By Steven Johnson//Contributing Wrtier
After finishing 8-5 in 2013, Middle Tennessee took a step back last year, as it finished the season 6-6, failing to receive a bowl bid. The Blue Raiders will kick off their spring practice Saturday. Spring practice was set to begin Friday, but was postponed due to inclement weather. Here are a few questions that must be answered if the Blue Raiders look to improve their record this season.
1) Will Austin Grammer take that next step?
Grammer, MTSU’s junior quarterback, was sensational last year, accounting for just under 3,000 yards of total offense and 23 touchdowns. Not only was Grammer accurate throughout the season, he finished 20th in the nation with his 65.7 completion percentage, but he also showed explosive ability when utilizing the read option. He made the most of plays when there were no receivers open, as he was the team’s fourth-leading rusher with 442 yards.
As good as Grammar was utilizing his legs and arm to make plays, he struggled down the stretch as MTSU was fighting for a postseason berth. He threw seven of his interceptions during MTSU’s last 5 games, and only cracked the 200-yard mark once during that stretch. Head Coach Rick Stockstill will look for more consistency from the redshirt-junior. If Grammer is able to improve his consistency and limit his turnovers, MTSU could have one of the best offenses in the conference.
2) How will Tyrone Nix’s defense improve?
To be blunt, the Blue Raider defense was bad last season. The unit allowed over 31 points a game, and 267 yards through the air per game as well. Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty torched the secondary for a record 593 yards in the rivalry game last season.
Help is on the way from 2014 signees such as safety Vernon Walker of Florida and junior-college cornerback Dontavious Heard from Phoenix College. These two will be counted on to help improve a defensive-back unit that struggled mightily against the majority of the offenses it faced last year. Nix does return some key players that could serve as leaders for his unit, including his top corner Jared Singletary and linebacker Trey Wafford, who seems likely to grab a starting spot this year.
There’s definitely some pieces for Nix to work with it, but will they all be able to put it together is the question.
3) Which 2014 early enrollee will make the biggest impact?
MTSU signed a respectable class for 2014, 247Sports.com ranked it as the ninth-best in Conference USA, but on first glance, there does not seem to be too many recruits that will instantly arrive and snatch playing time from a relatively veteran MTSU squad.
Junior-college signee Nick Beasley will get the first crack at getting into the Blue Raiders’ defensive-back rotation. A fast and aggressive safety, Beasley will be hard to keep off the field.
Cornerback Khalil Brooks will also get his opportunity to earn playing time over the fall. Brooks is a solid player that forces more on assignments than free-lancing in attempts to make plays. The disciplined Georgian should be a bright spot of the 2014 class, and will compete for a starting spot as either the second corner, or possibly the nickel.
4) Who takes over for Reggie Whatley?
MTSU’s rushing attack was solid last year, averaging over 213 yards a game, which left them just outside of the top-30 nationally. However, the Blue Raiders must replace their leading rusher, Reggie Whatley.
While Jordan Parker may seem next in line to take Whatley’s spot, Coach Stockstill could turn to the dynamic Shane Tucker as the team’s workhorse. Tucker was a threat whenever he touched the ball in 2014, whether that was running or catching passes. His versatility and big-play ability may give him an advantage over Parker.
Smyrna native Jeremiah Bryson will also try to earn a bigger spot in the running-back rotation.
Spring practice will start Saturday in preparation for the 2015 season.
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