Q&A: Get to know the Commodores

D.J. Sanders runs after a Vanderbilt player in their 2016 match-up (Brent Beerends/ MT Athletic Communications).

Photo by Brent Beerends / MT Athletic Communications

With the season-opening game against the Vanderbilt Commodores just a few days away, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders are preparing for the start of what could be a great season.

These are two teams that are familiar with each other as they have met in each of the last two regular seasons. In 2015, the Commodores came to Murfreesboro for the Blue Raiders’ Homecoming game in what was a defensive showdown for the in-state rivals. After taking a late 13-3 lead, Middle Tennessee gave up two long, rushing touchdowns to the Commodores, and Vanderbilt left Murfreesboro with a stunning 17-13 victory.

The Blue Raiders looked to return the favor last season when they traveled to Nashville for a Week 2 showdown. After starting the game strong and holding a 10-5 lead going into the second quarter, a lightning delay halted all momentum for the Blue Raiders and gave the Commodores a chance to regain their composure. They used the break to fix their mistakes, and when all was said and done, the Blue Raiders returned home with a 47-24 defeat.

This opening game is a chance for both teams to get their seasons off to a good start and continue building on a budding rivalry. For more insight on the Commodores, Sidelines Sports Editor Rusty Ellis spoke with Vanderbilt Hustler Sports Editor Cutler Klein to get his thoughts on what could be an extremely competitive game on Saturday night.

Sidelines: Ralph Webb is obviously someone that has hurt MT in the past, but who is someone that most fans don’t know that could have a breakout game for Vandy?

Klein: Watch out for Trent Sherfield at wide receiver. The senior has looked strong going all the way back to spring ball. If Vanderbilt can establish the run early, then they’ll be able to run play action and get the ball deep to Sherfield, whose hands are as quick as his feet. Sure, Webb will be the focal point of the Vanderbilt offense, but if he does his job well, Sherfield should have a strong game as well.

Kyle Shurmur got off to a slow start in last year’s game but rallied the team and forged ahead strong after the first quarter. Do you expect him to be the starting quarterback again, or is there a new player in the fold? If it is Shurmur, what should fans expect of his performance, both for this game and the year?

Kyle Shurmur will be Vanderbilt’s starting quarterback this season and should start every single game until he graduates in 2019. He came into last season as a raw talent with not a lot of experience, and as the season went on, you saw him develop a strong command of the offense and a great rapport with his receivers and linemen. This season, expect a confident, accurate and strong-armed quarterback. As we saw against Ole Miss and Tennessee last year, he’s not afraid to let it fly downfield, so be prepared for all sorts of passes from him.

MT has had a tough time running the ball the last two meetings between the teams. Is the emphasis on defense for the Commodores still on the run, or is it more geared toward forcing the Raiders to run the ball with I’Tavius Mathers gone?

If Vanderbilt can force MT to run the ball, they’ll have the leg up in this contest simply because it’s the most effective way to neutralize Brent Stockstill. In order to do that, their secondary has to be solid. This is a veteran group of defensive backs — perhaps not as good as the group a few years ago that produced NFL talents like Andre Hal and Casey Hayward — but still good enough to hang around in the SEC. If this secondary can make life tough for Stockstill and force the Blue Raiders to the ground game, they’ll have won the defensive battle.

Richie James had one of the best games of his career last season with 14 catches against Vanderbilt, how much is the defense focusing on not just him, but the entire Blue Raider aerial assault?

Like I said, the passing game will be the big focus of this game for the Commodore defense. Coach Derek Mason called Stockstill one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and he’s not wrong. This secondary will have the tall task of slowing down this passing game and making Stockstill miss some throws. The front seven will have the task of making him uncomfortable in the pocket and forcing him into some ill-advised passes. Shutting down Stockstill will make or break this game for Vanderbilt.

What is the overall expectation regarding Oren Burks, for both the game on Saturday and the entire season?

With the departure of a generational talent in Zach Cunningham, Burks is tasked with filling the void at linebacker. He’s bulked up this offseason, now up to 230 pounds, and he’s ready to fill that gap. He’s a leader in the locker room and an incredibly athletic player. The expectations are high for him, as he needs to fill that gap at ILB. If there’s anyone capable of doing it, it’s Burks.

What is your prediction on the game?

Ralph Webb is poised to have another strong game against MTSU, which should set up a strong passing game for Kyle Shurmur. Stockstill won’t let Vanderbilt’s defense off the hook, so this one could turn into a shootout between two dynamic offenses. Final score, Vanderbilt – 38 Middle Tennessee – 31.
The Blue Raiders and Commodores will square off in Floyd Stadium on Saturday with kickoff set for 7 p.m. It can also be viewed on the CBS Sports Network.

To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis (@RustyEllis13), email sports@mtsusidelines.com.

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