Out-of-town Q&A: Middle Tennessee

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This week’s out-of-town Q&A features Adam Sparks of the (Murfreesboro) Daily News Journal.

Sparks and his colleagues contribute to blueraiders.com, which is pretty much one-stop shopping for anything Middle Tennessee-related. Be sure to check out that page daily heading into Maryland’s game against Middle Tennessee on Saturday.

Anyway, Adam was kind enough to take time out to agree to a Q&A swap. Here’s his take on the Blue Raiders, who opened with a loss at Clemson before rebounding to rout Memphis at home last weekend.

(EDIT: Here’s a link to Adam’s blog page, which includes a Q&A on Maryland with me done this week):

1. If I recall correctly, Middle Tennessee was severely undermanned in terms of available scholarship players early last season. How much have those problems been fixed – and just how much better are the Blue Raiders than at this time in 2008?
 
AS: The program, which jumped to I-A (FBS) in 1999, has never had 80 scholarship players. With scholarship cuts from academic failures (under previous coach) and injuries, the number of available scholarship players dropped to the upper 60s the last couple of years. Now finally free from scholarship cuts (and touting an almost perfect APR score), the summer scholarship numbers reached into the 80s. After a few departures/dismissals in fall camp, I believe there are now 79 scholarship players on the roster. That’s the most in program history. This is the most depth the team has ever had, even though the senior class is still a bit small. It’s hard to compare this year’s team to last year’s. After all, this team has a new QB and offensive system, etc. This game could be very telling for how good/bad this team is. A 2-1 start would point toward an all-time season. A 1-2 start would leave a lot of questions to be answered.

2. Middle Tennessee efficiently dissected Maryland a season with a plethora of short, effective passes. With new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, how much has the Blue Raiders’ offensive philosophy changed from a year ago?

AS: The overall philosophy is similar (spread and mostly passing), but the application is a bit different. Franklin’s system is hurry-up, no-huddle and shotgun. It’s four WRs, and not 3 WRs or 2 WRs with a tight end like last year. Franklin’s system is kind of like a passing spread offense on steroids – kind of an exaggeration of most other spread offenses. There isn’t much guess work in defending Franklin’s system. It’s just based on an up-tempo pace that wears down defenses and doesn’t allow regular defensive substitutions. MTSU uses about 9-10 WRs, and they’d like to use more. QB Dwight Dasher is the key. He’s a good runner and passer, but the question is if he can be as controlled as Joe Craddock last year.

3. Maryland didn’t see much (if any) of Dwight Dasher in last season’s loss. Where is he at in his development compared to where Joe Craddock was a season ago?

AS: Craddock was a polished passer who knew the offense well. Dasher is beginning to pick up things better in Franklin’s offense, but he’s still a work in progress. Dasher has more big play potential and dual-threat ability because he can pass for 300 yards or rush for 180 yards. Dasher is MTSU’s best player when he’s playing well, but he can also be a hindrance if his decision-making isn’t on par. But Dasher’s negatives are becoming fewer and fewer. This game could be telling for Dasher because it’s on the road.

4. In retrospect, just how significant was last year’s victory over Maryland for Middle Tennessee as a program – and has that win been in a lot of folks’ minds this week in Murfreesboro?

AS: It is regarded as the best home win in school history and arguably the best overall win of all time. The fact that Maryland eventually won eight games and a bowl added to the perception of the victory (MTSU beat Vanderbilt three times, but Vandy finished with a losing record each year). Fans stormed the field after the win. It was a very big deal here, and some fans think that means a second win over Maryland isn’t too much to ask. I think the game will probably be close, but playing at Maryland (rather than in Murfreesboro) should make a difference.

5. How severe a blow is tailback Phillip Tanner’s absence, and along those lines who is most likely to have an impact in the rushing game with him out?

AS: Tanner is by far the best back on the team. He’s also the only RB with any significant playing experience before this season. Backup D.D. Kyles will likely start. Kyles is among the fastest players on the team, but he’s a sub-par blocker (Tanner was a very good pass blocker, and that’s important in this offense). Tanner’s loss can be absorbed to an extent, but Dasher is still the team’s most effective runner – with or without Tanner in the lineup.

Again, much thanks to Adam Sparks for taking the time to lend his insight on Middle Tennessee.

Patrick Stevens

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