MTSU football preview: Blue Raiders and Alabama A&M

Steven Rhodes and the Blue Raiders take the field. The MTSU Blue Raiders suffered a loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores at Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro, TN, on Saturday, October 3, 2015. (MTSU Sidelines/Meagan White)

Photo by Meagan White/MTSU Sidelines

The offseason is now over and we are days away from kicking off the 2016 college football season. The Blue Raiders look to improve their 7-6 record from last season that ended in a Bahamas Bowl loss to Western Michigan. Coming into this season, the Blue Raiders are expected to improve on that record and win the C-USA Eastern Division in the process.

With their sights set on great feats, they first must start with getting past week one.

Middle Tennessee’s first contest of the year is against Alabama A&M.  Similar to the Blue Raiders, the Bulldogs are looking to improve their record from a year ago (3-8, 3-6 SWAC) and, in the process, hoping to give third-year head coach James Spady his first winning season.

The Bulldogs have struggled with depth and experience the past couple of seasons. Now with those needs taken care of, their goal is to upset the home team next Saturday.

But if history repeats itself, the Blue Raiders will win their first matchup with ease.

Over the last three seasons, MTSU has beaten their week one opponents by an accumulative score of 176-45. Going by average alone, they are on pace to beat A&M by at least 58 points next week.

Will this stat prove to be true?

Let’s breakdown the two teams:

Bulldog senior quarterback De’Angelo “Tuttie” Ballard will start under center this year, although sophomore Damion May might see the field in relief depending on the situation of the game. The focus for next week is better accuracy, as the tandem completed just 43 percent of their passes last year.

As quarterback, Ballard threw for 1,516 yards with nine scores and only three interceptions. His most dangerous part of his game is his ability in the open field, as he was the team’s second leading rusher with 340 yards and four TDs.

Bulldog running back Harvey Harris returns for his senior season after leading the team in rushing with 449 yards and four scores.

As for MTSU, redshirt sophomore quarterback Brent Stockstill comes into the season after a record shattering freshman campaign. The 2015 C-USA Freshman of the Year award recipient passed for 4,005 yards, 30 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.

After one full season, Stockstill is already MTSU’s all-time leader in 300-yard passing games (8). He also ranks ninth on the all-time passing list (4,046 yards) and is tied for eighth in touchdown passes (30). He is currently on the Peyton Manning Award watch list, Maxwell Award watch list and Athlon Sports even named him as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.

Another couple of stars looking to shine in the early season are wide receiver Richie James and running back I’Tavius Mathers.

After having to sit out the 2015 season because of transfer rules, redshirt senior Mathers, the former Blackman High School standout, is ready to go. We got a glimpse of what was to come in the Spring Game as he ran for 49 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown run.

Last year, the running back position was plagued with injuries, knocking out the top three on the depth chart. This season it’s the wide receiver position that is struggling with that very problem.

Receivers Terry Pettis, Shane Tucker and Jocquez Bruce were forced to end their season before it began due to leg injuries.

This means seniors Demetrius Frazier and Georgia Tech graduate transfer Dennis Andrews will carry the load in their absence.

Fortunately, the team’s leading receiver will be back.

Changing his number from 87 to 3 this season, All-American wide receiver Richie James hauled in 1,346 yards and eight touchdowns last year as a freshman. James set multiple MTSU and C-USA records and ranked third in the country in receptions with 108. He is currently on watch lists for the Maxwell Award and the Biletnikoff Award, which is awarded to the top wide receiver.

Lineman Maurquice Shakir and center Daniel Stephens highlight this year’s offensive line. Shakir is listed as preseason All-Conference, and Stephens is on the Remington Trophy watch list awarded to the top college center.

A&M will try to slow down this crew with a defense that returns eight starters from last season.

The Bulldogs defense is highlighted by their linebackers and safeties who are powered by juniors and seniors. Age combined with experience on the defense can be a dangerous combination when put together.

However, their defensive core struggled last year, ranking eighth in the SWAC in points allowed (35.2), seventh in passing defense (245 ypg), ninth in rushing defense (237.6 ypg) and last in total defense (482.6 ypg).

MTSU’s defense, on the other hand, was a different story.

The Blue Raiders ranked fourth in C-USA in points allowed (26.6), eighth in passing defense (253.5 ypg), third in rushing defense (152.2) and fifth in total defense (405.6 ypg).

While MTSU lost several starters on the defensive side of the ball, including Titans safety Kevin Byard, the team returns familiar names such as Steven Rhodes, Chris Hale, Mike Minter, D.J. Sanders and Alex Dale among others.

The catalyst of the group is redshirt senior Jeremy Cutrer.

The 6-foot-2 New Orleans native was recently named to the Preseason All-Conference list and Senior Bowl watch list, as well as the Jim Thorpe list awarded to the top defensive back.

In his lone season with the Blue Raiders, he recorded 31 tackles — three tackles for a loss, three interceptions and even two blocked kicks. After a full year of running the system under Coach Tyrone Nix, this should be his year to impress NFL scouts.

With high expectations for the 2016 season, the Blue Raiders should come out hungry and ready for a victory in week one.

Kickoff against Alabama A&M at Floyd Stadium is set for 6 p.m. Tickets are free to students who show their ID and student guest tickets can be purchased at the ticket office located outside of the stadium by Gate 1-A on Faulkinberry Drive.

For more sports stories, follow us at, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_Sport.

To contact Sports Editor Connor Ulrey (@connorulrey), email

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