A Clean Slate: 2012 Blue Raiders look to carve their own legacy
After a disappointing 2011 season, MT football looks to rebound strong with experienced seniors and some new faces leading the Blue Raider charge.
Last year’s 2-10 season was far from what coaches, players and fans expected after posting a 5-3 record in Sun Belt play, and receiving a bid to play in the GoDaddy Bowl in 2010.
In 2011, the Blue Raiders started off on the wrong foot by winning only two of their first six games and then losing the remaining six, including a 59-7 loss to North Texas in the season finale.
However, last year’s poor performance doesn’t have Head Coach Rick Stockstill feeling sorry for himself or the Blue Raider squad. In fact, Stockstill is looking forward to his seventh year at MTSU more than any during his tenure as a football coach.
“I’m really excited,” Stockstill said. “Probably as excited as I’ve been in my time in this profession; this will be my 30th year.”
One reason for that excitement may be the group of healthy, experienced seniors at the helm of the program.
Senior quarterback Logan Kilgore is about to start what appears to be his first season as a full-time starter, and said he looks forward to the challenge of this year. Kilgore showed plenty of promise last year with his best game coming against Troy, where he threw for 415 yards and made five touchdowns to five different receivers.
Another key senior is running back Benny Cunningham. Cunningham played well last year, prior to a foot injury that caused him to miss four full games. He played in eight games, started in six, and broke the 100-yard mark against Troy when he rushed for a career-best 117 yards. He was also named to the Doak Walker Award Watch List, which highlights the nation’s top running backs.
On defense, senior Omar McLendon anchors what looks to be a much-improved defensive line coming off a year where he led the defensive line with 867 downs played, and was named Second Team All-Sun Belt Conference by “College Sports Madness,” an online publication. McLendon can be a force on the field, as seen in the game against Georgia Tech last year, when he recorded a personal best 10 tackles.
McLendon has some help on the defensive front in the form of redshirt junior Jimmy Staten who performed well last season in the defensive tackle position. Staten started all 12 games last year, and recorded 29 tackles– four were for a loss, and also added a sack to his resume.
Much like Coach Stockstill, these players are not feeling sorry for themselves this year– instead, they are motivated.
“I really feel that last season is enough motivation going into this season and I know that none of my teammates want to be where we were last season,” Cunningham said. “I feel that the 2-10 season was enough motivation coming into this season.
McLendon agrees with Stockstill and Cunningham.
“None of us want to go back through that,” McLendon said. “You have to lose a lot to be able to gain success.”
The Blue Raiders will also be receiving help in the form of a pair of junior transfers.
Safety Jajuan Harley joins MTSU after leaving Florida State and Drayton Calhoun, a transfer from LSU, will be giving Benny Cunningham some much-needed support in the backfield helping out with the running back position.
Also new to the team is co-defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. Nix is a seasoned veteran. He coached with Stockstill at South Carolina under Head Coach Steve Spurrier, and spent the last four seasons in the SEC with the Ole Miss Rebels. Stockstill has said he is very fond of Coach Nix, and is glad to have him on board.
“He is respected as one of the best football coaches in this profession,” Stockstill said. “But he is also respected as one of the best people in the profession– great person, great coach and a great communicator.”
Joining Nix as co-defensive coordinator is Coach Steve Ellis. Ellis spent his first two seasons with the Blue Raiders as the cornerbacks’ coach before being promoted to his current post. Ellis and Nix are hoping to work together to improve the team’s overall defense, with a special focus on their attempt to stop the run.
“If you can’t stop the run then you aren’t going to win any games,” McLendon said. “We showed that last season.”
Also moving up the ranks of MT football is Coach Buster Faulkner. Faulkner has served as quarterback coach and part-time offensive coordinator. This is his first year as full-time offensive coordinator, and he will continue to work as the quarterbacks’ coach as well. He hopes to use Benny Cunningham more this year by running the ball downhill and making the offense more productive.
Aside from the new faces and adjusted leadership roles, the team is different than last year because of its seniors.
“The difference between last year’s group and this year’s group is Omar, Benny and the core seniors are really bought in,” said quarterback Logan Kilgore. “They’re not thinking about down the road, they are thinking about winning the Sun Belt this year.”
The Blue Raiders will have a taxing go at the season, since seven of their 12 games this year are on the road. Coach Stockstill said that for the team to handle a tough road schedule, they will have to be mentally tough.
However, last year’s failures may prove to be fuel for this year’s team.
“When you don’t have success, it ought to eat at you,” Coach Stockstill said. “It ought to just tear your guts out.”
The Blue Raiders will get a chance to show how hungry they are to win this season on Thursday, August 30, when they open 2012 at home against McNeese State.