MURFREESBORO, Tennessee — Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill can quickly name the six different Blue Raiders he lost to the NFL, including a defensive lineman drafted by the Seattle Seahawks. The list includes two starting cornerbacks, an offensive guard, a tight end and a quarterback.
That means someone is going to have to step up quickly for the Blue Raiders to have a shot at their third bowl game in four seasons.
"When you lose somebody, you hope what you've recruited behind him has matured, has gotten stronger and has developed good enough that he can replace the guy that graduates," Stockstill said. "I probably worry as much about guys getting hurt as I do graduating. Everybody is going to talk about the quarterback and I understand that because it's the focal point of the team. I am equally concerned about who is going to replace Jimmy Staten on the defensive line."
Middle Tennessee does have five starters back on offense and seven on defense led by junior safety Kevin Byard, who will have a chance to set some national records. This also will be the second straight season in Conference USA for a program that went 8-5 last year with a berth in the Armed Forces Bowl, though the Blue Raiders lost 24-6 to Navy.
"I do feel like it's my opportunity and it's my chance," Byard said. "I feel honored to be in position to lead this team and lead this defense."
Here are five things to watch at Middle Tennessee:
RECORD SETTER: Byard already leads the NCAA with 326 career interception return yards and has two seasons to chase the record of 501 yards set by Terrell Buckley at Florida State. Byard could tie the NCAA record for career interceptions returned for touchdowns with his next pick-six. He has four through his first two seasons. But he has been slowed in practice by an injured hamstring.
NEED A QB: Logan Kilgore is in training camp with New Orleans, leaving Stockstill to find a new quarterback. Kilgore completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 2,507 yards and 16 touchdowns. Austin Grammer and freshman Brent Stockstill — yes, the coach's son — are competing for the starting job. Stockstill said he is in no hurry to name a starter before the season opener Aug. 30 against Savannah State.
COACHING ADDITION: Stockstill lost a coach to Arkansas State and replaced him with a former head coach. Tommy West now is coaching the defensive line after having been a head coach at Chattnaooga, Clemson and most recently Memphis. West is back coaching after sitting out the 2013 following a year as defensive coordinator at Southern Miss in 2012.
NEW TURF: The Blue Raiders installed a new synthetic turf on the field at Floyd Stadium this summer, replacing a turf that had been in place since 2006. Workers not only stripped the old rug but also flattened out the crown on the field.
SCHEDULE: The Blue Raiders renew their rivalry with Western Kentucky on Sept. 13 when they host the Hilltoppers in their first season in Conference USA. They also host BYU on Nov. 1, but they face some tough road games. They visit Minnesota on Sept. 6 with a trip to C-USA preseason favorite Marshall on Oct. 11.
AP college football website: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
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