Keeping the train on the tracks: Middle Tennessee’s ground game in the post-Mathers era

Photo by Tyler Lamb / Sidelines Archive

When you break it down, a train is a lot like a running game. The locomotive (running back) powers the whole thing, and without that engine, you aren’t going anywhere. The tracks (offensive lineman) lay the groundwork on which the locomotive can travel, guiding it through peaks and valleys (opposing defenses). Without a dynamic crew (mobile QB’s and slotbacks) to help, you can easily get off-track and fall into the deep, dark abyss that is the bottom dwellers of college football.

Without the ability to run the ball, offense cannot win football games at any level. Middle Tennessee can attribute a lot of its offensive success over the past decade to the ground game as they have seen a host of talented running backs in the past ten years. This includes one of the best last year in I’Tavius Mathers.

The Raiders success hinged quite largely on Mathers’ 2016 season. The Murfreesboro native led the team with 1,561 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns while scoring a total of 120 points last season, a mark good enough for third in school history. His 1,561 yards were good for the most in school history for a single-season total.

For Mathers to achieve that success, he leaned heavily on the play of his experienced offensive line. The Raiders’ offensive line was a veteran group led by seniors Dan Stephens, Josh Chester and Maurquice Shakir. They also boasted talented sophomores in Chandler Brewer and Carlos Johnson.

The group paved the way for Mathers and the rest of Middle Tennessee’s ball-carriers to average 191.8 yards per contest. As a group, the big men up front led Middle Tennessee to a total of 2,494 yards on the ground.

The Raiders also had major contributions on the ground from quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James. The duo who torched opponents through the sky last year also combined for a total of 579 yards on 83 carries. James also found the end-zone four times on the ground last year.

One could say that the Blue Raider running game was among the Union Pacifics of college football in 2016.

Enter 2017.

The Raiders have lost their locomotive in Mathers and three-fifths of their tracks in Chester, Stephens and Shakir.

When the train has missing parts, you make repairs to get it moving again.

Blue Raider offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and head coach Rick Stockstill plan to use a committee of running backs to start the year.

“Last year we went into the season thinking (we’d use multiple backs), but I’Tavius jumped out at us,” Franklin said. “This summer, guys will continue to get better. We moved (Desmond Anderson) back to running back and I think he’s got a chance to help us as well.”

Although they don’t have as high-powered of a locomotive, the Raiders have multiple parts that will be powering the engine when they debut against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Floyd Stadium this September.

Returning after missing last season with an injury will be fifth-year senior Shane Tucker. Tucker is the Raiders leading returning rusher with 1,140 yards in 268 carries, an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Tucker has also found the end zone a total of 15 times in his career.

Terelle West and Desmond Anderson will throw coal into the engine to keep the train moving. West is a guy that occasionally spelled Mathers last year and got valuable reps in practice to move his way up the depth chart this off-season.

Last year, West had 40 carries for 140 yards and one touchdown and led the Raiders in rushing in their first game against Alabama A&M with 83 yards on 15 carries.

Anderson made the move back to running back this past spring after spending the 2016 season as a receiver. The junior earned the most improved running back honor from the team after spring practice last year and has the highest average yards per carry of any back with 4.8 ypc. Anderson is also just shy of Tucker’s mark in career rushing yards with 407 of his own.

Junior college transfer Maurice Gordon should also factor some carries into the group this year. Gordon ran for a total of 903 yards and nine touchdowns in his sophomore season at Navarro College (TX).  The speedster was an all-conference player as a sophomore and led the team in scoring.

Tucker, the veteran of the group, summed up his position’s talent’s perfectly earlier this year when he spoke to Sidelines.

“Everybody here is trying to get better and everybody has something unique that they can do (for the team),” Tucker said. “(Maurice Gordon) is a speedster, (Desmond Anderson) is good at everything. I consider myself a bigger back that can catch the ball and run good routes. Everyone has something that they can contribute to the team.”

Along the O-line, the Raiders have some holes to fill to repair the tracks.

Guard Chandler Brewer and tackle Carlos Johnson are the only returning starters from last season. Brewer is one of the most overlooked offensive lineman in C-USA, and should carry that chip on his shoulder as he looks to be the guy that anchors the group coming into the year.

Johnson, the man known as “Big ‘Los” to his teammates, will bring a lot of physicality off the edge to help keep opposing defensive ends at bay and help out on the second level against linebackers in the run game this season. He along with Brewer is the only returning o-lineman with 1000+ career snaps.

At center, the Raiders will likely be starting Robert Behanen. Behanen saw time in all 13 games last season for the Raiders, including starts against FAU and UNC-Charlotte.

The Raiders also acquired a junior college transfer just before spring ball in Angelo Owens that will look to seal up the other guard spot. Owens is a member of the Blue Raiders 1,000 lb weightlifting club and was an all-conference honorable mention at Dodge City Community College (FL) last season.

Fifth-year senior Lucas Hamilton will battle for the other offensive tackle job. Hamilton made the move from tight end earlier in his career and has transformed his body into a good size for a tackle. Last season, he saw time in all 13 games and played a total of 95 snaps on offense.

No matter who they put on the line, Stockstill has faith that they will perform how the team needs them to.

“We have to replace some guys, but I’m confident in who we’re putting up there,”Stockstill said of his o-line. “They haven’t played as much as those other guys had, but I think by the time we open up in September I’ll feel good about them.”

This season, slow and steady will win the race on the ground. They may not be Union Pacific this year, but CSX certainly gets the job done as well. Although the Raiders are missing the “I-train,” expect the old steam engine that is the Middle Tennessee ground game to continue chugging down the tracks this season.

Follow MTSU sports reporter Anthony Fiorella on Twitter at @A_Fiorella74 for more coverage.

To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email sports@mtsusidelines.com.

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

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