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March 15, 2009
Time to compete: Spring practice notebook
Just because Middle Tennessee won't be specifically preparing for a coming football game doesn't mean spring practice for the Blue Raiders will lack the fiery intensity of a late August workout.
Head coach Rick Stockstill doesn't believe in letting a day go by without encouraging competitiveness in his team and spring practice will be no different when it kicks off Monday afternoon on campus.
Embarking on his fourth season as the Blue Raider coach, Stockstill wants the next month of spring drills to help him solve depth chart question marks but also to help him figure out which players have the brightest burning competitive fire.
"I'm a firm believer in competition year-round," Stockstill said. "You have to earn the right to be the starter or the backup or the third teamer, whatever you are you have to earn that every day."
That is true for the weeks of offseason physical conditioning the team has gone through and it will be true when the Raiders hit the field 15 times over the next 32 days.
Stockstill says there is plenty to focus on.
"To me, spring is when you are trying to improve your players fundamentally at every position," he said. "You're trying to find out who your best 11 players are going to be on both sides of the ball and then you're trying to find your best 11 behind those. You want to find out who your tough guys are, who your leaders are going to be that will carry you through the offseason."
Stockstill has the unfamiliar luxury this spring of having almost all of his previous team returning after losing a very small but valuable senior class last year.
All told, 45 lettermen return to the roster, including 10 starters on offense and seven on defense.
"This will probably be the most players that we will have had during spring practice just because we only lost nine guys last year, so we will have a few more guys to practice with," Stockstill said.
Linebacker is the only position that has a glaring lack of depth as spring drills begin, although continued rehabiliation of injuries to offensive linemen Jake Padrick, Colin Boss, and Brandon McLeroy will limit what could have been a two-deep offensive line in spring drills.
"I am excited about this spring," Stockstill said. "I think everybody is looking forward to it. We have had a great offseason, the guys have worked really hard and they are anxious to get out there and get this thing rolling."
Offensive line growing up
Middle Tennessee had to piece together a patchwork offensive line last year and the Blue Raiders structured their offense so as not to overwhem a group that by the end of year was starting two sophomores and two freshmen.
MT featured a quick passing attack, limiting the number of deep drops that would require longer periods of pass protection.
Stockstill often said last year that he didn't want to ask his young line to do more than it was capable of doing. And while this year the playbook may be able to expand a little bit because of the returning linemen's improved strength and experience, the head coach is more interested in the line improving its execution.
"I hope (we can do more with a more experienced line), but now the terminology will be different," Stockstill said of the line's role in new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin's system. "The approach will be the same but the terminology will be different. Initially, there will be a little bit of a learning curve but not that drastic of one.
"I'm not interested in them being able to do more as much as I am in them being able to do better. If we execute better and play better up there, then that is the first priority instead of trying to throw more plays at them. It's not plays that wins game. It's how you play those plays."
Starting left tackle Mike Williams returns and Stockstill has high hopes for the sophomore to show significant improvement after gaining a year of experience.
Right tackle Mark Fisher returns in improved health after being affected by a shoulder injury last year that caused him to miss much of fall practice.
Jamal Lewis is entrenched at left guard and Mark Thompson returns at center, while Chris Hawkins opens spring drills atop the depth chart at right guard with Boss and McLeroy recovering from injury.
On paper, the Blue Raiders have a collection of playmakers at defensive end.
Emmanuel Perez and Chris McCoy open drills at the top of the depth chart, but Jamari Lattimore and Jarrett Crittenton will be providing heavy competition.
Stockstill isn't impressed with anything on paper though. He wants to see results and so far he continues to see this potentially explosive group as unproven.
"Potentially they are (great playmakers) but they haven't done anything yet," Stockstill said of the group of ends. "Chris McCoy has got a ton of talent but he's got to raise his level of play and turn it loose. This is a critical year for him, being his last year. He has worked hard and everybody else has too. But this is critical for Chris. He's got to play well."
It doesn't start and end with McCoy though.
For the Raiders to build on last year's 25 sack total, which ranked third in the Sun Belt, contributions will have to come from all at the position.
"Manny Perez is an effort guy," Stockstill said. "He always gives you everything he's got and the same is true for Jamari Lattimore. He was kind of learning the position a little bit last year coming out of junior college. Hopefully he will be better this year. The guys we redshirted, Phillip Tinsley and Crittenton, hopefully they will continue to improve and give us some depth there."
Masters of tempo
Tony Franklin's spread system isn't a complete overhaul of what the Raiders have been running in the first three years of the Stockstill era.
In fact, not much at all will be changing from a pure X's and O's standpoint.
But Stockstill does want to see improved management on the offensive side of the ball as it relates to dictating tempo, something that will be more easily accomplished because of the experience gained by young contributors last year.
"I thought at times last year we mixed up the tempo pretty good but I thought for the whole year I wouldn't look back and say that is the type of tempo that I want," Stockstill said. "I think we can improve on that and hopefully that will be a change that is noticeable to the naked eye. We played so many young guys last year that they should be better this year. They've got a year under their belt and have had another year of coaching so hopefully our young players improving will be noticeable."
In Stockstill's viewpoint, improving tempo management doesn't mean simply playing at a faster rate.
The head coach is looking to develop an attack that can function with the same efficiency at varying tempos, depending on game conditions.
"I just want to mix up the tempo," he said. "I want to be able to go fast and we did that some last year. I want to be able to slow it down and just have more diversity in the tempo of our offense. I thought last year at times we did that, but not on a consistent enough basis to my liking."
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