For the third straight fall, Middle Tennessee State will take the football field with new offensive and defensive coordinators.
Such turnover is not ideal, especially for the Blue Raiders, who are coming off a 6-7 season and their second straight trip to a bowl game. Yet Sun Belt Conference coaches expect them to be right back in contention.
On Monday, MTSU was predicted to finish third in the league — tied with Louisiana-Monroe. Defending co-champs FIU and Troy were projected to finish first and second, respectively.
While new coordinators usually mean adjusting to new coaching styles and personalities, that isn’t the case this season for the Blue Raiders. Head coach Rick Stockstill stayed in-house in January when he hired Willie Simmons to lead the offense — the fourth different coordinator since 2007. On the other side, Steve Ellis was promoted to guide the defense.
Simmons spent the last four years coaching the MTSU running backs. Over the last two years, Ellis was in charge of the cornerbacks and special teams.
Just six weeks from their season opener at Purdue, the Blue Raiders are already seeing the benefits of familiar faces filling the top two assistant roles.
“Just having the two new coordinators that were hired from within, we have all had relationships with those guys and it has been a really smooth transition as opposed to last year — getting to know someone new,” quarterback Logan Kilgore said during a teleconference call as part of the Sun Belt Conference’s Media Days. “We already have relationships with those guys, and I feel like we are much farther along than we were last year.”
In January, both offensive coordinator Mike Schultz and defensive coordinator Randall McCray parted ways with MTSU after one season.
Schultz is in the same role at Texas State and McCray is coaching outside linebackers and special teams at Pittsburgh.
“We weren’t as close as a staff, I don’t think, last year as what I wanted, what I expect, what I demand,” Stockstill said. “We are this year.”
Ellis has been a coordinator before — at Nicholls State — but both he and Simmons are only 30 years old. Stockstill believes they will make up for what they lack in experience with their familiarity with the program.
“I don’t look at them as new and I don’t look at them as young,” Stockstill, who begins his sixth season as MTSU’s head coach, said. “They both know our players. They both know what our players do best and what they don’t do best. They know me. They know what I expect. They know what I want. I’m excited about both Willie and Steve. I know they will do a phenomenal job.”
The biggest point of emphasis for Stockstill and his coordinators will be creating turnovers and — more importantly — limiting the miscues. They committed a league-worst 38 turnovers, including 24 interceptions.
Kilgore most likely will be responsible for leading the charge to make sure that doesn’t happen again. He is the frontrunner to succeed Dwight Dasher, who endured a tumultuous senior year after he was suspended for the first four games after violating NCAA rules.
Kilgore, a redshirt sophomore, started in three games but his season ended short due to foot injuries. He passed for 540 yards and three touchdowns but will be challenged by redshirt junior Jeff Murphy, who also played in just three games.
“I’ll continue to emphasize [minimizing] turnovers as long as I’m coaching. I think that is how you win games — by protecting the ball and getting it,” Stockstill said. “… We were terrible [last year]. It was embarrassing. I was sick to my stomach about it. That will be the No. 1 thing, when we get back in August, that we start talking about again.”
• Gendreau earns all-conference honors: Kicker Alan Gendreau was MTSU’s only representative on the preseason all-conference teams, which were selected by coaches and media.
He earned special teams honors after converting 10 of 12 field goals and 44 of 45 PAT attempts for 74 points as a junior. He also kicked a 55-yard field goal, which ranks as the second longest in school and league history.