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Blue Raiders look to avoid injury bug

July 6, 2018 GMT

EDITOR’S NOTE:This is the sixth part of a 12-part series previewing Marshall University football opponents in the 2018 season.

HUNTINGTON — Conference USA’s biggest what-ifs from the 2017 football season belonged in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

As in, what if Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill didn’t miss extended time for a second consecutive season because of injury?

And, what if talented wide receiver Richie James hadn’t also missed eight games because of injuries that hurt backup quarterback John Urzua’s production?

Could Middle Tennessee have produced one of those special seasons that was the expectation going in?

Still, the Blue Raiders finished with a winning record at 7-6, won the Camellia Bowl against Arkansas State and bring back plenty of talent and depth from last season, which could be argued as head coach Rick Stockstill’s best scramble job, given the injuries.

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While there were several key pieces that missed action, it also provided the team to build its depth toward the 2018 season with those pieces returning.

James is gone after declaring early for the NFL Draft. He was selected in the 7th round by the San Francisco 49ers.

However, his absence last year allowed for growth and emergence from wide receiver Ty Lee, who is back and could become one of C-USA’s best targets — especially with Stockstill throwing to him in 2018.

Lee caught 79 passes for 955 yards and five touchdowns last season while emerging as the No. 1 threat for the Blue Raiders’ passing attack under offensive mastermind Tony Franklin.

Middle Tennessee is a pass-based spread offense. However, it will be interesting to see Franklin’s philosophy in 2018, given that he has his top three rushers returning in Tavares Thomas, Brad Anderson and Terelle West.

Add in a pair of returning All-CUSA offensive linemen and some veteran receivers — including Lehigh grad transfer Gatlin Casey — and the pieces are there for it to resemble something like the 2014 Marshall offense, which had a potent passing attack, but remained balance with a strong rushing presence.

Defensively, Middle Tennessee has many pieces back, and that’s a positive for a team whose defense kept them in plenty of games last season and, ultimately, led the team to its winning record.

Khalil Brooks burst onto the scene last season at outside linebacker (Thundering Herd fans, think D.J. Hunter) and became one of C-USA’s top play makers.

The biggest question mark on a solid all-around defense is at cornerback where both starting spots are up for grabs. The losses can be minimized if Jovante Moffett, Reed Blankenship and Wesley Bush take care of things from their safety positions and help the young corners in pass situations.

Middle linebacker D.J. Sanders has to be replaced, but look for the trio of Brooks, Chris Melton and Darius Harris to serve as a veteran group at the second level, no matter where they line up.

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Special teams will be notable to watch early in the season as the team has to replace kicker Canon Rooker and find another return specialist with James gone. Punter Matt Bonadies was underwhelming with an average of less than 40 yards, so that figure needs to improve.

One of the biggest issues for Middle Tennessee in 2018 is going to be its schedule, which is about as brutal as a team can get in C-USA.

There are three SEC opponents on the slate, including two of those (Vanderbilt and Georgia) in a five-game stretch to open the season that also includes games against C-USA East contenders Florida Atlantic and Marshall.

If Stockstill can make it through the SEC pass rush without getting injured, the first two C-USA games include a home date with Florida Atlantic before a Friday night trip to Marshall to open October.