Burying the Bowl

Burying the Bowl

Last December, Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill and quarterback Dwight Dasher hoisted the New Orleans Bowl trophy. Get a good look at it, because no one's going to be seeing it again for a while.

"We had a mock funeral to bury the New Orleans Bowl trophy and the 10-win season, because that's behind us now and our focus is on the upcoming season," Stockstill said in the Blue Raiders' season-opening press conference today. "There's nothing that we did last year that will help us this year."

The expectations of that upcoming season are something that Stockstill and his staff are prepared to embrace.

"We have those expectations every year. I just want to start 1-0 and then move on to the next game," Stockstill said.

Starting 1-0 is a challenging task this season, with Big Ten Conference member Minnesota coming to Floyd Stadium for the September 2 opener.

Stockstill called it "a great challenge to see how we stack up against the BCS schools. It's a credit to our program, university and (athletic director) Chris Massaro that we're bringing these teams to our stadium."

He added, "Only two teams went undefeated and only 21 teams won 10 games."

Being one of those illustrious 21 has generated the kind of publicity that can make recruiting easier. Stockstill said, "Winning is the best thing you can do for recruiting. The success we had in the bowl game allowed us to get in some homes recruiting-wise."

Stockstill listed the defensive front seven as his largest area of concern, saying, "We lost three All-Conference players and an NFL player," referring to linebackers Cam Robinson and Danny Carmichael, as well as seventh-round NFL draft pick Chris McCoy.

A litany of defensive line injuries were an added concern, as Stockstill named off players like Dwight Smith, Phillip Tinsley, Gary Tucker, and SaCoby Carter who missed spring practice time recovering from offseason surgeries. All have returned, but are being monitored closely.

On a positive note, Stockstill said, "This is the best I've ever felt about an offensive line since I've been here." He noted that he had a "tough, nasty, physical" group capable of providing great leadership, going so far as to call them the strength of the offense.

When Stockstill relinquished the podium, defensive coordinator Randall McCray spoke briefly and addressed Stockstill's concern regarding the front seven.

McCray called stopping the run a primary goal, saying, "We don't go out and say we're going to limit a certain player to a certain number of yards...we just don't want to allow teams to consistently run up the middle."

McCray estimated that the 2009 Blue Raiders allowed almost 1,900 yards of "big plays," defining a big play as a run longer than 15 yards and a pass longer than 25. Eliminating mental errors "would have saved us about 16 touchdowns."

After spending the last four years at Wisconsin, McCray was asked if he had any comfort level in opening the season against former Big Ten foe Minnesota. He replied, "I don't really feel comfortable before any game. I do know tendencies, but they've changed coordinators for the third straight year, so there will be differences."

Offensive coordinator Mike Schultz took the podium next, letting everyone know that the offense will not be strictly a one-man show.

He said, "We don't want to hang our hat completely on Dwight...heck, second play of the game, we may not have Dwight anymore."

Having spent 10 years at TCU, where he coached five 1,000-yard rushers including future NFL icon LaDainian Tomlinson, Schultz's running-game credentials are well-established. He demurred when asked if there was going to be a stronger emphasis on the run, but did express some excitement at having the trio of Phillip Tanner, D. D. Kyles, and Ben Cunningham at his disposal.

Schultz expressed a preference for the ability to rotate, saying, "With the injuries of this game, you can never have enough running backs." He pointed out that "one person may hang 200 yards on a team, but the other situation would be three players rushing for 70 yards."

The common thread running through all three coaches' remarks was a palpable sense of excitement, one which has clearly carried over to MTSU's fan base. Later in the afternoon, approximately 100 people filtered in and out of the season's opening practice.

Scott Henry covers the MTSU Blue Raiders on his radio show "4 Quarters," airing on WMTS 88.3 FM in Murfreesboro and streaming live at wmts.org.

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