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Four Questions Entering Spring — Middle Tennessee

MTSU is looking to get back on track following consecutive losing seasons.

Middle Tennessee v Florida Atlantic Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Rick Stockstill’s 15 seasons at Middle Tennessee have resulted in eight bowl appearances and a Conference USA East division title in 2018. However, following a four-year bowl streak from 2015-2018, the Blue Raiders are coming off back-to-back losing seasons. In order for MTSU to avoid missing a bowl for the third consecutive season, they’ll have to address the departure of two-year starting quarterback, Asher O’Hara and a defense that’s allowed over 30 points per game since 2018.

In continuing with our offseason series of questions surrounding Conference USA teams during the spring, here’s our look at the Blue Raiders.

Note: Players’ class year reflects 2020 eligibility that will carry over to the 2021 season.

Run Game — From Running Backs

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 17 North Texas at Middle Tennessee
Chaton Mobley provides a physical presence in the Blue Raider backfield.
Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Former Blue Raiders’ running back I’Tavius Mathers was among the conference leaders in rushing yards, gaining 1,561 yards for MTSU in 2016. Since then, Rick Stockstill’s club hasn’t had a running back (Chaton Mobley) rush for over 620 yards in a season — and the last full season saw Mobley lead the backs with a meager 208 yards. While O’Hara rushed for over 1,600 from the quarterback spot, the Blue Raiders need more from their backs. Highly-touted transfers Martell Pettaway and Amir Rasul are back after choosing to opt-out of the 2020 season and Mobley returns for his final season as well.

Replacing Asher O’Hara

When Brent Stockstill graduated after a decorated four-year tenure as MTSU’s starting quarterback, the natural question was who would fill the massive shoes left behind? The answer came in the form of JUCO transfer Asher O’Hara.

A scrappy Chicago native, O’Hara’s only FBS offer came from MTSU, and he more than repaid the elder Stockstill’s investment — accounting for over 6,200 yards in 21 games as the starter for the Blue Raiders. However, with offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s less than cordial departure from the team following the season, O’Hara chose to enter the transfer portal and is now at FCS Sacramento State.

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - North Carolina State v Kentucky
Bailey Hockman arrives at Middle Tennessee looking to realize his potential coming out of high school.
Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Former four-star recruit Bailey Hockman arrives in Murfreesboro after stops at Florida State and NC State. The competition should be between Hockman, O’Hara’s former backup in redshirt junior Chase Cunningham and redshirt sophomore Mike Diliello.

Keeping Points Off The Board

Since defensive coordinator Scott Shafer’s arrival in 2017, the results have been mixed as far as keeping opponents out of the endzone. His first two seasons, the Blue Raiders allowed an average of 25.1 points per game — good enough for third-best in C-USA over that time span. In the past two seasons, the numbers have been trending in the wrong direction — with MTSU allowing 29.9 and 35.4 points in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Troy at Middle Tennessee
Greg Grate Jr. has been an excellent player for the Blue Raiders.
Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Injuries have played a factor in the unit's regression, but they need to stop the bleeding immediately. Shafer has arguably the top safety tandem in the conference with Reed Blankenship and Gregory Grate Jr. returning. They’ll be relied upon heavily along with emerging linebacker Cody Smith and stalwart DQ Thomas to keep points off the scoreboard.

Number One Receiver...Maybe

MTSU fans have had an embarrassment of riches (no pun intended) at the wide receiver position in recent years. Current San Franciso 49er Richie James had back-to-back 100-catch seasons in 2015 and 2016, followed by the program’s all-time leader in receptions, Ty Lee, starring in Murfreesboro from 2016-2019.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Middle Tennessee at UTSA
Jarrin Pierce has led the Blue Raiders in receiving yards over the past two seasons.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There hasn’t been a clear go-to receiver for the Blue Raiders since Lee’s departure, but that’s not to say that they don’t have talented pass catchers on the roster. Los Angeles native Jarrin Pierce has led the team in receiving yards over in each of the past two seasons and may benefit from a change in offense scheme. Diminutive wideout Yusef Ali is capable of playing both in the slot and outside. Jimmy Marshall’s 6-5, 235-pound frame provides matchup issues for opposing defenses and C.J. Windham has been reliable over his time in college.

Finding a number one target between that group will be key for the success of the Blue Raider offense.