MURFREESBORO — William Pratcher darted to his left, turned the corner and burst through a gaping hole created by his offensive linemen.
The running back then kicked into a gear previously unknown to Middle Tennessee State fans and sprinted untouched past cornerbacks and safeties for a 65-yard touchdown.
“I had the speed; I’ve had it all the time,” Pratcher said. “Just needed the opportunity to show it.”
Chances were abundant Saturday in MTSU’s spring game for Pratcher and several other Blue Raiders who received extended playing time. Eighteen players sat out due to injury as the Blue team rolled to a 52-40 victory over the White squad in front of 5,000 at Floyd Stadium.
Using non-traditional scoring rules, the Blue, comprised entirely of offensive players, scored on the first six possessions against the all-defense White. But both sides were missing key cogs, including five offensive linemen, three running backs and three defensive linemen.
Those absences left coach Rick Stockstill cautiously optimistic heading into fall camp in August.
“I think there is work to be done on both sides,” Stockstill said. “We limited the defense. There wasn’t any blitzing. It was a little bit tougher to put some pressure on [the offense]. But I think this summer is critical for both sides of the ball, player-wise, that we continue to improve. Then, once we get into August camp, hopefully we’ll have our whole team healthy again.”
Among the notable players sitting out where defensive tackles Jimmy Staten and J.D. Jones — both missed all of the spring workouts. The Blue Raiders also were without running backs Jordan Parker, Reggie Whatley and Jeremiah Bryson — three of last year’s top five rushers. Of the three, Stockstill said Parker’s hip flexor injury was the most serious and hoped to have him back by fall camp.
Pratcher, named the most improved running back of the spring, took advantage of his extra reps.
The 5-foot-7, 205-pounder rushed 11 times for 107 yards and two touchdowns. He was used sparingly last year in a deep backfield and carried the ball just three times. He is trying to work his way back into the rotation and back into 2011 form when he led the team with 585 yards.
“Every time I step on the field it is a tryout,” Pratcher said. “To prove myself and show I’m capable of being that top-caliber that MT is looking for. I feel like the running back group is very competitive and I feel like I’m in the mix.”
Pratcher wasn’t the only one auditioning for a bigger role.
Sophomore Cey-ron Willingham caught four passes for 48 yards. Junior college transfer Chris Perkins had three catches for 69 yards and jumped up between two defenders to snag a 13-yard touchdown.
The Blue Raiders lost last year’s top receiver Anthony Amos and quarterback Logan Kilgore stressed the importance of developing relationships with his young wide receiving corps.
“I feel like they improved every single day and I think these next two months are critical for us as a passing game,” Kilgore said. “I feel like our running backs have done a great job. The O-line is set. I just really want to get that timing down with the receivers. I think this summer will be big on that.”
Redshirt-freshman Chris Hale posted six solo tackles, sophomore Alexandro Antoine had two sacks and redshirt-freshman Chris Brown made the game’s lone interception.
Austin Grammer also took a majority of the snaps at quarterback. The redshirt-freshman is second on the depth chart behind Kilgore, who completed nine of 11 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown. Grammer completed 24 of 34 for 242 yards, three touchdowns and interception. With just two quarterbacks on the roster — and a freshman arriving in the fall — Grammer took all of the snaps in the second half.
“Any amount of reps help, then those extra ones, especially with Logan on the sideline helping me out, that is beneficial for the future,” Grammer said. “In the fall, since I redshirted, I was more of the scout team. Now, in the spring, I’m learning our stuff. And gradually I kept learning, learning and learning and I finally have a good grasp of things.”
Despite missing a chunk of his team on Saturday, Stockstill remains confident and cautiously optimistic as the Blue Raiders journey into a new conference.
MTSU will leave the Sun Belt Conference and join the Conference-USA in July. Seventeen starters return from a team that went 8-4 but wasn’t invited to a bowl game.
“To me, you never really fully know what team you have until you get in a game and play,” Stockstill said. “This team is different than last year’s team. We haven’t had this team healthy the whole spring. That has been a blessing, so to speak, that those four, five freshmen defensive linemen have gotten a lot of work. I think we will know more about our team once we get into August.
“Until we get into the summer and start really breaking down teams and scouting reports, you’re really not going to know where we stack up and how we stack up. But our mindset is to win this conference.”