While never getting much of the spotlight or recognition, offensive linemen are the key to making a good offense.
Middle Tennessee’s offense that last year set school records in points scored, yards gained and passing yards thrown for, among other statistical categories, has the benefit in 2016 of bringing back a lot the same talent it had up front a season ago.
The returners along the line have made for a good preseason camp so far for the group, though there is still work to be done.
“I think we’re in a good position,” senior center Daniel Stephens said. “We didn’t have that great of a day [Tuesday], but we just need to have teamwork and get better. We’re good, but we’re not where we need to be.”
In all, the starting five linemen this season bring a total of 71 starts in a Blue Raider uniform to the table. Two of them – Stephens and redshirt senior left guard Josh Chester – have been named to the Remington Watch List this year and last year, respectively, and redshirt senior right tackle Maurquice Shakir can be found on the All-Conference USA Preseason Team this season.
The group of Stephens, Shakir, sophomore right guard Chandler Brewer, Chester and redshirt sophomore left tackle Carlos Johnson have shown the consistency offensive line coach Rick Mallory expected from them so far in camp.
“The guys who’ve been there and done it have been pretty consistent, as far as their performance,” Mallory said. “They come out and try to improve their game every day and they know what to do. Now it’s the idea that they have to do it consistently every snap.”
The experience and leadership from the starting group will be a big factor to how well the offense picks up a slightly new scheme from new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.
“It’s a little bit different schematically,” Stephens said. “Not too much has changed – obviously we’re still running the spread, but blocking assignments and where to go is a little different.”
The starters’ ability to help some of the younger guys on the offensive line will also be key to this season.
Mallory said so far there has been a clear divide between who is ready to start in the Blue Raiders’ first game against Alabama A&M on Sept. 3 and who needs more practice time.
“The first group is putting distance between the second group … and in order to get depth we have to keep on pushing the second group,” he said. “It’s a long season, and we need 10 or 11 guys to get through the season.”
Though the group has proven in the past they are capable of anchoring a potent offensive attack, plenty of work can be done before the Blue Raiders take the field for Week 1, according to Stephens.
“We just have to continue to work every day,” he said. “We know we have to be a nasty group up front and we have to be better than we are now. We’re good, but we’re not at the point we need to be.”