As Middle Tennessee begins camp today, some players are seeking to enter starting positions or new role-playing jobs for the Blue Raiders.
With graduation taking a lot of the talent from last year’s Raiders, especially along the offensive and defensive lines, new players are hoping to step in and fill holes immediately.
Here are some guys who you should keep an eye on as camp unfolds, broken down by some of the biggest expected position battles:
It’s no secret the defensive line was the most hit by graduation. All four starters from last year’s squad – Chris Hale, Shaquille Huff, Jimal McBride and Steven Rhodes – and overall six lettermen are gone.
Players to watch
Walter Brady, Jr., DE – Brady enters the fold this year after sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules. As a redshirt freshman at Missouri in 2015, he earned First Team All-American honors after leading all freshmen nationally with seven sacks. He’s an All-Conference USA-type of player if he can step in and knock off some rust immediately.
Malik Manciel, R-So., DT – Manciel didn’t start a game for Middle Tennessee in 2016, but he played in 12 games and registered 14 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Though he may be undersized for a tackle at just 6-foot-3, 257 pounds, new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer and his staff have raved in the offseason about his work ethic and ability to play in Shafer’s aggressive front seven.
Tyshun Render, R-So., DE – Like Manciel, Render didn’t make a start in 2016 but was still effective. He played in all 13 games and recorded 19 tackles, a tackle for loss and three hurries on his way to being named to the C-USA All-Freshman team. If Brady is going to be as good as anticipated on the left side of the line, whoever steps into the other side could see a lot of single coverage and an opportunity to get into the backfield.
Jahmal Jones, R-Sr., DE – Jones, who missed all of his redshirt sophomore season because of a spring injury, made three starts for the Blue Raiders while Hale was down with an injury in 2016. He had a career-best 21 tackles and two hurries on the season, and will likely battle with Render for the starting right end spot.
Like the defensive front, the offensive line was also hit hard by graduation. Returners Chandler Brewer and Carlos Johnson bring a lot of playing experience back, but the three other line spots will need new starters after the departures of Josh Chester, Maurquice Shakir and Daniel Stephens. Five total letter winners graduated from the unit.
Players to watch
Robert Behanan, R-Jr., T – Behanan made the most of two starts in 2016 and also played in all 13 games for the Blue Raiders. The 6-foot-3, 293-pound tackle has drawn praise all offseason from head coach Rick Stockstill and offensive line coach Rick Mallory as a guy who’ll hopefully step in and solidify the right side (the blind side for left-handed quarterback Brent Stockstill) of the line next to guard Chandler Brewer, an All-Conference USA contender.
Luke Harris, R-Fr., C – Whoever steps in at center for Middle Tennessee will have big shoes to fill, as Stephens left after making 38 starts there in his four-year career. Harris, who redshirted last season, was named an early frontrunner to replace Stephens and had an excellent spring. At 6-foot-2, 304 pounds, he certainly looks the part.
Angelo Owens, R-Jr., G – With Brewer solidified in the right guard spot, the left guard spot will need a new name. Owens took a redshirt season in 2016 after arriving from Dodge City Community College, where he was an honorable mention all-conference player his second season. He doesn’t have a lot of size for a guard (6-foot-4, 291 pounds), but was named a frontrunner for the starting spot after spring drills.
The Blue Raider running backs will have a lot to replace this season. I’Tavius Mathers graduated and took with him an MT single-season record 1,561 rushing yards, 633 receiving yards and 20 total (17 rushing, three receiving) touchdowns from a season ago. This year’s ground game will probably have to lean on more than just one back.
Players to watch
Shane Tucker, R-Sr. – Tucker has had an interesting career at Middle Tennessee. After coming into the program as a running back and playing three years at the position, racking up 1,140 yards and 15 touchdowns, he switched to wide receiver during 2016 spring drills. An offseason injury caused him to miss the whole season and take a redshirt, though, and this spring decided to change back to running back for his final year in Murfreesboro.
Terelle West, R-So. – West enters the season as the running back with the most recent history playing behind quarterback Brent Stockstill. He was in on 186 snaps over 11 games in 2016 and finished the season with 168 yards on 40 carries. Blue Raider fans caught their first sight of West in the backfield against Alabama A&M in the season opener when he rushed 15 times for a team-high 83 yards after Mathers was taken out with a big MT lead.
Maurice Gordon, Jr. – After earning all-conference honors and rushing for 903 yards and nine touchdowns in his sophomore season at Navarro College, Gordon transferred to Middle Tennessee this year as one of the most highly touted junior college running backs in the country. The Denton, Texas, native also showed flashes of being a multi-purpose back with a team lead in scoring and all-purpose yards.
While redshirt senior Mike Minter returns to the defensive secondary and will likely occupy one of the starting cornerback spots, the other is open for a new guy thanks to the graduation of Jeremy Cutrer. With a totally revamped defensive line, it may be imperative for the new starter to come in and contribute significantly right away if the defense is going to take a step forward this season.
Players to watch
Charvarius Ward, Sr. – Ward was the Blue Raiders’ third cornerback a season ago behind Cutrer and Minter and likely has the leg up on the starting spot this year. He made two starts in 2016 when Cutrer was sidelined with an injury and tallied 26 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. While playing in significantly less time than Cutrer and Minter, Ward tallied the same number of picks as Minter and just one less than Cutrer, and if he can continue that production with an increased amount of snaps, the secondary could prove to be better in 2017.
Darryl Randolph, R-Jr. – As a safety in 2016, Randolph was one of the nice surprises defensively for the Blue Raiders. He played in every game and ranked sixth on the team with 63 tackles, and he also showed versatility with 2.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups. He’ll move to cornerback this year, where he could prove to be one of the best tackling CBs in C-USA.