A loss to Western Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl ended the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 2015 season. It was a season of ups and downs that shows significant promise for the future with several important players returning in 2016.
Let's take a look at MTSU and how the team fared on offense, defense, and special teams in 2015.
I know what you are saying. 34.0 points per game and over 450 yards per game of total offense. How could that not at least get an A-?
The run game is the problem. The Blue Raiders were only able to muster 3.8 yards per carry on the season and only 145.7 yards per game. The trio of Jordan Parker, Shane Tucker, and Jeremiah Bryson was supposed to give the offense some balance. Instead they combined for only 1,081 yards on the year. None of the three were really able to get on track in an offense that relied on the passing game more and more as the season progressed.
While Tucker is the only one of the trio to return in 2016, the future looks bright with Desmond Anderson and Kamani Thomas. Both backs showed the ability in 2015 to make the run game more dynamic. As long as Anderson is able to come back healthy and overcome his fumbling issues, the MTSU run game has a chance to improve next fall.
While the run game stalled, the emergence of redshirt freshman quarterback Brent Stockstill was a revelation. The son of head coach Rick Stockstill beat out incumbent starter Austin Grammer and threw for a school record 4,005 yards and 30 touchdowns. His outstanding play made Grammer decide to transfer out of the program following the Bahamas Bowl. Stockstill, on the other hand, is only going to be a sophomore in 2016.
When MTSU passed the ball, it was all about the duo of Richie James and Ed'Marques Batties. The two combined for 190 catches, 2,394 yards, and 21 touchdowns on the year. James, spending the 2014 season redshirting with Stockstill, became the breakout star of the MTSU offense in making 108 catches on the year. His ability to get open versus any defense allowed Batties to face more man coverage and make 82 catches of his own. James is back again in 2016, but Batties finished his career in the bowl game.
Outside of James and Batties, the Blue Raiders are lacking pass catching threats. Only tight end Terry Pettis and wide receiver Demetrius Frazier made over 20 catches on the year. On the bright side, nearly every receiver, save Batties, is back for the 2016 season.
The Blue Raiders offensive line had a bit of a shakeup throughout the season, but allowed eight different players to make starts on the season. Only Darrius Johnson and Jaylen Hunter are lost to graduation, so the line should be a position of skill and experience in the future.
The 2015 season was not a banner year for the MTSU defense, despite T.T. Barber and Kevin Byard both having excellent seasons.
MTSU was stout versus the run in ranking top five nationally in limiting big plays versus the run game. Teams were able to crank off four yards per carry, but were unable to find that 60-yard touchdown run that can kill a defense. Barber and fellow linebacker Cavellis Luckett were major reasons for the tough run defense, combining for 161 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks. Trey Wafford added 53 tackles, including 7.5 for loss from his linebacker spot. Barber's loss was felt in the Bahamas Bowl as MTSU got beaten for several long runs.
The secondary for MTSU was a feast or famine group with 12 interceptions, but way too many long passing plays allowed. Byard was his usual self with 66 tackles and four interceptions on the season. Cornerback Jeremy Cutrer added three interceptions in the defensive backfield. The problem moving forward for MTSU is Byard and fellow safety Quay Watt are both lost to graduation. Both cornerbacks return for the 2016 season.
In the trenches, Shaquille Huff and Chris Hale were solid in getting to the backfield, combining for 12.5 tackles for loss on the season. No other defensive lineman had more than 5.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Special Teams: B
The Blue Raiders weren't anything astounding on special teams, but did a decent job of limiting big returns for the most part. They did give up two long touchdown returns, one on a punt and another on a kickoff, but were very solid otherwise. Kicker Cody Clark only let down the team once, a missed 31-yard field goal attempt versus Marshall that would have won the game. That was forgiven after he nailed a 46-yard game winner in the next overtime.
Trevor Owens and Matt Bonadies split the punting evenly, but Bonadies was much better. He averaged over five yards more per punt and landed 10 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Even more impressive is the fact that he did so as a freshman.
A 7-6 record for the Blue Raiders was an improvement over last season, but not quite what they were hoping for. Hope was established with the combination of Stockstill and James, but the defense struggled for most of the season. A couple of plays here and there and we would be talking about a team with nine or more wins. The Blue Raiders are right on the cusp of making significant noise in Conference USA in the future.