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Blue Raiders open spring practice

Welcomed back 49 lettermen, 13 starters

March 22, 2014 · @MTAthletics

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MURFREESBORO - Middle Tennessee opened spring practice on Saturday with a two hour workout at the Blue Raider Practice Complex. The Blue Raiders, fresh off back-to-back eight-win seasons, are preparing for the 100th season of MT football and their second in Conference USA.

On a beautiful spring day, Middle Tennessee's 49 returning lettermen and 13 starters went through 22 periods in what Head Coach Rick Stockstill called an "energetic and effective" first day.

"I really liked our tempo and energy today," said Stockstill. "The guys had good recall from the fall and came to work. I know it was in shorts, but we flew around really well. I was impressed by all our junior college transfers. They have a great attitude; work hard and I feel they can all help us."

Offensively, the Blue Raiders welcomed back 20 lettermen and five starters including running back Jordan Parker, receivers Marcus Henry and Christian Collis, and linemen Darius Johnson and Isaiah Anderson.

Parker and Anderson are among the seven offensive players who will not be going through spring practice while recovering from off-season injuries. Also not participating will be running backs Reggie Whatley, Jeremiah Bryson, and Shane Tucker to go with deep snapper Blaine Sidders and newcomer Tyler Barron (TE).

The biggest question mark on offense will be at quarterback where three young players are vying for the starting job. Redshirt sophomore Austin Grammer, redshirt freshman AJ Erdely, and freshman Brent Stockstill are all in the running to replace three-year starter Logan Kilgore. Grammer has attempted just 46 passes in 10 college games and Erdely and Stockstill have never taken a snap.

"I was impressed today how fast they all played and how poised they are on the field," said offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner. "It was only day one of install and we will give them more tomorrow but I like the way they started. It's just an old fashioned three-way quarterback competition."

Parker leads an explosive group of running backs that also includes game-breaker Reggie Whatley, Jeremiah Bryson and Shane Tucker. All four recorded at least one 100-yard rushing game a year ago and proved either one could start at any time. Redshirt freshman Kamani Thomas will get most of the work in the spring and could figure in the mix.

Up front, the offense returns two starters in Johnson and Anderson and two others with valuable experience. Johnson and Anderson will anchor the tackle spots and expect Josh Chester and Daniel Stephens to man the center and right guard spots. The biggest question in the spring will be finding a starter at left guard and developing depth.

Despite losing 100 career catch receivers Tavarres Jefferson and Kyle Griswould, Stockstill likes the nucleus of pass catchers returning in 2014. Marcus Henry, Christian Collis, and Devin Clarke are the top three receivers who return to the lineup, while Chris Perkins, Terry Pettis, and Demetrius Frazier expect to figure prominently as well. The Blue Raiders are also very high on redshirts Ed Batties, Shannon Smith, and Jevontey Smith.

Defensively, Middle Tennessee returns 25 lettermen and eight starters while four others also saw starting time. Three starters return up front in defensive ends Alexandro Antoine and Jiajuan Fennel, and tackle Pat McNeil but there's a lot of experience with guys like Jimal McBride, Shaquille Huff, Derious Bennett, Max Ugboaja, O'Shae Bridges, and Steven Rhodes.

Two of three starters return at linebacker with T.T. Barber and Christian Henry while Leighton Gasque, Veion Robinson, and Iman Smith add experience. Junior James Roberson will be a favorite to grab the open spot at the SAM position after turning in a career year in 2013. Redshirt sophomore Anfornee Stewart is moving from safety to linebacker and newcomers Cavellis Luckett and Quay Watt also will figure prominently.

In the secondary, the Blue Raiders return three starters including safeties Kevin Byard and Xavier Walker and corner Jared Singletary. Veterans Chris Sharpe and Khari Burke will compete for time at corner, while sophomore Chris Brown and newcomers Trey Wafford and Patrick Martin add depth at safety.

The Blue Raiders continued to show improvement last year on defense as the unit ranked fifth nationally in forced turnovers and 17th in red zone defense, while improving 29 spots in the rankings for total defense from 2012.

Due to offseason surgeries and injuries, the following defensive players will be out for spring drills: DL Chris Hale, DT Pat McNeil, and DL Max Ugboaja.

The Blue Raiders will practice again on Sunday at 4 PM.

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