Photo and story by Devin P. Grimes / MTSU Sidelines
In a season where injuries have set back the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (4-5, 2-3), they find themselves only three games away from eligibility thanks to a 30-3 drubbing of the winless University of Texas-El Paso Miners.
For the rest of the year, the team will be without their star wide receiver Richie James since he suffered a broken collarbone against the Marshall Thundering Herd in a 38-10 loss. Thanks to James and other major players being hurt, the coaching staff has rotated players to fill positions of the wounded.
Some of Middle Tennesse’s players are full of talent, but lacked the opportunity to show it. Now, they have a chance to fill a position and become a huge part of the team.
Enter junior Tavonn Salters and freshman Jimmy Marshall.
Without James on the field, this duo from Georgia will be two of quarterback Brent Stockstill’s red-zone targets for the rest of the season.
While he may be a freshman, Marshall feels like he has made a successful move from the high school field to the college gridiron.
“When I first came in, I felt the difference from high school to college, but I feel that it was a smooth transition,” Marshall said. “Now I feel that I am getting better with a lot of things.”
Stocksill returned back to the turf for the first time since suffering a sternum injury that sidelined him for five games, and while he struggled with efficiency, he made the big throws when they mattered.
The clutch plays materialized when he threw for three touchdowns against the Miners. On two of those scores he connected with Salters and Marshall for their first career touchdowns. It helps that both players have some height, as Marshall (6’5″) and Salters (6’2″) provide the Blue Raiders with a different look from the shorter receivers in James and sophomore Ty Lee.
It helps that the team’s main leader is back. Stockstill’s return to action gave the team a morality boost when they needed it most. For Marshall, he now has the chance to get back in a groove with one of his favorite teammates.
“Before I got here, I wanted to get a connection with Brent,” Marshall said. “I finally got my chance to get the connection, and it was a big impact on me.”
He recorded six touchdowns in 2015 in high school, but did not capture his first at MTSU until four minutes before halftime to give his team a 17-0 lead. Stockstill and Marshall connected on a 4th down and 5 to help the Blue Raiders put the game out of reach early.
Though he may have had a clear chance at the ball, Marshall knew that he had to use everything he had to complete the score.
“They called me in, and they called the play … When I went in motion I kind of felt it, and when I cut I was wide open,” Marshall said. “It was like I had to catch the ball with my body.”
For Salters, scoring his first career touchdown was a reward for all of his hard work. Over his entire football career, he has been working on technique.
“It has been a long journey. In high school, I was a non-qualifier,” Salters said. “Having to go to four different schools and going to a junior college helped keep me humble and above to get where I am now.”
At junior college, Salters had 28 receptions for 410 yards and two touchdowns.
Marshall and Salters know that they are filling in due to the absence of one of their best players, but they want people to know that this group is ready for the challenge.
“Richie is a great player, and we needed other people to step up,” Salters said. “I had to step up, and other players like Jimmy Marshall and Brent coming back from injury (stepped up) … We had to make big plays.”
Although the two only combined for three catches, you can expect these two to be key receivers for Stockstill as they head into these final games.
“Our motto is ‘next man up,’” Stockstill said. “Tavonn and Jimmy, those guys are going to continue to get better, and I have no doubt that they’ll produce and make a lot of plays.”
Middle Tennessee will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, to face the struggling Charlotte 49ers (1-8) Saturday, with kickoff set for 1 p.m.