Hungry Raiders face McNeese in opener tonight

Kickoff is 6:32 PM in Floyd Stadium

August 30, 2012 · @MTAthletics

MURFREESBORO - Middle Tennessee's young, hungry football team can take a giant step toward erasing memories of last season when they host talented, experienced McNeese State in the 2012 season opener for both teams. Kickoff is set for 6:32 pm, and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN3.

The game will also be broadcast live on the Blue Raider Network, with Chip Walters handling the play-by-play, and Kelly Holcomb providing color analysis in a simulcast with ESPN3. Bill Ziolkowski is the producer. Murfreesboro flagship stations are WMOT 89.5, WGNS 1450 AM, and their FM affiliates, 100.5 and 101.9. Nashville flagship station is WNSR AM 560. The BRN also welcomes a new affiliate from Tullahoma, WDUC-FM 93.9 - The Duck.

Hunger is a powerful motivator, and there is no doubt the Blue Raiders are anxious to get back in the win column. It has been nearly nine months since the season-ending Debacle in Denton last year. It has been close to ten months since the Blue Raiders last won a game, a 38-14 blowout of FAU on the road, and nearly 11 months since Blue Raider fans have seen them win at home, a 38-31 thriller over Memphis on Oct. 1st.
Blue Raider players and coaches freely admit to a gamut of disappointing, if not embarrassing, memories of the last half of last season. Head coach Rick Stockstill addressed the subject in his weekly media gathering.

 "Everybody is hungry. We all have a chip on our shoulders from last year, and we are anxious to get this season started."

"Everybody is hungry. We all have a chip on our shoulders from last year, and we are anxious to get this season started."

Stockstill then inserted a word of caution about letting emotions dictate the style of play.

"Most opening games are lost, not won. We have to be fundamentally sound to cut down on mistakes that will beat you. We have to have mental intensity. Without that, you can't play as physical, you can't play as tough or efficiently as you'd like to play."

Positive changes have been made since last year. There are two new coordinators, one on each side of the ball, in co-defensive coordinator/ linebackers coach Tyrone Nix, and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Buster Faulkner. New Strength and Conditioning Coach Jason Spray's workouts and diets have produced a leaner, stronger and quicker team. And the team itself has a new resolve, a new focus.

To offset the youth and inexperience on defense (only two senior starters), Nix has simplified some of the schemes, and placed the emphasis on stopping the run first. Spray has bulked up and strengthened the front seven, and the entire defense is in better physical condition this season.

Other changes will be evident on offense. Faulkner's schemes are geared to downfield attacking, and less sideline-to-sideline plays. The Raiders will run the ball more, with re-designed power plays on short yardage situations, but the main goal is to get the ball to the big-play guys in space to make things happen.

One thing that Faulkner insists on is every receiver blocking on every play. "They won't get on the field if they don't block," he notes. Leading receivers will likely be veterans Kyle Griswould, Harold Turner, Tavarres Jefferson, Reggie Whatley, and Anthony Amos, along with newcomers Christian Collis, Jeremiah Bryson, and Marcus Henry.

Pulling the trigger on the revamped Middle Tennessee offense will be veteran junior QB Logan Kilgore, who started all but one game last season. Backup is senior Jeff Murphy, who played last year after transferring. Behind him is red-shirt freshman Shaun White, who can run as well as throw, and could be a star of the future.
The biggest addition to the 2012 offense is a healthy Benny Cunningham at running back. Cunningham was hurt in the fourth game of the 2011 season, after averaging nearly 90 yards a game rushing against Purdue, Georgia Tech, and Troy. His loss let opponents force MT to pass on almost every play. This won't likely happen this season with Cunningham, LSU transfer Drayton Calhoun, freshman Jordan Parker and backup William Pratcher providing more depth than last year.

Perhaps the area of greatest concern is the offensive line, where the Blue Raiders lost four multi-year starters. Only two players, Josh Walker and Jadareius Hamlin, started the opening game last fall, and two others, Micah James and Isaiah Anderson, got late-season starts because of injuries. All will start against McNeese, along with Jesse Grisham.

Defensively, tackle Kendall Dangerfield and end Omar McLendon are the only two seniors on the unit. They will be joined on the defensive line by end Shubert Bastien and tackle Jimmy Staten, who are also experienced starters. The linebackers are Roderic Blunt and Craig Allen, both red-shirt juniors, and red-shirt sophomore Christian Henry. They have four letters between them, and separated themselves from the pack in fall camp.

New faces abound in the MT secondary, but speed and athleticism levels are up. Cornerback Kenneth Gilstrap has the most experience, and is the Sun Belt Conference's 55-meters indoor sprint champion, edging teammate Drayton Calhoun in a photo-finish. The other corner is red-shirt sophomore Khari Burke, while the safeties are red-shirt junior Jajuan Harley and redshirt freshman Kevin Byard.

Punting duties will be handled by junior Josh Davis, who has a 78-yarder to his credit against Memphis, the third longest in school history. He has a 42.7 career average on 71 punts, with 19 of them for 50 yards or more, and he has placed 23 of them inside the opponent's 20-yard line. 

Placekicking is another story. When Alan Gendreau walked across the stage at graduation last year, he took with him not only his diploma, but virtually every career placekicking record in Blue Raider Division I history. Replacing him has been a tight battle between a senior transfer from Carson-Newman, Carlos Lopez, and true freshman Cody Clark. They were in a virtual dead-heat in fall practice competition but look for Lopez tonight.

Following the game with McNeese State, the Blue Raiders will be playing in Floyd Stadium again next Saturday night, hosting Florida Atlantic in the first Sun Belt Conference game of the season. It will also be Hall of Fame weekend, with five of Middle Tennessee's finest athletes being inducted three hours prior to game time.

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