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Linemen will have to be versatile in 2008

11 of 13 scholarship players are freshmen, sophomores

August 11, 2008 · Athletic Communications

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Adam Sparks, the Middle Tennessee beat writer for The Daily News Journal, always is prepared and generally has a plan for which questions he will ask and the direction he is going for the next day's story or notebook.

Even the perceptive Sparks; however, was at a loss for words when asking about Middle Tennessee's situation on the offensive line following a recent practice during fall camp.

"About the offensive line, well, I really don't know what to ask," Sparks said upon beginning his interview with head coach Rick Stockstill.

"That's OK, I don't know what to say," Stockstill said, smiling as he delivered the smooth comeback.

While the situation surrounding Middle Tennessee's offensive line is not comical by any stretch, it was one of the lighter moments after several days of fielding questions surrounding the unit, moving players, and what the Blue Raiders will do to compensate for injuries and limited numbers.

"I am concerned. It is just where we are and there is nothing we can do about it," Stockstill said. "Hopefully in the next couple of years we will get our numbers where we don't have to have this conversation. It's a huge concern; it's a huge problem, and it goes back to the fact we don't have enough bodies to practice or have scrimmage work because you wear guys out. We are not two-deep scholarship-wise in the offensive line."

Therein lies the major concern for a staff that is shuffling players in different positions and working to overcome injuries that continue to present themselves throughout camp.

"The bottom line is we are going to take the best five we have and put them on the front five and then whoever the next best five are will have to have the ability to switch positions," said veteran offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens. "Maybe the left guard has to go play right tackle or something like that. We just have to plug in the next best guy and be ready to go."

Middle Tennessee has 13 offensive linemen on scholarship, a number Stockstill says is way too low, and of those 13 only nine have been practicing consistently during camp due to either injuries or defections. The most pressing injuries on the offensive line are Jake Padrick (knee) and Mark Fisher (shoulder), while Chris Ritter recently quit the team due to multiple injuries and J.C. Moore also has left the team.

In addition to these more serious injuries various players also have missed time on the field with other setbacks.

"The trainers will make the decision whether a guy can go and how much he can go," Stephens said. "We have a number of guys right now with some strained muscles here and there that can't go full speed in team or inside drill but they can do drills and they will do as many drills as they can do."

The numbers game is affected by injuries because of the Blue Raiders' limited numbers in the trenches and the lack of experience across the board. Of Middle Tennessee's 13 scholarship offensive linemen, six are freshmen and five are sophomores. Of those 11 underclassmen, six have never played a down at the college level. Another one of the 13 is Jeremy Michel, who must sit out this season after transferring from Baylor.

Stockstill said the staff has addressed the seriousness of the issue through recruiting but with an influx of young, talented linemen it is still going to take time to get them ready for the Division I level.

"Ideally you should have 17 to 19 on the offensive line and you want to have no less than 17," Stockstill said. "If you are a four-wide team you would want to have 17 and if you are a two-back type deal then you want 19. That's how programs I've been around have done that."

The "veterans" amongst the group are junior Mark Thompson and sophomores Jamal Lewis and Fisher. Thompson is coming off a solid season in which he started all 12 games, including the last 11 at center; however, Thompson missed Monday's practice due to sickness. Lewis and Fisher saw their first collegiate snaps in 2007 with both playing in all 12 games and earning 10 starts.

Although he has yet to play a snap in a game, coaches love Mike Williams' upside and see him as an emerging star on the line. He is currently at a tackle position.

Evon Lettsome, Colin Boss and Derek Cardaci (walk on), who made the move from tight end to offensive line in the offseason, could be in the mix, and although Stockstill ideally wanted to redshirt at least two of the incoming freshmen, but he may have to play them after all.

Those four players are Alex Stuart, Travis Lillenthal, Brandon McLeroy, and Rogeric Govan, who have drawn rave reviews after the first week of camp but whether they are ready for the college game as true freshmen remains to be seen.

"We have to really bring them along quickly," Stephens said. "I am really pleased with what I'm seeing out of the incoming freshman class. They are really competitive and practice hard. They are trying to get better and there is a lot to learn. The speed of the game is so much different but they are adapting well."

Stockstill said the plan is still to redshirt at least two of the four freshman linemen; however, that could change at any time based on the hand dealt the Blue Raiders.

Middle Tennessee opens the season against Sun Belt Conference foe Troy, Aug. 28, at Floyd Stadium.

Follow the Blue Raiders on Twitter @MTAthletics for continued updates.