HUNTINGTON — The last time that Middle Tennessee did not know who its starting quarterback would be heading into a season, Marshall was the defending Conference USA champion.
That was five years ago.
In each season since then, Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill did not have to look far to find his starter. Heck, he only had to look across his dining room table on most weekends.
Brent Stockstill, Rick Stockstill’s son, was a dynamic quarterback for the Blue Raiders who threw for 12,483 yards and 106 touchdowns in his career at Middle Tennessee.
Anytime he was on the field and healthy, the Blue Raiders were a formidable foe for anyone they faced, as evidenced by last season’s Conference USA East Division title.
When he wasn’t on the field, however, Middle Tennessee was average, at best, and with his eligibility now exhausted, Rick Stockstill has to find the future — something he’s not had to do in a long time.
Just how crucial was the younger Stockstill?
Middle Tennessee was a feast-or-famine offense and any big plays within were a direct result of either the execution or the threat of Stockstill at quarterback
None of the three contenders for the QB job during spring workouts — Asher O’Hara, Chase Cunningham and Chance Nolan — distinguished himself and separated from the pack, which means junior college transfer Randall Johnson gets added to an already cloudy mix once he arrives on campus.
The receiving corps for Tony Franklin’s offense is a good-news, bad-news scenario, too.
Wide receiver Ty Lee returns as one of the top playmakers on the team, but the rest of the receiving corps will be unproven. A healthy C.J. Windham would go a long way toward curing those ills.
Brad Anderson could be the X factor of the offense with his versatility. Anderson, who is a strong running back, could move to receiver due to the running back position being one of few with depth for the Blue Raiders.
It all depends on what way Franklin wants to go with Anderson, really.
Middle Tennessee is facing the prospect of revamping an offensive line that was decent but not great in 2018. Center Josh Fannin is back with plenty of experience, as is Amir Luckett at a tackle spot, but replacing the entire left side, plus right guard Robert Behanan might mean more quick-strike passing, which means Anderson is likely a slot guy instead of a running back.
That, of course, is subject to change.
If Anderson does move to receiver, Chaton Mobley and Terelle West will take on the bulk of the carries in the backfield.
While the offensive prospects are in question, there is much more stability on the defensive side, which is what helped fuel the Blue Raiders’ run in the C-USA East Division last season.
The safety position is the strength of the defense with veterans Reed Blankenship and Jovante Moffatt bringing a wealth of experience back into the mix.
Blankenship and Moffatt will each have plenty on their plate, however, as the duo looks to lead a secondary that has to replace starters at the cornerback position. Chances are a young cornerback talent will be called on for extensive time, and that suggests a learning curve.
At the linebacker spots, leader Darius Harris is gone, but Khalil Brooks and DQ Thomas bring experience to the second level.
Up front, Trae Philpots and Malik Manciel return, but Tyshun Render’s snaps will increase. Render proved to be an effective disruption for the Blue Raiders, so if he can maintain that level with more snaps, he could become the most productive defensive lineman for Middle Tennessee.
On special teams, Middle Tennessee has to find a new punter and kickoff specialist with Matt Bonadies now gone, and kicker Crews Holt is looking to add more consistency from distance. Last season, Holt was just 1 of 7 from outside of 40 yards, but was perfect inside of that mark.
Overall, Stockstill and his staff will have to do a heck of a job early if the Blue Raiders are to keep their level of success from 2018.
The early-season schedule does no favors with non-conference games against Michigan, Duke and Iowa preceding a Conference USA opener against Marshall on Oct. 5.
If nothing else, the Blue Raiders will be battle-tested by the time conference play opens, but given the questions offensively, it would not be a shock to see the Blue Raiders start the year 1-4.
With that said, if Stockstill is able to get Middle Tennessee back to a bowl game in 2019, the season should be considered a success and a strong step forward.