2011 Middle Tennessee Preview
Middle Tennessee S/KR Eric Russell
Middle Tennessee S/KR Eric Russell
Posted Jul 25, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Middle Tenn. Blue Raiders

Preview 2011

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Rick Stockstill
6th year: 33-30
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 25, Def. 21, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 17
Ten Best MTSU Players
1. LB Darin Davis, Sr.
2. PK Alan Gendreau, Sr.
3. LB Stephen Roberts, Soph.
4. SS/KR Eric Russell, Sr.
5. RB Ben Cunningham, Jr.
6. OG Preston Bailey, Jr.
7. CB Arness Ikner, Sr.
8. OT Mike Williams, Sr.
9. FS Derrick Crumpton, Sr.
10. RB D.D. Kyles, Sr.
2011 Schedule

Sep. 3 at Purdue
Sep. 10 Georgia Tech
Sep. 24 at Troy
Oct. 1 Memphis
Oct. 6 WKU
Oct. 22 at Florida Atlantic
Oct. 29 Louisiana
Nov. 5 at Tennessee
Nov. 12 at ULM
Nov. 19 Arkansas State
Nov. 26 FIU
Dec. 3 at North Texas

After five years under head coach Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee has been one of the Sun Belt's most consistently solid teams. The conference titles haven't exactly been flowing, but three bowl appearances in the last five seasons are impressive and winning 21 games in the last three seasons has built a strong résumé. Now the program has to show it can rebuild.

2010 was derailed from the start when preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year, QB Dwight Dasher, was suspended for a stretch, and things didn't change much when he came back and stunk. Even so, he was a veteran playmaker to work the offense around, while the defense was among the league's best and carried the team on the way to the GoDaddy.com Bowl. This year, eight starters have to be replaced from that defense and the entire backfield is gone on offense.

Fortunately, it's the Sun Belt, and while the league has improved as a whole, with teams like ULM, Western Kentucky, and North Texas looking stronger, it shouldn't take too long for the Blue Raiders to reload and keep the momentum going. And along the way, the team might be more consistent.

Turnovers and mistakes killed last year's season, and while this year's offense might not be as explosive and won't have the same pop, helped by a good line and a solid receiving corps, the production should be steadier. There's still the same athleticism as there was last year, but without Dasher, the workload will be spread around more.

The defense might have to replace several key parts, and losing the entire starting front four from a team that was so nasty at getting into the backfield isn't a plus, but a few key players are back from injuries including Stephen Roberts, a terrific-looking prospect who's ready to shine in the middle. Throw in the talented outside linebackers, led by Darin Davis, and a fast secondary, and the defense should turn out to be fine with a little bit of time.

Thanks to kicker Alan Genderau and return man Eric Russell, the special teams are excellent, the coaching is solid, and the expectations are in place to keep the wins coming no matter what. This year is the test to show whether or not the program is so solid that the level of play can stay high even with a massive turnover of talent, and along the way, finally winning a Sun Belt title wouldn't be so bad.

What to watch for on offense: The quarterback situation. Dwight Dasher struggled. He came back from his suspension and couldn't stop giving the ball away, and while he was terrific at times against the weak teams, and he was just good enough to get the Blue Raiders into a bowl game, he made too many mistakes. Junior Logan Kilgore started the season when Dasher was out and did a nice job, throwing for 207 yards in a win over Louisiana and pushing Minnesota with 172 yards in the loss. He had problems with foot and toe injuries and didn't play over the second half of the year. Jeff Murphy threw for 301 yards against Austin Peay and did a good job running the ball. Now Dasher is gone and Kilgore and Murphy are in the hunt for the job. They can both produce, and they might be steadier than Dasher was, even if they're not as spectacular.

What to watch for on defense: More aggressiveness. It's not like the Blue Raider defense can do anything more to get into the backfield after coming up with 34 sacks and 96 tackles for loss, but new defensive coordinator Steve Ellis wants his D to force more mistakes and come up with more big plays. Last year the Blue Raiders came up with a mere 11 interceptions and eight fumbles recoveries, and that's about to change if Ellis has anything to do with it.

The team will be far better if … it stops giving the ball away. Of course, the loss of Dwight Dasher might immediately help that cause. Middle Tennessee was dead last in the nation in turnover margin thanks to 24 interceptions and 14 fumbles. Dasher threw four picked in three different games, and not surprisingly, the team was 0-5 when throwing multiple picks. The offense has to do a better job of protecting the ball and can't keep letting the defense pick up the slack.

The schedule: It's rough. As far as non-conference games go, playing Purdue, Georgia Tech, Memphis, and Tennessee, with the Tigers and Yellow Jackets coming to Murfreesboro, is entertaining, and beating Memphis isn't a crazy thought. The problem is in Sun Belt play having to go on the road to face two of the league's better teams, Troy and ULM. However, the Arkansas State and FIU battles are back-to-back in November, so if the Blue Raiders can stay in the hunt until late in the season, the schedule breaks right. The problem is a stretch of three home games in four weeks in the middle of the season, and closing out at North Texas isn't going to be as easy as it used to.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Benjamin Cunningham. The offense needs gamebreakers and it needs a speedster to replace lightning fast back Phillip Tanner. Cunningham has sub-4.4 speed and the ability to take it the distance from anywhere on the field, but now he needs to get the ball in his hands more. Good when he got his chances, he ran for 355 yards and four scores. Now he'll show what he can do with the offense on his shoulders.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Darin Davis. He didn't get any all-star honors and he was out of the limelight compared to all the great pass rushers. He wasn't even the team's leading tackler, but he did a little of everything right finishing second on the team with 81 tackles with 3.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. At 6-1 and 206 pounds he's not all that big, but he's fast, active, and he should be one of the Sun Belt's best players.

Key player to a successful season: Junior DE Omar McLendon. The Middle Tennessee pass rush was among the best in the country last year helped by Jamari Lattimore, who cranked out 11.5 sacks. McLendon has all the tools and all the athleticism to pick up the slack, but he has yet to put it all together. He was a great get for the program, and now he needs to show why. If he's not a top-shelf pass rusher, the rest of the line will have to find ways to get to the quarterback.

The season will be a success if … the Blue Raiders get back to a bowl game. They're not good enough to win the Sun Belt title, but pulling off a fourth bowl win in six years would be impressive. It'll take an upset win or three, a win over Memphis at home, and no mistakes against teams like Louisiana, ULM, and North Texas, but there should be enough athleticism and enough skill to come up with seven wins.

Key game: Sept. 24 at Troy. The Blue Raiders got destroyed last year at home against the Trojans with Dwight Dasher struggling in a 42-13 loss. Troy has won five straight in the series and has done it in blowout fashion over the last four. This year, the showdown is the Sun Belt opener and a chance for Middle Tennessee to make a huge early statement. The title is still in play even with a loss, but a win, especially with FIU and Arkansas State at home, would be a really big deal.

2010 Fun Stats:
- Turnovers: Middle Tennessee 48 – Opponents 19
- Field Goals: Middle Tennessee 10-of-12 – Opponents 13-of-25
- Time of Possession: Opponents 34:48 - Middle Tennessee 25:12

- 2011 Middle Tenn. Preview | 2011 Middle Tenn. Offense
- 2011 Middle Tenn. Defense | 2011 Middle Tenn. Depth Chart