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Depth, versatility strengths for Blue Raider offense

MT returns five starters, four who appeared in 50-plus games

February 11, 2014 · @MTAthletics

(This is the second of a three-part series on the start of the 2014 Middle Tennessee baseball team. Tuesday will feature the position players, while Wednesday will preview the pitching staff.)

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - The Middle Tennessee baseball team returns five players to its starting lineup for the 2014 campaign, as four seniors and a junior will provide leadership for a new double-play combination and others in their first year with the Blue Raiders.

Senior center fielder Ryan Stephens was named to the Conference USA all-preseason team after hitting .329 in his junior year with 11 doubles, four triples and four homers, along with seven steals and an .862 OPS on his way to a second-team All-Sun Belt selection.

Stephens is one of two returners who started all 56 games in 2013, along with Trent Miller, who split his junior year between first base (42 games), left field (9), right field (4) and DH (1). Jake Ellison started 50 games as a junior in 2013, all in right field.

Michael Adkins started 48 games as a sophomore in 2013, getting 25 starts behind the plate and 23 as the DH. Hank LaRue started 46 games as a junior, splitting his time between third base (20 starts), first base (14) and DH (12).

The Blue Raiders will look to replace a double-play combination that started together in all 56 games in 2013, as second baseman Johnny Thomas and shortstop Ryan Ford both depart due to graduation.

No player started more than 17 games in left field in 2013, as six Blue Raiders got multiple starts. Four of those players have moved on, including three of last year's seniors in Dalton Henzman (17 games), Robert Lawrence (9) and Jordan Rorex (6).

Adkins was the leader in games started at DH in 2013 with 23, and looks to hold that distinction at catcher this year, something that will open up head baseball coach Jim McGuire's options in the DH role.

"We have a lot of returners with experience," McGuire said. "They give us leadership and depth, which is going to be big with the move to Conference USA."

"We come in with a good offense based on the guys we return," McGuire added. "If we plug in the holes we need to, it has the potential to be a really good offense. Defensively, we're solid in a lot of places. The big thing is our new double play combination getting comfortable."

Middle Tennessee was 16th in the nation in turning two last year with 64 double plays. A pair of juniors open the year as the projected middle infielders, with returner Austin Bryant at second base and junior college transfer Dustin Delgado at shortstop. Bryant looks to capitalize on an expanded role in 2014 after getting 19 at-bats a year ago, while Delgado hit .384 with 17 steals at Columbia State in 2013.

Aaron Aucker will also be a part of the middle infield mix, with LaRue providing versatility for the Raiders with the ability to play second base.

Versatility adds to depth as strengths for the Blue Raiders in 2014, with numerous players who can shift around defensively. LaRue can play three infield positions, while Miller can move from first base to the outfield. Junior college transfer Jake Ingold, who is expected to see time at DH after hitting .411 with 13 home runs at Lincoln Land Community College last year, can also play the corner infield positions and catch. Freshman Kevin Dupree and senior Jonathan Sisco also provide options at first base and as bats off the bench, while freshman Thomas Miller adds to the catching options.

Jared Allen, who hit 11 home runs at Walters State in 2013, will look to crack the lineup in left field. Allen is no stranger to Division I ball, having appeared in 38 games at Tennessee in 2012. Sophomore Trevor Haggard, who played in 29 games a year ago, will be an outfield option for Coach McGuire, along with sophomore Andrew Cash and freshmen Brad Jarreau, Caleb Smith and Brent Stockstill.

The Blue Raiders begin the season on Friday, Feb. 14, with a 3 p.m. CT first pitch at Kennesaw State in Kennesaw, Ga.

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