Middle Tennessee State football to rely on defense early in 2014

Middle Tennessee State's experienced defense, led by linebacker T.T. Barber (38), will be expected to carry a significant portion of the workload early in the 2014 season.

Tim Heitman/Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Middle Tennessee State football coach Rick Stockstill exits spring practice confirming notions already formed before it began.

Eight starters return to a defense that helped the Blue Raiders go 8-5 overall and 6-2 in their Conference USA debut to earn a berth in the Armed Forces Bowl. If the team is to post a third-straight eight-win season or better, then Stockstill will lean heavily on the defense, especially early. The offense — where six starters were lost, including three-year standout quarterback Logan Kilgore — it’s not so certain. That’s especially so at quarterback, where the Blue Raiders did not settle (and won’t until preseason drills in August) on which of three hopefuls will get the starting nod when the season opens Aug. 30 against visiting Savannah State.

"We’re more experienced on the defensive side of the ball right now," Stockstill said after Saturday’s annual Blue-White Spring Game played at the school’s soccer and track and field stadium because of resurfacing at Floyd Stadium. "I think we’re really fast on defense, and I thought our speed and athleticism showed up."

In as much, the White (defense) team defeated the Blue (offense) team 44-27 in the spring game. A specialized scoring system rewarded points for plays made on both sides of the ball.

The strength of the defense, which returns four of six top tacklers, is the linebacker corps led by junior T.T. Barber. An all-league player, he led the team last year from his weakside slot in tackles (171), tackles for loss (11.5) and fumble recoveries (three). He was second in interceptions (three). Also back at middle linebacker is senior Christian Henry, a physical presence who was third on the team in tackles (career-high 79) and second in forced fumbles (two).

Strong safety Kevin Byard and free safety Xavier Walker, both juniors, return to make for one of C-USA’s better safety tandems. Byard led the team last year in interceptions (five) and was second in tackles (106) and passes defensed (five). Walker was fifth in tackles (54).

Up front, the defensive line gets a boost with the return of junior right end Alexandro Antoine, who had two sacks in the spring game. Last year, he had a career-best 30 tackles, led the team in quarterback hurries (four) and worked all spring to improve pass-rushing skills.

"It’s just things I’ve been working on this spring," Antoine said, "making sure I get my hips turned around. I’ve been working on my hands and stuff like that."

While the defense as expected looked solid in Saturday’s spring game, the offense struggled somewhat. Three starting quarterback hopefuls — sophomore Austin Grammer, redshirt freshman AJ Erdely and freshman Brent Stockstill, son of the head coach — rotated equally Saturday.

Grammer is the only one of the three with college game experience, having played in 10 games last year as Kilgore’s backup. Last season, he completed 21 of 46 passes (45.7 percent) with one touchdown and two interceptions, plus rushing for 106 yards against North Texas and 169 overall.

In the spring game, Grammer completed 8 of 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown, Erdely went 8 of 16 for 54 yards, and Stockstill completed 8 of 16 but had two interceptions.

"I was really pleased with all three of them," Stockstill said. "I think we can win with all three of them. They all got better throughout the spring. We’ll just go through the summer and then in August, I’ll make a decision before the Savannah State game."

With his experience and play in the spring game, Grammer might have emerged as a slight leader to win the starting nod.

"I still think it’s neck and neck with those other two guys," he said. "They’re great quarterbacks, and we’ll have a tough battle all the way through the summer and fall camp competing just like we have been all spring."

Grammer said the waiting will be the hardest part to find out who the starting quarterback will eventually be.

"I guess we’ll have to wait," he said. "I think we’ll be anxious because we’ll all want to know, but I also think we’ll have a good feel by that time who the guy will be. But we’ll find out soon enough."

Antoine said all three quarterbacks put pressure on defenses with both passing and running.

"Yeah, all three of them can run and at the same time they get it off quick," he said. "Even during the regular season, other teams don’t get too many sacks against because they get the ball off so quick."

The Blue Raiders return bookend offensive tackles with senior Isaiah Anderson on the left side and junior Darius Johnson on the right. Anderson is expected to return by fall camp after sitting out spring drills with an injury.

The Blue Raiders have a talented backfield of running backs that featured the team’s top four rushers last season. But they all sat out spring practice while nursing injuries, including junior Jordan Parker (sports hernia/hip), senior Reggie Whatley (hip), junior Jeremiah Bryson (shoulder) and sophomore Shane Tucker (shoulder). Seizing the opportunity in the spring game was senior Tony Rowland, who rushed for 114 yards on 23 carries.

"Probably the two biggest areas we spent the most time on," Stockstill said of spring emphasis, "and I felt we needed to improve on were red zone offense and third down defense. So we worked on a lot of situations like that during the spring. And I thought we got better on both sides of the ball."