Blue Raiders open spring drills today

March 29, 2004 · MT Media Relations
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Spring football practice at Middle Tennessee may be the most competitive one in the Andy McCollum era when drills begin today at 3:30 PM. Numerous positions, including quarterback, are up for grabs.

"I can't wait to get things started on Monday," McCollum said. "If you like competition and seeing guys get after one another then come out and watch this group compete this spring. We have a lot of positions where its neck-and-neck between two or three guys, and as a coach, I really like that because everybody is getting pushed to be better."

Offensively, the top-scoring unit in the Sun Belt Conference last year returns 20 lettermen and seven starters. The offense will be in good hands no matter who wins the quarterback competition, and running back and wide receiver are loaded with talent and guys who can change a game. The real question mark for the 2004 unit will be the offensive line. With only three returning starters, this unit is inexperienced and must fill some holes quickly in order to be successful.

"We have a good group at receiver, running back, and quarterback," head coach Andy McCollum said. "The area we need some guys to step up is along the offensive line, but all they need is some reps. I feel good about their potential and they have all been working extremely hard."

The most intriguing battle will be at quarterback, where junior Josh Harris, sophomore Clint Marks and freshmen Sam Hunt and Patrick Jackson try to take over the job vacated by Andrico Hines. Harris and Marks saw quality-playing time in 2003 and appear to be the front-runners, but don't count out the hardworking and talented Hunt.

The most important unit on the offensive side of the ball is the line, but for the Blue Raiders it is also the most inexperienced. The team has three returning starters and only one player who saw significant backup snaps in 2003. Senior Julius Gant, and sophomores Germayle Franklin and Willie Hall all started a year ago, while junior Shavaskey Brown played in the team's final four games. Pushing for playing time and trying to crack the lineup will be Brett Trott, Kyle Ringley, Cade Becher, Paul Cantrell, Brian Smith, Kenyon Buford, Ryan Hornsby, Christopher Sapp, Kyle Turnbow and Lance McCollough.

In what wide receivers coach Blake Anderson calls "the fastest group I have ever coached", Middle Tennessee's wide receiver corps is loaded with talent, experience and potential. The unit has four players returning who received most of the reps in 2003 and will have six more pushing hard for starting duties.

Headlining the group will be senior Kerry Wright, who set a school and Sun Belt Conference record with 1,280 receiving yards in 2003. The East Point, Ga., native reeled in 73 passes and caught a school record nine touchdowns on his way to ranking fifth nationally in receiving yardage per game. "Kerry had a phenomenal year," McCollum said. "He is a big time playmaker who makes game-changing plays."

Juniors Jerrin Holt and Chris Henry, and senior Pedro Holiday all figure prominently in Anderson's rotation. Pressuring the top four will be sophomore Pierre Ingram and newcomers Taron Henry, Bradley Robinson, Lee Baker, Cleannord Saintil and Brian Fitzgerald. Saintil and Fitzgerald will not be able to practice until August.

Defensively, there's a lot of excitement surrounding the Blue Raiders in 2004. Along with a new coordinator in Bradley Dale Peveto, Middle Tennessee returns five starters and 17 lettermen on that side of the ball. The Blue Raiders have what McCollum says will be the best group of defensive linemen in his tenure and that also holds true at linebacker. The question mark that needs answers is at safety and corner where inexperience is the key word. Only one starter is back among the four positions, but the entire group is the most athletic and talented in the McCollum era. Spring practice is vital for the secondary unit. "I am very excited about our defense," McCollum said. "We have the best set of athletes on defense we have had since I became head coach. Now, we just have to get them in the right position, stay healthy and make plays."

Up front, the Blue Raiders return starters Thomas Johnson and Jeff Littlejohn, along with four-game starters Jonathan Callahan, Bobby Payne and Devarick Scandrett. Littlejohn and Johnson are coming off their best years, and Payne and Scandrett are on the verge of having breakout campaigns.

Also in the mix up front will be senior Jerry Vanderpool, junior Quinton Staton, junior Raymond Chaney and sophomore Marcus Gates.

At linebacker, the Blue Raiders have the best talent they have had in the I-A era. Returning starters Dennis Burke and Jonathan Bonner lead the way, while five-game starter Alvin Fite is expected to man the third spot. All three are coming off career years with Burke, Bonner and Fite ranking among the team's top seven tacklers in 2003.

"When you think of leaders on this football team two names always pop up and that's Alvin Fite and Dennis Burke," McCollum added. "They are both tough, physical football players who are always in attack mode. As for Bonner he is a guy who leads by example and loves the collision and contact of the game."

Also making noise at linebacker will be senior Leon Cesar, sophomores Darren Mustin and Marcel Horne, and redshirt freshman Jonathan Ward.

In the secondary, the lone starter back is Danny Tolbert. The Okeechobee, Fla., native, who had 30 stops and seven pass breakups last year, will man the left corner spot.

Right corner and left and right safety is all up for grabs in Peveto's 4-3 scheme entering spring drills. Competing for the corner spot will be the likes of junior Shawn Allen, Ralph King and Demarcus Green. The safety positions will come down to sophomores Justin Rainey, Kevin Copeland and Jonathan Harris, along with newcomers DeMarco McNair and Jeremiah Weaver.

Another huge battle for starting duties will be on special teams at punter and placekicker. The Blue Raiders have enjoyed having all-conference players Robert Billings (punter) and Brian Kelly (placekicker) the past four years, but that duo has since graduated. The favorite at punter will be sophomore Colby Smith, while the real war will come at placekicker between Smith and junior Paul Wheeler. Neither Smith nor Wheeler has ever attempted a field goal or PAT in a collegiate game.

The spring practice schedule sees the Blue Raiders taking the field on March 29, 30, 31, April 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15. The annual Blue-White Spring Scrimmage will conclude drills on April 17 at noon.

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