It did not take long for Benny Cunningham and Tavarres Jefferson to see the field for Middle Tennessee State University. All they needed to do was find the proper positions.
Cunningham, from Goodpasture Christian School, and Jefferson, from Ensworth High School, are the only two true freshmen who have played on offense for the Blue Raiders this season.
A national television audience will get a look at them Tuesday when MTSU (3-1, 1-0) faces Troy (2-2, 1-0) in a key early-season Sun Belt Conference contest on ESPN.
“One of those guys was going to have to be a tailback,” coach Rick Stockstill said.
Initially, the thought was that guy would be Jefferson.
The Division II Mr. Football in 2008, he was a dual-threat quarterback for Ensworth who passed for more than 1,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,300 yards as a senior. For his high school career he gained 3,227 yards and scored 48 touchdowns on the ground.
When senior wide receiver Michael Cannon sustained a season-ending injury on the first day of preseason camp, though, Jefferson was tabbed to fill the opening at ‘H’ receiver in the Blue Raiders’ spread offense.
“I knew if I kept working hard that I could play early,” Jefferson said. “…It’s basically a spot where I cross the field a lot, I get in the open field a lot – some deep routes but mostly short routes where I feel like I can get to the ball a lot quicker.”
He has played in every game and has caught four passes for 25 yards — all in the last two outings. He had a highlight reel reception that went for 19 yards against Maryland, and a seven-yard catch against North Texas, which set up a two-yard touchdown run by quarterback Dwight Dasher on the next play,
“He’s done a really good job,” Stockstill said. “He’s a good athlete and he’s adjusted to being a receiver and learning the intricacies of it probably better than I anticipated. He’s gotten increasingly more playing time with each game. He continues to be a big part of this offense.”
Cunningham initially thought he wanted to be a part of the defense, a notion he shared with Stockstill in the week prior to preseason camp. The coach had concerns about the team’s depth at running back and — with the help of his starter — convinced Cunningham to begin there.
“I was kind of leaning toward defense, but our starting running back (Phillip Tanner) talked to me and I just felt a connection with him,” Cunningham said. “That made me change my choice to offense.”
Tanner missed the last two games because of injury, which made Cunningham the backup to D.D. Kyles and gave him his first opportunity to play.
On Sept. 26, Cunningham had a breakout performance at North Texas with eight rushes for 58 yards and two receptions for 56 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown catch. The touchdown came 3:22 into the contest and gave MTSU a lead it never relinquished.
“He’s a smart young man and he grasped the offense pretty quick and has played really well,” Stockstill said. “The North Texas game was the first game he got a significant amount of snaps.”
The way it looks now, opposing defenses can expect to see a lot more of Jefferson and Cunningham.