With spring practice right around the corner, there are a plethora of open spots to be filled on the depth charts for all teams. The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders are no exception with seniors like Kevin Byard, Ed Batties, and T.T. Barber lost to graduation.
Let's take a look at five positions that need to be filled heading into the 2016 season.
No position group for the Blue Raiders had more stability in the starting lineup than the linebacker corps. SLB Trey Wafford (53 tkl), MLB Cavellis Luckett (72 tkl), WLB T.T. Barber (89 tkl) combined to make all 13 starts at each position on the season. The bad news is that all three were seniors and graduated.
By the end of the 2015 season, D.J. Sanders was second in the depth chart at SLB. Sanders seems to be as close to a lock as a starter. He finished last season tied for seventh on the team in tackles with 44. Another likely starter at linebacker is rising sophomore Darius Harris. The 6-2, 224 pound MLB tied Sanders with 44 tackles of his own last fall. The worry is that he may be a little too light to play in the middle on a regular basis. That is a reason for Blue Raiders signing JUCO star Detric Bing-Dukes. He has the size at 6-2, 250 pounds to play in the middle. He also has the speed to play sideline to sideline in the Blue Raiders defense.
Incoming JUCO product Kory Lamberts will also be given every chance to earn playing time either as a starter or a reserve. Junior Myles Harges and sophomore Chris Melton will also be in the mix for playing time as MTSU tends to use as many as five linebackers regularly in sub packages.
Projected Starters: D.J. Sanders, Darius Harris, Detric Bing-Dukes.
This is where things get a little odd. Last season's starting kicker, Cody Clark, is not listed on the 2016 roster. He could be added later, but we have to go with the thought that he will not be back in 2016.
Junior Canon Rooker will be the first to get a shot at the starting job. Rooker has been a kickoff specialist since he joined the Blue Raiders. He ended the 2015 season with a touchback rate of 24.4%. Rising sophomore Joe Defatta, a walk-on, will be the only other kicker in spring camp.
Then we have the incoming freshman Crews Holt. The 5-11 kicker out of nearby Brentwood, Tennessee, was the 2015 Mr. Football Kicker of the Year. He was also first-team all-state and the Offensive MVP of the 6A State title game.
Projected Starters: Canon Rooker (Kickoffs), Crews Holt (Field Goals)
A position group that underachieved in 2015, there are high hopes at running back for MTSU this fall. Shane Tucker, a starter in four games, was the team's second leading rusher. He ended the season with 413 yards and a minuscule 3.3 yards per carry average.
The two pleasant surprises in the backfield last fall were rising sophomore Desmond Anderson and rising junior Kamani Thomas. The two combined for 534 yards and seven touchdonws on only 106 carries.
Don't forget the transfers. I'Tavius Mathers (Ole Miss) is a Murfreesboro native that had to sit out the 2015 season due to transfer rules. Joining him is Vanderbilt graduate transfer Brian Kimbrow, a former four-star recruit. Both are part of the 2011 recruiting class and were among the top players in Tennessee. Both are only eligible for the upcoming season.
Projected Starter: I'Tavius Mathers.
When you lose a player at the skill level of Ed Batties, there is no simple replacement. Rising sophomore Richie James will be a starter after catching a school record 108 passes for 1,346 yards. He is the top target in the Blue Raiders offense, though he is not a jump ball threat at 5-9, 171 pounds. He needs a tall, athletic receivers on the outside.
Middle Tennessee will have nine receivers on the roster this fall that are 6-0 or taller. The biggest problem is that four of the nine are incoming freshmen. For now, lets take them out of the running.
That leaves Isiah Upton, Jevontey Smith, Patrick Smith, Rod Ducksworth, and JUCO transfer Jermel Walker as the top four 6-0 or taller options. Of the five, only Rod Ducksworth made any catches last fall. He ended the season with 12 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown, good for eighth on the team last fall. Ducksworth also made five starts and should be the Z-Receiver.
The final starting spot at X-Receiver should come down to Upton, Jevontey Smith, and Walker. MTSU is not afraid to throw out a JUCO transfer as a starter, so it would not be a surprise to see Walker win the job.
Projected Starters: Richie James (H), Rod Ducksworth (Z), Jermel Walker (X)
One of the positions that is virtually set in stone for the Blue Raiders is starting quarterback. Rising sophomore Brent Stockstill rewrote the record books in 2015 with over 4,000 yards passing and 30 touchdowns. Barring injury, he will lead the Middle Tennessee offense in 2016.
While Stockstill is among the best behind center, depth is incredibly important for any team. Depth is also one thing that is severely lacking at the quarterback position. Austin Grammer, the 2014 starter and 2015 backup, left for greener pastures as a transfer. That leaves only one other quarterback from 2015 on the roster. Redshirt freshman John Urzua will be the backup quarterback in spring practice. Incoming freshman Kyle Banks will be in the running once he arrives on campus. It is a bit scary that behind Stockstill, there are only two other quarterbacks on the roster.
Projected Backup Quarterback: John Urzua