A look at the offensive line

Unit brings back three starters

March 30, 2007 · MT Media Relations
The Blue Raiders return three starters off last year's unit that helped produce the Sun Belt's highest-scoring offense while improving rushing yardage by more than 22 yards per game from the previous season.

Offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens did one of his better coaching jobs in 2006 even though he went into the season with only five players who had seen meaningful snaps the year before. The unit went on to produce two all-conference players, and the league's top scoring offense, allowing Middle Tennessee to be the only school in the SBC to have two players ranked in the top ten in rushing.

Stephens will enter 2007 needing to find replacements for all-conference performer Germayle Franklin, as well as the steady Marcus Gates and Paul Cantrell.

"The guys that were here a year ago are looking good because they have had a full year in the system and some of the younger guys have shown a lot of talent," said Stephens. "When everybody gets a good understanding of what we are doing then we have a chance to have a solid group. I really like the way things are going this spring but we need to keep showing progress until the end."

Leading the way up front will be returning starters Franklin Dunbar, Brandon Nix, and Mark Thompson. Dunbar, a second team all-conference pick in 2006, was the only lineman to play and start all 13 games a year ago. An aggressive and physical player, Dunbar enjoyed a productive offseason and looks to become one of the elite linemen in the Sun Belt.

"I am pretty confident in what I am doing this year," said Dunbar. "I think all the veterans have entered spring with more confidence but I feel like I need to take more of a leadership role. We have some young guys and guys who are changing positions which makes this spring very important to this group. I like what I have seen and where we are right now. I think we have a lot of potential."

Nix, who has been moved to center this spring, also brings a level of toughness to the offensive line where he started at guard in nine of 13 games last season. The senior had a cumulative grade of 72.2 percent a year ago to go along with 34 knockdowns.

"Moving from guard to guard and then to center really has not been that difficult," said Nix. "It's just a matter of footwork and knowing your landmarks along the front. If I had to move to tackle then that would be a much bigger challenge because you have more space to cover."

Thompson, a sophomore out of Old Hickory, Tenn., played in all 13 games and received seven starts with six at guard and one at tackle. Thompson, who is not participating in spring drills due to an injury, recorded 31 knockdowns in 2006 and is a favorite to grab the right tackle spot.

Also vying for a spot in the starting rotation will be Jamal Lewis, Richard Bortner, David Price, and Chris Hawkins. Lewis, who benches 430, is a promising redshirt freshman who spent most of 2006 listed number two at left tackle behind Dunbar and is now playing beside Dunbar at left guard. The coaches feel he has a bright future and should crack the rotation in 2007.

Bortner, a six-game starter in 2005, saw most of his snaps last year on special teams. The Blue Raiders need the Crestview, Fla., product to step up his play and win a spot up front. At 6-6, 330, Bortner would give the Blue Raiders good size at one of the guard positions.

Looking to compete with Thompson for starting duties at right tackle will be junior David Price out of Jacksonville, Fla. Price played in nine games last year including three as a starter at guard. Price is getting most of the reps in spring practice which should go a long way to making him a factor when fall camp opens.

Another promising player up front will be redshirt freshman Hawkins. After sitting out last year, the coaches feel the Lexington, Ky., native has a bright future in Murfreesboro.

Freshman Jake Padrick and redshirt freshman Evon Lettsome will both provide depth and push for playing time in 2007. Padrick is a promising newcomer who enrolled in January and has already shown good physical skills. Lettsome sat out last year in order to get more acclimated to the college game.

Junior Chris Ritter and redshirt freshman J.C. Moore will also be in the mix.

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