Team preview: Middle Tennessee
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2005 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
Andy McCollum has something this season that all coaches dream of -- experienced depth at a variety of positions.
In his seventh year as the head coach of his alma mater, McCollum is coaching a team with eight returning starters on offense and 10 on defense. "We've got a lot of guys returning who have played a lot of games the last few years," McCollum said.
The experience may help McCollum and the Blue Raiders put a stop to a three-year downturn. After a 6-5 record in 2000 and an 8-3 record 2001, Middle Tennessee has gone 4-8, 4-8 and 5-6. The difference between a losing season and a winning season in D-1 football is razor thin, but McCollum says the Blue Raiders may finally have the pieces in place to make 2005 a winning year.
"We were a play or two away from being a seven or eight win team a year ago, so we've just got to do the small things right," he said.
While the Blue Raiders haven't had a winning season since 2001, a couple of things will be in Middle Tennessee's favor when the Blue Raiders kick it off in September. First, virtually every Blue Raider on the field will have plenty of valuable game experience. Second, competition at virtually every position should make for a sharp team come September.
Co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw is looking forward to working with so many veterans.
"You don't have a learning curve where you have to teach a kid what to do, where to go and how to get there," he said. "These kids know what to do, they've been in the system, so now it's just competition."
That competition for starting jobs has the coaching staff excited.
"Who can be the best they can be? That's basically what it comes down to," Hinshaw said. "When it's their turn to play, the light needs to come on, and they need to make plays. The great thing is that when you go from the first team unit to the second team unit, you're not losing a whole lot."
In addition to many familiar faces on the field, most of the coaching staff has remained intact. The most notable departure was Bradley Dale Peveto, last year's defensive coordinator and linebacker coach, who left to work for new LSU coach Les Miles.
Peveto's duties as defensive coordinator were assumed by safeties coach Mark Criner, who will stay with essentially the same 4-3 defense MTSU use last year. Art Kaufman was hired to coach a talented group of returning linebackers.
Redshirt junior Clint Marks (6-2, 187) returns to lead a Blue Raider offense that led the Sun Belt in passing last season. Marks had a career year in 2004, throwing for 2,749 yards and completing 70.4 percent of his passes.
Marks finished third in the nation in passing percentage. That impressive performance, Hinshaw says, should push Marks this season.
"We need to continue being consistent passing the ball, continue to have high completion percentages and move the chains," he said. "If we can keep moving the chains and keep the defense off the field, we feel that those are our keys to win."
Marks had his best game of the year against Arkansas State. He completed 30-of-34 passes for 447 yards and four touchdowns. He also threw for 359 yards on 27-of-37 passing against Florida Atlantic.
Backing up Marks will be senior Josh Harris (6-3, 184). Harris, too, was on the mark last season last season -- he completed 69 percent of his passes. His two best performances were the bookends of the Blue Raiders' season, as he completed 10-of-11 passes for 111 yards in the season opener against Akron and 10-of-14 passes in the season finale against Troy.
Rounding out Middle's quarterback corps are redshirt freshman Joe Craddock (5-11, 180) and red-shirt sophomore Patrick Johnson (6-2, 200).
While the Blue Raiders lost Lee Baker to graduation, three running backs return from last year's team. The challenge ahead of the trio is to find a way to energize a rushing attack that was the worst in the Sun Belt last season.
With the rest of the conference ready to key on the passing attack, Hinshaw says the ability to consistently run the football will be a key to success this season.
"That's something that we could not do as well last year," he said. "This year I want to be able to run the ball more. The goal is to be 50-50."
Both players have their strengths and weaknesses, but Hinshaw thinks either could get the job done this year.
"DeMarco McNair has shown steady progress," he said. "He has the potential to be the guy on every snap. Eugene Gross has the experience and the power. His only problem is that he's been injured. Injury is the only thing that's held him back from being a 1,000-yard rusher in my opinion."
Both players contributed in different ways in the Blue-White game. McNair was impressive on the ground, gaining 61 yards on 11 carries. Gross had eight carries for 30 yards, but he also caught four passes for 75 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown pass that proved to be the game-winner.
Redshirt sophomore Terry Jackson (5-10, 190) also returns. As a reserve last season, he led the team with a 5.3 yards-per-carry average. Jackson also showed an ability to come out of the backfield and catch passes. Hinshaw said the durable Jackson's style is "steady and meticulous."
Also vying for playing time are redshirt junior Ralph King (5-10, 182) and true freshman Alex Suber (5-9, 179). Suber is a speedy running back from Florida who rushed for 1,592 yards and 16 touchdowns in his senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School in Tampa, Florida.
"I was down in Tampa the other day, and that was all that anyone talked about," McCollum said. "I think that he got overlooked because of his size, but he led Jefferson to the state championship where they lost to Bowles, and I think he had 240 yards in that game."
The starting fullback is redshirt senior Nick McAfee (6-0, 244). While McAfee has seen plenty of playing time in his career, he's carried the football just once. Look for McAfee to contribute as a blocker as well as a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. His backup is redshirt sophomore Ralph Gunter (6-0, 242).
There's a big question mark at wide receiver as the Blue Raiders try to replace Kelly Wright. Last year Wright became the first player in Middle Tennessee history to post back-to-back 1,000 yard receiving seasons. McCollum is banking on an ensemble effort to keep the Sun Belt's top passing attack airborne.
"You don't replace a player of Kerry's ability and productivity," McCollum said. "You just move on and work to get the whole group of receivers better so that you have more than just one weapon. He will be missed, but we have some very talented guys waiting to take their turn and make a difference."
Redshirt senior Chris Henry (5-8, 170) and senior Cleannord Saintil (5-11, 185) appear ready to pick up some of the slack. Henry had a breakout year in 2004, hauling in 60 receptions for 586 yards. He showed consistency by recording at least five catches in nine games, including a 10-reception performance in an upset at Akron.
Saintil easily made the transition from junior college last season, making 40 catches and leading the team in kickoff return yardage.
"Chris Henry will be consistent," Hinshaw said. "We're looking for Cleannord Saintil to move outside after lining up inside a lot last season. We're going to line those two guys up on the same side of the field a lot this year."
Red-shirt junior Pierre Ingram (6-4, 212) is also capable of making an impact -- if he can stay healthy. Hamstring problems sidelined Ingram for a portion of last season, limiting him to six catches for 80 yards and a touchdown.
"Ingram is a big receiver who can run, and we're excited to see what he can do," Hinshaw said.
One player who impressed Middle coaches in spring practice was redshirt sophomore Taron Henry (6-0, 193). He capped an impressive spring with three catches, including a touchdown, in the Blue-White game and played his way into the third starting position on the post-spring depth chart.
Other returning players looking to contribute include a pair of red-shirt juniors and a freshman. Walt Bell (5-8, 188) and Luke Paschall (5-10, 186) return from last year's squad, but they are still a bit short on experience. Bell saw most of his action on special teams in 2004 as a member of the kickoff return team and as a holder on field goal attempts. Although Bell and Paschall are technically veterans, they've made only four career receptions between them.
Freshman Jay Robinson (6-4, 200) has the size and speed to make an impact early in his career. The problem for Robinson initially will be learning the wide receiver position after playing quarterback in high school, but he has a huge head start over the other incoming freshmen.
He was able to participate in spring drills after graduating early and enrolling at Middle Tennessee for the spring semester. Hinshaw thinks the 15 extra practices have made it possible for Robinson to contend for a starting position in the fall.
Although this group of receivers has a ton of production to replace, Pierre Ingram is pleased with what he saw in the spring.
"We had several different receivers step up and make strides," Ingram said. "We have to keep working through the summer and make sure that we are all on the same page with the quarterbacks, but I saw a lot of positives throughout the spring."
As for the tight end position, sophomore Steven Chicola (6-5, 235) still looks like the starter despite being sidelined for most of the spring drills with an injury, but competition is tight and won't be decided until the fall.
The two players who were ahead of Chicola on the depth chart this time last season will probably back him up when the 2005 season starts. Redshirt sophomore Clinton Corder (6-3, 250) was the projected starter last spring before missing the entire 2004 season with an ankle injury.
When Chicola was injured this spring, Corder took all the snaps at tight end and impressed the coaching staff.
"He did a great job," Hinshaw said. "I really kind of think that Chiccola and Corder are even right now, but we're going to go into the fall and see who wants it."
Jerrin Holt (6-3, 240), a redshirt senior, appeared in the first four games of the 2004 campaign before a leg injury sidelined him the last seven games. He could press Chicola and Corder for playing time if he fully recovers from reconstructive ankle surgery.
"It's the best thing in the world to have competition to make everybody better, and I think all three are going to contribute and play for us," Hinshaw said.
Three of five starters from last year's line are back this year, providing a solid nucleus for the Blue Raider offense. Redshirt juniors Germayle Franklin (6-4, 312) and Willie Hall (6-6, 302) will anchor the tackle positions while red-shirt junior Marcus Gates (6-2, 275) will start at center.
The experience on the line has the coaches expecting a more consistent ground attack. With all of the success through the air, Hinshaw figures opposing coaches will gear their defenses to focus on the pass, forcing Middle Tennessee to run the football consistently.
"Teams will be playing more Cover-2, and we believe that we should be able to match up blocking-wise in the box so that we can run the football," he said. "If they're going to put an extra guy in the box, we should be able to throw it, and if they take that guy out, we should be able to run it. We want to be able to take what the defense is giving us."
The three returning starters, joined by a couple of players who saw a lot of action last season, make Hinshaw more comfortable with running the ball out of multiple formations.
Franklin, a two-year starter at guard, was an iron man in 2004. He played an offensive line-high 803 snaps while recording a career-best 78 knockdowns. Hall was also impressive last year, collecting 92.5 knockdowns.
Gates proved to be solid in 2004 after a move from defensive end to center. He played a career-high 627 snaps and recorded 109 knockdowns, second best on the team.
Even though the guard and center positions are solidified, the question mark is right where it was last year -- the tackle slots. With all-conference performer Quinton Staton moving to the defensive side of the ball, somebody will have to step up and fill the gaps.
Sophomore Brandon Nix (6-4, 285) and senior Brian Smith (6-5, 320) were the starting tackles after spring workouts. Nix is making the move over from the defensive side of the ball, much like Gates did a year ago. The coaches think his toughness, quickness and solid footwork will make him a major contributor this season.
While Nix must adjust to a new position, Smith has the benefit of experience at the tackle position last season. He appeared in all 11 games a year ago with most of his playing time, including a start against Idaho, coming in late.
There are a host of other players looking for reps on the offensive line. Redshirt seniors Kyle Ringley (6-2, 264) and Kyle Turnbow (6-5, 287), redshirt juniors Cade Becher (6-3, 312) and Christopher Sapp (6-5, 282), and redshirt freshman Richard Bortner (6-6, 305) provide depth on the offensive line.
Special teams were a question mark heading into last season, but Colby Smith (5-9, 182) proved to be the answer in more ways than one. In a rare case of double-duty in I-A football these days, the redshirt junior will again handle the place kicking and punting duties.
Smith connected on 15-of-17 field goals last season, making him a second-team all-conference selection and a semi-finalist for the Lou Groza Award. Redshirt senior Paul Wheeler (6-1, 223) will handle the kickoff duties for the fourth straight season. He recorded 14 touchbacks in 2004.
The defensive line is a spot where Middle Tennessee figures to be solid this season. The defense as a whole will be loaded with experience as 10-of-11 starters return from last year, but the defensive line is especially deep. Six returning defensive linemen started a game at some point last season. That sort of experience and depth should ensure consistently strong play along the defensive front.
Red-shirt senior Jeff Littlejohn (6-2, 318) anchors the defensive line at nose tackle. Littlejohn fought through double teams last season on his way to 17 tackles and one fumble recovery. Despite the physical beating a nose tackle takes, Littlejohn has played in 33-of-35 games in his career.
Backing up Littlejohn will be senior Raymond Chaney (6-2, 280). Chaney gaine some experience last season, appearing in seven games and making seven tackles.
Alongside Littlejohn at the defensive tackle position will be a player who earned second-team all-conference honors as an offensive lineman last season. The coaches think that senior Quinton Staton (6-2, 282) will make a successful transition from offense to defense because of his toughness, strength and quickness.
Backing up Staton will be redshirt sophomore Chris Anderson (6-3, 295). Anderson was the top-rated defensive tackle prospect in Florida coming out of high school.
There's a battle going on at left defensive end, as a trio of players are fighting for the job. Senior Devarick Scandrett (6-4, 264), redshirt junior Bobby Payne (6-4, 270) and redshirt sophomore Erik Walden (6-2, 230) are all scrapping for playing time.
Going into the spring, it seemed Walden had the inside track to win the starting nod. He used his quickness to lead the Blue Raiders with six sacks to go along with 25 total stops last season. As it stood at the end of spring workouts, Scandrett held a slight edge over Walden for the starting job, but it could go either way. Scandrett has the edge in the experience department having played in every game during his career at Middle Tennessee. His long arms and quickness make him an imposing pass rusher.
Payne is a player MTSU coaches think has a great deal of potential. He had a career-high 17 tackles last season and could be ready to have a breakout season. A suspension for academic reasons during spring drills will hurt Payne's chances of grabbing a starting job, but the competition at the left end position will be one to watch closely.
It is more of the same at the right defensive end position as red-shirt sophomores Antoine Owens (6-1, 242) and Sean Mosely (6-3, 250) battle for the starting job. Owens played in all 11 games last season, recording 24 tackles and three sacks.
Mosely, who started at right end in all but two games, had 36 tackles and three sacks. As with the position battle at left end, this one could be close all the way up to opening day.
The linebacker core might be the most talented group on the team. The Blue Raiders are returning all three starters from last season, and four other players are looking to get into the mix.
"From top to bottom this is probably the best group of linebackers I have had at Middle Tennessee," McCollum said. "They are all physical, can run, and most importantly they have experience. I feel real good about our situation at linebacker this fall."
Senior Dennis Burke (6-1, 236), redshirt junior Jonathan Bonner (6-0, 224) and junior Marcel Horne (6-1, 218) are the returning starters. Burke had 56 tackles, one sack and one interception last season. He's made 122 tackles in his 33-game career. Burke is an extremely physical player and an experienced anchor of the Blue Raider defense.
Bonner played in only one game in 2004 as a cervical fusion kept him off the field. He had 74 tackles, six of them for a loss, during his sophomore year. Although he was unable to participate in spring drills, Bonner is expected to be 100 percent by the fall.
Horne had 66 tackles last season, 54 of them solo. In his first career start last fall, he had 10 tackles against Florida Atlantic.
With Bonner recovering, it appeared that sophomore Tavares Jones (6-3, 225) could crash the starting lineup. While virtually all of Jones' action during his freshman season was on special teams, a solid spring capped with a sack in the Blue-White game may send him on his way to winning a starting job.
While the defensive linemen and the linebackers look to be deep as well as experienced, the success or failure of the defense will hinge on the safeties. That's because Middle Tennessee's safeties are expected to be physical enough to defend the run, quick enough to cover receivers and instinctive enough to make plays.
Fortunately for the Blue Raiders, they have both starting safeties back from last season. Senior Jeremiah Weaver (5-11, 180) and junior Jonathan Harris (5-10, 201) bring much-needed experience to the most complex position in Middle Tennessee's defense.
"We haven't really produced back there in the past," McCollum said of the safety position. But McCollum expects that to change this year with so much experience at the position.
Weaver made 43 tackles and broke up three passes last season. He played in all 11 games, starting in the final seven. Harris is known as a hard hitter. In eight starts last year, he made 40 tackles on the season.
The cornerback position has traditionally been an Achilles heel for Middle Tennessee, but a couple of corners are showing signs of improvement at the position. Red-shirt sophomore Bradley Robinson (5-10, 171) and senior Keon Raymond (5-11, 180) are listed as the starters after spring practice.
Robinson started all but one game last year, making 46 tackles and intercepting two passes. Raymond appeared in 10 games, collecting 11 tackles and an interception. Roy Polite (6-1, 190) figures to battle for playing time this fall. Polite started at right corner last year and had 21 tackles, an interception, two fumble recoveries and a blocked kick.
Colby Smith will once again pull double-duty this season, handling the punting along with the place-kicking. He averaged 39.9 yards per punt last year, with 11 punts downed inside of the opponent's 20-yard line. Smith's longest punt of the year was a 61-yarder against Louisiana-Monroe.
Senior John Crawford (6-0, 252) will handle the long-snapping duties for the fourth consecutive year. Crawford has been extremely accurate, making only one bad snap in his career.
Saintil will return kicks, while Chris Henry will handle punt returns.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2005 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).