MTSU looks to replacements at quarterback, many spots on defense

Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 10:11pm

With college football teams set to open preseason camps in the coming days, The City Paper looks at programs of significant local interest.

Tuesday — Tennessee; Wednesday — Vanderbilt; Thursday — Tennessee State; Friday — Middle Tennessee State

MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (6-7, 5-3 Sun Belt in 2010)

After a roller-coaster 2010 season, the Blue Raiders will rely on youth and inexperienced players to get the team to their third straight bowl game. MTSU lost 16 seniors and return just 10 starters from last year.

Offensively, sophomore Logan Kilgore has a strong arm but has just three Division I games under his belt. The running back duo of D.D. Kyles and Ben Cunnigham will be asked to make up for the loss of Dwight Dasher and Phillip Tanner, who totaled nearly 1,500 yards last year.

But they’ll have a strong offensive line in front of them, with four starters back. Plus, the Blue Raiders have the weapons to be balanced as leading receiver Sancho McDonald paces a trio of returning wide receivers.

Defensively, though, MTSU returns just three starters and the entire defensive line has to be replaced. The secondary will undergo a makeover as safeties Jeremy Kellem and Kevin Brown and cornerback Rod Issac took 117 career starts with them. Linebacker is one of the few strengths with Darin Davis and Justin Jones accounting for 149 tackles in 2010.

Even with a lot of turnover, the Sun Belt coaches believe MTSU is still a contender, picking the Blue Raiders to finish third in the league. But the defense will have to make huge strides, the offense must limit the miscues and a new running game needs to develop.

• One to watch (offense): Logan Kilgore, quarterback. The California native got a taste of Division I ball last year, starting in three games including the season opener. But a foot injury cut his season short as the 6-foot-3, 183-pounder threw for 540 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions.

The redshirt sophomore will battle redshirt junior Jeff Murphy for the starting spot. Kilgore is the favorite, though, as he possesses a very strong arm and has starting experience.

The former three-star recruit transferred to MTSU after one season at Bakersfield (Calif.) College, where he threw for 2,512 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2009. Adding a week at the Manning Passing Academy this summer can’t hurt from a leadership and skills standpoint, either.

• One to watch (defense): Darin Davis, linebacker. The senior outside linebacker did it all in 2010, totaling 81 tackles — second most on the team — 3.5 sacks and three interceptions. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder has added weight and possesses much speed. The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native will be the leader of a defense that returns only three starters. With a young defensive line, he’ll be asked to do more, especially early, and he’ll have to be in good condition as fatigue could be an issue as the season wears on.

• 2010 in review: The season got off to a rocky start as quarterback Dwight Dasher was suspended for four games after accepting a loan for a poker game. Kilgore and Murphy battled injuries and when Dasher did return the offense sputtered. He threw 18 interceptions, nearly half of MTSU’s league-high 38 turnovers.

Still, the Blue Raiders rallied after a 3-6 start and reached the GoDaddy.com Bowl, somewhat salvaging a disappointing year.

• Quote of note: “I don’t go into a game thinking, ‘Oh man, I am going to go through this game and not throw an interception.’ I’m going to take my chances downfield. I’m going to do the things that we need to do to win. But at the end of the day, we can’t turn the ball over the way we did last year. You get beat when you do things like that.” — Kilgore

Key dates
Sept. 10 vs. Georgia Tech:  A week after they open at Purdue, the Blue Raiders have a chance to pull off an upset against a Yellowjackets program that is reeling after receiving four years of probation from the NCAA.

Sept. 24 at Troy: The Trojans have had the Blue Raiders’ number lately, and this year might not be any different. The MTSU defense will  face one of its biggest tests against a Troy squad that picked the Blue Raiders apart in 2010.

Nov. 5 at Tennessee: MTSU caps off a strong non-conference schedule against a young Vols squad. Logan Kilgore and the rest of the Blue Raiders can’t allow playing in front of more than 90,000 at Neyland Stadium to be a factor.