S&P+ despite Stockstill’s late injury. The 2018 offense ranked just 103rd.
The radar chart above shows you the primary issue with coordinator Tony Franklin’s 2018 attack. Accuracy was Stockstill’s strength, and the MTSU offense was built around quick strikes and a high completion rate. But there were far too many negative plays. The Blue Raiders ranked 103rd in sack rate (117th on passing downs) and 106th in stuff rate, the percentage of non-sack carries stopped at or behind the line.
Despite obvious big-play potential (35th in marginal explosiveness), MTSU’s offense was inconsistent because of inefficiency. An offense doesn’t typically become more efficient without a long-time starting QB, but in this case, it might not become less so.
There’s a lot to replace. Left tackle Carlos Johnson and guards Chandler Brewer and Robert Behanan combined for 116 career starts, and Brewer was first-team all-conference. They’re gone, and while two multi-year starters still return (center Josh Fannin, right tackle Amir Luckett), those are big holes.
Plus, while Lee returns for the final year of his storied MTSU career — he has 213 catches for 2,537 yards and 21 touchdowns — the next four wideouts on last year’s list are gone. A lack of continuity at both QB and WR is a lot to overcome.
It’s hard to worry too much about the skill corps, though.
- Mobley saw far more action than expected as a freshman, thanks to presumptive starter Tavares Thomas being banged up. After averaging 4.1 yards per carry through eight games, Mobley averaged 5.8 over his final six and rushed 19 times for 145 yards against Kentucky.
- Anderson was one of the more intriguing athletes in C-USA before missing the second half of the season with injury. He averaged 9.3 intended touches (carries and pass targets) per game and averaged both 5.3 yards per carry and 12.3 yards per catch despite fielding mostly screens and flares. He is potential dynamite in open space.
- CJ Windham averaged over 14 yards per catch as a sophomore in 2017 and started out 2018 on absolute fire — five catches, 105 yards, three touchdowns in two games — before missing the final 11 games.
If Anderson and Windham are available, the skill corps looks exciting, and that’s before we mention the addition of three-star JUCOs Jarrin Pierce (52 catches for 770 yards at College of the Canyons last year) and Jayy McDonald.
Okay, so the line has question marks, and the skill corps has upside but questionable depth. Got it. So who’s the QB?
I have no idea.
Asher O’Hara showed up in July 2018 and quickly became Stockstill’s backup. He was thrust into action against FIU and struggled (9-for-20 for 114 yards and a pick), but he ran efficiently, and hey, it was his first FBS action. He has still has to be considered a leading candidate.
Randall Johnson’s intriguing too. A product of Reedley College, the 6’5, 235-pound junior improved his passing efficiency greatly last year, raising his completion rate from 52 to 63 percent while rushing for nearly 800 yards. He could add a physical presence that neither Stockstill nor the 6’, 185-pound O’Hara possess.
Redshirt freshman Chance Nolan and sophomore Chase Cunningham will also be in the race.
The enigmatic Franklin is entering the 40th year of his coaching career. This isn’t his first QB battle. But depending on which QB he chooses and which of his skill guys stays healthy, Year No. 40 could go in a lot of directions.
First things first: Shafer has done one hell of a job as MTSU’s coordinator. In the six years before his arrival, the Blue Raiders had averaged a Def. S&P+ ranking of 103.8. He immediately improved it to 62nd in 2017, then held steady at 68th in 2018. With the offense succumbing to injuries and whatnot, the defense offered new stability. The former Stanford, Michigan, and Syracuse coordinator (and Cuse head coach) is probably not going to be working at MTSU for too much longer.
It appears he’ll be there in 2019, though. A few of last year’s stars will, too.
It starts in the back, where Jovonte Moffatt missed just enough time in 2018 to return for a fifth year. He played four games, made 27.5 tackles, defensed six passes, and sat the rest of the year. His return, alongside that of junior Reed Blankenship (11 passes defensed, eight TFLs), gives the Blue Raiders maybe the most high-upside safety duo in the conference.
Shafer generally knows what to do with exciting attackers up front, too, and he’s got a few of them in outside linebackers in Brooks and Thomas (combined: 27 TFLs, 13.5 sacks, nine breakups) and defensive ends Tyshun Render and Trae Philpots (15.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks). That’s over half the projected starting lineup that can make things happen in attack.
We’ll see how much Shafer’s aggressive tendencies are betrayed by inexperience at cornerback. Last year’s top three CBs — Darryl Randolph, Cordell Hudson, and O.J. Johnson — are all gone.
Barring position changes (sophomore Gregory Grate Jr., for instance, showed play-making potential but is still buried on the depth chart at safety), that leaves reserves Chris Stamos and Justin Brown and youngsters. Stockstill signed four three-star DBs, including high-three-star Mark Lafrance, but even talented youth has to deal with glitches. And when you’re dealing with an aggressive DC like Shafer, glitches can be 50-yard glitches.
Still, the pluses seem to outweigh the minuses here. Shafer’s got more to work with now than he did when he showed up in 2017, and he could have a lot of fun with these experienced attackers.
Ty Lee’s value as a possession-plus style of receiver is obvious, but his value as a return man is nearly as high, and it could get the 5’9, 178-pound senior some NFL looks. Lee didn’t break many huge returns last year, but his value comes in his consistency — MTSU was second in punt return efficiency and 44th in kick return efficiency last season.
Even with Lee, though, MTSU might be hard-pressed to match last year’s No. 53 Special Teams S&P+ rating. Punter Matt Bonadies’ ability to prevent returns of any kind led to a No. 19 ranking in punt efficiency, and he’s gone. Still, Lee and place-kicker Crews Holt — an automatic kicker under 40 yards (and a non-entity outside of 40) — are a solid base.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|12-Oct||at Florida Atlantic||79||-10.5||27%|
|19-Oct||at North Texas||84||-9.8||29%|
|30-Nov||at Western Kentucky||101||-3.2||43%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||104|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||113 / 86|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-4.8 (89)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||87|
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||5 / 4.8|
|2018 TO Luck/Game||+0.1|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||48% (45%, 51%)|
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)||8.3 (-0.3)|
QB Son or no QB Son, Stockstill’s got a good thing going. He’s got two well-paid, P5-level coordinators in Franklin and Shafer, and he heads into 2019 with an exciting core.
There are reasons for concern, though. Quite a few units are just an injury or two from depth issues, and with MTSU there are usually key injuries. And of course, replacing a longtime starting QB is an anxious experience.
The combined loss of QB, WRs, and cornerbacks means S&P+ is not sold on the 2019 Blue Raiders. They’re projected 104th, and they play just four teams projected 100th or worse, a rarity in Conference USA.
My guess is that the defense will be alright because of the attacking talent, and if Anderson and Windham play a full season and the QB position isn’t an outright disaster, the offense should avoid too much regression. The numbers do suggest a reset year is possible, though. Not that that’s new territory for Stockstill.