Blue Raiders bring experience
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the seventh part of a 12-week series looking at the opponents for the 2013 Marshall Thundering Herd football team.
HUNTINGTON -- One of the Sun Belt Conference's top programs over the last decade is making the move to Conference USA, but don't bother thinking expectations are going to change for Middle Tennessee State in their new home.
Despite being snubbed by the bowl contingent last season, the Blue Raiders went 8-4 and return several key elements of a team that is making the transition to a new conference.
Offensively, Middle Tennessee has the tools to be productive in Conference USA's open scoring style of play. The defense, although maligned in 2012, has some solid cogs who could prove to be leaders and assist the Blue Raiders in making the transition a successful venture.
While other newbies to the conference are facing some schedule issues that might make for a difficult first year, the Blue Raiders have things working in their favor.
In the East Division, Marshall and East Carolina are expected to be the frontrunners and Middle Tennessee State gets the pleasure of hosting both at Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium.
Both of those contests will take place in October, which lends itself for plenty of midseason excitement. The battle with the Pirates will be Oct. 5 while Marshall heads to Murfreesboro, Tenn., on Oct. 24.
The return of a strong offense plus the schedule factors have Middle Tennessee looking to be a major player in the Conference USA East Division race from the onset of its inception to the conference.
As with all teams, though, there will be a bit of a transition period for the Blue Raiders to undergo.
Offensively, the team's transition will be eased by the return of senior quarterback Logan Kilgore, who threw for 2,571 yards and 16 touchdowns with only six interceptions in 2012.
Kilgore's best asset is his game management abilities -- he's not going to get the Blue Raiders beat in many games.
He has 25 games of starting experience and has added a mobile dimension to his game that furthers his abilities toward more of a dual threat.
Middle Tennessee State is deep in the backfield with 6-1, 220-pound back Jordan Parker returning to the mix after a year in which he rushed for 851 yards.
Parker's size is countered by smaller back Reggie Whatley, whose biggest impact could be in the special teams game as a return threat. Nevertheless, Whatley provides a change of pace -- a much faster pace -- that will pose matchup problems for the opposition.
The third cog is Kamani Thomas, a highly-sought after freshman who chose to go to MTSU over Vanderbilt, Oklahoma State and Arizona State.
On the outside, Kilgore will have a few targets to aid in the passing attack. Senior Kris Griswould is described as a receiver that isn't the biggest or fastest out of the group, but he's heady and will be utilized as a possession guy for the Blue Raiders.
Griswould, who is essentially the same receiver as Marshall's Antavious Wilson from 2012, caught 45 passes for 531 yards and three scores last season.
A talented, but unproven sophomore -- Christian Collis -- is also stepping into the mix. He came on late in 2012 and finished with 18 receptions for 206 yards and two scores.
At the 'Y' position, Tavarres Jefferson returns from injury to bolster the attack. He led MTSU with 51 receptions and 398 yards in 2011.
The group has plenty of experience, but isn't going to wow the crowd with big plays. Instead, it will be a methodical squad that helps to move the chains consistently.
Speaking of consistency, the offensive line might be the best overall strength of the offense.
Six players return with starting experience and, despite the loss of center and leader Micah James, the group is a talented line.
Tackles will be Darius Johnson and Isaiah Anderson while guards will be Josh Walker and Jadereius Hamlin. Center Nick Nunez will need to grow up quickly, but Jesse Grisham is a do-it-all lineman that provides depth at each position when called on.
As strong as the offense was in 2012, the defense was just as weak at times.
Much like the Herd last season, the Blue Raiders' biggest bugaboo was the pass rush -- or lack thereof.
The issues for Middle Tennessee immediately surfaced in the trenches where the defensive line had trouble defending both the run and pass. The Blue Raiders were 84th in rush defense and No. 109 in sacks.
MTSU does feature 6-4, 301-pound defensive tackle Jimmy Staten as a leader on the interior, but even though he's steady, his penetration skills and ability to get into the backfield are marginal.
Patrick McNeil joins Staten on the interior while Jiajuan Fennell is the rush end. Alexandro Antoine and Shubert Bastien will battle for the other end spot. Antoine is more of a linebacker rushing off the edge while Bastien has skills and a good frame at 6-5, 243-pounds, but lacks consistency of an every-down end.
The linebacking corps is a bit in flux due to the unknown status of returning leading tackler Craig Allen for 2013. Allen registered 82 tackles in 2012, but his season ended with a herniated disc injury that still is not 100 percent healed. Should he not be able to return to form, the strongside linebacker will be 5-11, 200-pound senior David Jones, who is more of a safety moving to the second level.
In the middle of the defense will be Roderic Blunt, who finished 2012 with 75 tackles while the weakside backer will be T.J. Barber, who started six games as a freshman.
The secondary for MTSU lost Jajuan Harley, who left early for the NFL, but rising star Kevin Byard is more than able to take the reins as the defensive leader.
Byard is only a sophomore, but the 5-11, 216-pound strong safety was named to the Thorpe Award Watch List on Friday, given to the nation's top defensive back. He finished 2012 with 74 tackles and two forced fumbles.
Taking over for Harley at free safety is Reginald Farmer, a largely unproven entity for the Blue Raiders in two seasons with the team.
At the corner positions, Kenneth Gilstrap returns as a starter while Sammy Seamster and Herbert King will also line up at the corner position.
The best aid to this group for 2013 could be the addition of a pass rush as the secondary was abused in long-play situations due to the lack of a rush up front. Because of such, the pass defense gave up a 67.5 completion percentage (120th nationally) with a pass efficiency mark ranking 103rd.
Punter Josh Davis returns as the starter for the fourth-straight season, but the kicking game is questionable with a pair of freshmen -- redshirt Cody Clark and true freshman Canon Rooker battling for the spot.
The Blue Raiders have the pieces to make a run at the East division crown -- especially considering that the division's two favorites are coming to their place in October.
However, the defense will have to step up big-time to keep Middle Tennessee from getting simply outscored in contests in the new-look Conference USA.
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