MURFREESBORO — Through five years under Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee State was a perennial Sun Belt Conference contender.
Then 2011 happened.
A 2-10 record capped by six straight losses quickly put the Blue Raiders in the basement.
Thus for the first time Stockstill enters preseason camp trying to regroup after a horrid season instead of building off momentum.
“We had four months of sorriness,” Stockstill said on Wednesday. “I’m not going to let that damper or put a black mark that we haven’t done anything here. We’ve done a lot of danged good things and I’m excited about this year and we’re going to do a lot of good things this year.
“I’m not going to let any short-term disappointments derail me from my long-term vision.”
Fall camp begins with the first practice on Friday — one of 12 open to the public — and the Blue Raiders are anxious to create an identity far different from last year’s team.
Though the games don’t start until Aug. 30 when MTSU hosts McNeese State (La.), Stockstill emphasized the importance of the next four weeks. Using the words responsible and accountable, the veteran coach said the Blue Raiders must “pay great attention to details this August.”
"The core seniors are really bought in; they’re not thinking about down the road,” junior quarterback Logan Kilgore said. “They’re not worried about getting a paycheck in two years. No. They’re talking about winning the Sun Belt this year. They want to win and it has really carried down to the underclassmen.”
Coming off back-to-back bowl trips, the Blue Raiders entered fall camp in 2011 with lofty expectations. But after three early three-point defeats in a 1-3 start, Stockstill said MTSU lost its edge. Things spiraled out of control in a hurry. The defense couldn’t stop anyone, giving up more than 40 points on four occasions. The season ended with a huge thud when North Texas delivered a 59-7 thumping.
“None of my teammates want to be where we were last season,” Goodpasture grad and senior running back Benny Cunningham said. “I feel like the day after our last game, people had the mindset that we never want to have that feeling again.”
Changes began immediately as Stockstill reassigned three coaches and hired three others. He also promoted Jason Spray to head football strength coach in attempt to shore up an area he believes contributed to the team’s woes.
In nearly 30 years as a college coach, Stockstill can’t recall a season where he was more excited to start preseason camp. Anxious to wipe the slate clean, the two-time Sun Belt Coach of the Year wants to prove 2011 was an anomaly — and not an omen of where the program is headed.
“This team has worked really hard in 2012, starting back in January,” Stockstill said. “We got our nose bloodied last year. I challenged our team, ‘Do you have the guts, do you have the pride to pick yourself up off the floor and do something about it?’”
• After graduating in the spring and getting married in the summer, right tackle Alex Stuart decided not to return for his final year of eligibility. Stuart would have been a fifth-year senior. He took a medical redshirt in 2010 because of a knee injury. The departure of the two-year starter from Oak Ridge leaves the Blue Raiders with just one returning starter on the offensive line — left guard Josh Walker.
• When Buster Faulkner took over calling plays midway through last season, he became the fourth offensive coordinator for quarterback Logan Kilgore.
Changes at the coordinating positions have been abundant under Stockstill. In fact, Steve Ellis is the first coordinator to return for successive seasons since Manny Diaz, now the defensive coordinator at Texas, stuck around from 2006-09. But Ellis will have co-defensive coordinator next to his name this season. He’ll share the responsibilities with Tyrone Nix, who spent the last four years at Ole Miss.
“Some of that has been my choice to make changes. Some of the others have been their personal choice to go to another job,” Stockstill said. “It is the nature of the business. You’d like continuity. The food chain of what they’re paying in the SEC, I understand all that. It is not an issue. ... There will be sudden changes schematically but we’re not going to change the players, we’re going to change the coaches and let the players continue to develop what they’ve learned.”