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MTSU @ Alabama Preview: Blue Raiders hope strong defense makes them more than the typical tune-up

If Mike Leach were still at the helm of the Mississippi State pirate ship, this game would be an excellent preparation exercise for Alabama’s game later this year against the Bulldogs.

The Blue Raiders are a full-on Air Raid team but feature an opportunistic defense that proved adept in 2022 at stopping the run. But while MTSU hopes to leverage its veteran defense to create pressure on Alabama, which will be breaking in a new quarterback for this game, graduation and the transfer portal dropped a cannonball in the middle of MTSU’s offensive depth chart. Do the Blue Raiders have enough weapons to seriously challenge Alabama?

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OFFENSE

Rick Stockstill made his bones as a recruiter, working his way up from playing under Bobby Bowden at Florida State to serving for two decades at Clemson and South Carolina, working under Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier. He has been at MTSU 17 years, an uncommon tenure in modern college football for a coach who has been solid but not necessarily great. The offense is of Stockstill’s design, a true Air Raid attack that all but abandons the run for constant passing. Alabama’s offense is likely changing, although we’re not sure into exactly what. Alabama will almost certainly be putting more of an emphasis on running the ball, especially early in the season until the quarterback situation steadies itself.

QUARTERBACKS
Both teams will have new signal-callers for this game. Nicholas Vattiato will be the triggerman for MTSU; he played more in 2021 than 2022 and while he has good athleticism, he has thrown the same number of career touchdowns as interceptions (7). Listed at just short of 6’1” and 200 pounds, he doesn’t look that tall or that big in comparison to other players on the field. A freshman, D.J. Riles, is expected to be the top backup.

For Alabama, most expect Jalen Milroe to get the first start of the year after serving as Bryce Young’s backup for all of 2022. Milroe, like Vattiato, has had issues with turnovers, but he is also a dynamic athlete and if can put it all together structurally, he gives Alabama a quarterback unlike any other in the SEC. Either Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner or redshirt freshman Ty Simpson will be the backup, and all three quarterbacks might play in this game. With neither QB group having a real statistical advantage over the other at this point in their careers, bet on the raw talent instead. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
Frank Peasant rushed for 774 yards and 9 scores for MTSU in 2022 and added another 286 yards receiving. He’s a typical Air Raid running back, a bit on the smaller side, but a good athlete who has the experience to know what to do in most situations. His backup was set to be scatback Terry Wilkins before Jaiden Credle transferred in from Northern Illinois. None of the three backs tops 200 pounds, so don’t look for much of a power game from the Blue Raiders.

Alabama will counter with a deep stable of running backs led by veterans Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams. Both players suffered knee injuries two years ago but are now as close to 100 percent as either has been since their respective freshman seasons. Jamarion Miller turned a lot of heads as a true freshman last year and gives Alabama an explosive inside presence. True freshman Justice Haynes is essentially bracketed with Miller, giving Alabama a pair of one-two combos.

Another true freshman, Richard Young, and walk-on Jonathan Bennett could both see action in this game as well. Peasant is a good back for MTSU, but you probably have to get down to the walk-on Bennett before finding someone on the Bama roster that Peasant outranks. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
Both teams are rebuilding here, as MTSU lost significant production numbers to the NFL and to other schools. The Blue Raiders return one bona fide playmaker in D.J. England-Chisolm, who led the team in per-catch average yards last season (15.9 ypc) and caught 23 passes overall. He also caught 4 touchdown passes, making him the most efficient receiver on the 2022 MTSU team at turning catches into points.

Top backup Elijah Metcalf slides into a starting role, along with two other holdovers from a year ago, Jeremy Tate Jr. and Javonte Sherman. Both Metcalf and England-Chisolm are tiny mites, 5’8” apiece, and very small. Sherman goes 6’2”, but Tate is a unicorn – a wide receiver who clocks in at 6’5” and 260 pounds. While MTSU doesn’t list any tight ends on the roster – which is a common omission in the Air Raid offense – Tate gives the Blue Raiders a potential mismatch outside against smaller corners. But he had just 8 catches a year ago.

All the top reserves are transfers – Justin Olsen from North Carolina, Kalani Norris from Georgia Tech, Kellen Stewart from Austin Peay and Holden Willis from South Florida. A.J. Toney is the top returning backup, but he too was once a transfer (Samford). Getting this unit to jell together quickly will be one of Stockstill’s top priorities.

Alabama itself has some issues to fix here. Jermaine Burton is the only name close to being a sure thing in the depth chart, with the rest of the rotation at receiver some mix of Malik Benson, Isaiah Bond, Kobe Prentice, Ja’Corey Brooks and Kendrick Law. Freshmen Jalen Hale and Cole Adams might also sneak into the mix along with Emmanuel Henderson. Where Alabama separates itself a bit is really at tight end, where Maryland transfer C.J. Dippre is reported to have made a big impact in fall camp. Amari Niblack, Robbie Ouzts and Danny Lewis Jr. are other names to watch there. Alabama is expected to make greater use of two-TE setups in 2023. Both teams have something to prove here but again, bet the raw talent. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
Whereas the MTSU receivers are mostly imports, the offensive line is a lot more homegrown, mixing recruited high schoolers with a few JUCO transfers. The biggest challenge for MTSU will be one of size mismatch; right tackle Jacqui Graham, for instance, weighs only 265 pounds. He, LT Sterling Porcher and RG Keylan Rutledge return as starters and will be joined by new center Wilson Kelly and left guard Ethan Ellis. Rutledge is the biggest of that group at a listed 308, which may be a bit optimistic. A handful of transfers from other programs will form the second unit.

Alabama mixed its OL groups throughout fall camp, but we expect the ultimate lineup to be Kadyn Proctor, a true freshman, at left tackle, with Tyler Booker at left guard, Seth McLaughlin at center, Darrian Dalcourt at right guard and J.C. Latham at right tackle. Booker, McLaughlin and Latham are returning starters, while Dalcourt has plenty of prior starting experience at center. Proctor is the wild card, a massive true freshman who was the top available left tackle prospect this past recruiting cycle.

The backups will be James Brockermeyer at center, with Jaeden Roberts and Terrence Ferguson at the guards and Wilkin Formby and Elijah Pritchett a the tackles. This one isn’t particularly close. Advantage: Alabama

CONTINUE TO DEFENSE

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