Finally, it’s game week! The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders get their first opportunity to live up to the hype of being the projected winners of the Conference USA East division.
However, a hot August camp was not without a few setbacks.
Having already lost Shane Tucker, a running back turned wide receiver, for the season before camp even began, two more key names were added to the injury list.
Senior wide receiver/tight end Terry Pettis was next to be declared out for the season with an injury to his right leg. Redshirt freshman and former University of Tennessee commit Jocquez Bruce broke his ankle and tore several ligaments in the process just a few days later.
Pettis was expected to build off of a huge 2015 season, in which he ranked ninth in the nation in yards per reception. Bruce was a projected starter before his injury, and was expected to contribute to the return game, as well.
In the light of those losses, two surprising players have emerged to receive their first FBS starts.
Walk-on JuCo and East Nashville High alum Patrick Smith will fill-in for Bruce at split end. Smith last played football for Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., where he lead the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions.
Manning the slot will be true freshman Ty Lee. Lee was rated a 3-star prospect by 247sports.com during his recruitment, and Coach Rick Stockstill seems to have a lot of confidence in the young receiver.
“Ty is a smart football player. He’s not a burner, he’s not a fast guy, but he plays fast. He’s got a great wiggle, he catches the ball well, he listens, he learns, he works, he has got a great attitude, and with some of the injuries it gave a young guy an opportunity to move up pretty quick,” Stockstill said. “I see him being a really productive player for us this year, offensively, and he might even help us in the kicking game some too.”
I’Tavius Mathers, a son of Murfreesboro, is another transfer who will receive the starting nod Saturday. He looks to improve a running game that was highly inconsistent in 2015. Mathers, who spent his first three collegiate seasons at Ole Miss, was effective when given opportunities against SEC defenses. Coach Stockstill feels that Mathers is in the best shape of his life.
Of course, Brent Stockstill returns as quarterback. Stockstill entered last season fresh off a hotly contested quarterback controversy, but enters this season as the unquestioned leader.
“When you’re the guy and your team knows that you’re the guy it makes everything a little bit easier,” stated the younger Stockstill. “You get to focus more on the leadership role than winning the job. There’s definitely more of a comfort level going into this year rather than last year. I’m looking forward to it.”
While the leadership on offense was never a question going into camp, questions remained to be answered about leadership on the other side of the ball. Coach Stock mentioned on Aug. 3 that he saw some potential leaders across the defense, but that potential needed to be realized.
“The real test will be once the season starts this Saturday on how well they’re doing,” stated coach Stockstill, “but I’ve been really pleased with guys who have been put in a playing position, where they’re playing a lot of snaps now, and their leadership needs to come to the forefront. I think those guys are doing that and I’ve been pleased so far.”
The Blue Raiders will be opening their season against Alabama A&M of the FCS. The Bulldogs were 3-8 last season, so it would seem the Blue Raiders hold a mighty upper hand. However, Alabama A&M is a bit of a mystery for the MT coaching staff. The Bulldogs have hired new coaches on defense whose schemes differ from the scheme A&M ran a year ago, and therefore leads to a lot of uncertainty about what looks the Blue Raider offense will get.
“We’ll worry about us,” Says Coach Stock, “It’s about us. It’s about controlling what we can control and not worrying about what Alabama A&M does.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3, at Floyd Stadium. Tickets are available at goblueraiders.com or at the gate.