by Danny Brewer
Yes, it is that time of year again when school sessions have begun. For the Middle Tennessee State football team the math and English classes have not started yet, but they are currently more than a week into the teachings from their Pigskin Professor.
In the world of college football, each season holds all new challenges as the faces change. That is the natural progression of things and as the roster rolls over sometimes the lesson plan may vary a bit. For Blue Raider head coach Rick Stockstill these early days of pre-season practice has seen him focus on a simple topic with his players. Learning how to win has been one of the entry-level courses.
“I think it all starts with a competitive spirit,” says the veteran MTSU leader. “For a true competitor the venue doesn’t matter how you compete. It makes no difference whether you are in shorts, full pads, the weight room, or a team meeting, you treat everything like it’s game day. Learning how to compete in every facet and win one play at a time. To me that is how you learn how to win games.”
Throughout his tenure as the head coach, Stockstill has found different ways to win games based on his personnel. His Conference USA Eastern Division champions from 2018 were heavy on offense thanks to record-setting quarterback Brent Stockstill. Since that slinging southpaw has graduated from a team that averaged 37 points per game in their 8 wins, perhaps a different method of making marks in the left-hand column will be utilized. It is widely considered a doctorate of defense may be required for Middle Tennessee to make a fifth consecutive bowl appearance.
“We’ve got more experience and leadership returning on the defensive side of the ball for sure,” says Stockstill. “There are guys that have played a lot of snaps and that game experience is important. So far those guys have done a nice job and we will rely heavily on them in these early days while we break in a new quarterback.”
Experience in the trenches and at linebacker is a plus for the Blue Raider defense, but it will be anchored by a pair of standout safeties. Junior Reed Blankenship was the leading tackler in 2018 (107) and his four interceptions ranked second on the team. His toughness and big play abilities have allowed the Athens, Alabama native to be named to the Preseason Thorpe and Bednarik Award watch lists as well as Preseason All-Conference USA. Beside Blankenship in the defensive backfield will be redshirt senior Jevonte Moffatt. An injury riddled 2018 saw this hard-hitting Union City, Tennessee native on the sidelines a lot. A glimpse of his abilities was the game with Marshall when he was able to tally 17 tackles, a forced fumble and two pass breakups. Limited to just four games, Moffatt hopes to remain healthy in 2019 and return to the All-Conference USA form from his 2017 season.
“I really feel good about the back end of our defense,” says Stockstill. Both Blankenship and Moffatt are physically tough and are good tacklers. The thing I really like about them is they are mentally tough. They are not rattled by situations and never hang their heads. One play they may give up a deep ball but the next play they make a tackle for a loss. I love how they respond and that helps their teammates because the other guys look to them for leadership.”
As Stockstill continues to conduct class, the focus on the little things will continue. With the August 31 opener at Michigan looming, the teacher points toward his pigskin periodic table. Understanding the anatomy of the season is important in the winning formula.
“We are not going to beat Michigan in one day,” says Stockstill. “It is a process and you have to understand that. You want to get better everyday. That mentality is something you carry with you once the season starts. Good teams continue to get better each Tuesday, each Wednesday, each game. Last year’s team was able to do that and we hope our returning players will draw off that. I am pleased with what we have done thus far and like how our players are responding to what we are trying to teach.”