By Tim Gayle
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl Staff Writer
MONTGOMERY – Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill knew his team deserved better.
The Blue Raiders were winning games and going to postseason bowls, but surrendering nearly 450 yards and more than 35 points each game placed an undue hardship on his offensive players to keep pace with opponents.
Stockstill was tired of watching his defense reacting to other teams’ high-powered attacks. He needed a new way of thinking from a new defensive coordinator. It was time to attack on defense.
Fortunately for the Blue Raiders, veteran coordinator Scott Shafer was unemployed at the time.
“When I went through the interview process with the guys I interviewed, I told each one of them what I wanted and how their philosophy and schemes are going to match up with that,” Stockstill said. “Obviously, I liked Scott’s the best because I hired him. He’s done a fantastic job. He’s a great coach, a great teacher, a great fundamental coach. He’s got answers, he’s got a plan.”
The attacking defensive style fit the players as well. Suddenly, in just one season, Middle Tennessee State has gone from a defense that surrendered an average of more than 400 yards in each of the past six seasons to a unit that allows 348.6 yards per game.
And after allowing 35.8 points per game last season, the Blue Raiders have allowed just 24.2 points per game in 2017.
“It’s everything I wanted,” Stockstill said. “He’s done a fantastic job. It’s a night-and-day difference in our defense the last couple of years and this year.”
Middle Tennessee will certainly face a challenge from the high-powered Arkansas State offense in the fourth annual Raycom Media Camellia Bowl on Saturday night at Cramton Bowl, but the Blue Raiders are confident their new coordinator will have a quality game plan.
Shafer, a former quarterback at Ohio University, got into coaching in 1991 at Indiana and quickly moved up the coaching ranks as an accomplished secondary coach. His first job as a coordinator came at Northern Illinois in 2000 and he made a name for himself three years later after the program upset Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State in the same season.
He followed that up with stops as a coordinator at Western Michigan (2005-06), Stanford (2007), Michigan (2008) and Syracuse (2009-12) before becoming the head coach of the Orangemen in 2013. He was fired after the 2015 season, but landed a job as the coordinator at Maryland. He stepped down for personal reasons at the end of March and sat out of football in 2016, which was lucky for Stockstill.
“The main reason (for this year’s improvement) was Coach Shafer,” said freshman safety Reed Blankenship. “He came in with the mindset that he was willing to change everybody. He changed the personality. I had never been around these guys before so I came in willing to work and Coach Shafer put it in everybody’s mind that they needed to work and that we needed to improve on everything, so that’s what we did.”
It’s a different style, one that creates problems for opponents as they try to figure out the location of the blitzers.
“It’s kind of new for us, too,” Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. “We haven’t seen anybody this committed to disguising looks, this committed to overloading looks, as committed to blitzing as they have. We’ve seen guys that have done that on film in the past, but very few have carried that kind of thought process into the game against us because of what we do, the tempo we play at and potentially some of the matchups.
“I think it’ll be a little bit of a feeling-out process but they’re very aggressive, they blitz more than anybody we’ve seen, their looks are a little difficult to decipher because of all the movement and all the walking around with a three-man front, so it creates some challenges for our O-line and especially our center, making IDs. “Hopefully we can just kind of stick to what we do as much as anything, concern ourselves less with what they do and try to stay basic and simple and try to execute.”
A dozen players have four or more tackles for loss this season, led by sophomore linebacker Khalil Brooks, who has 15.
“This year, we’re more attacking, we’re more downhill instead of side to side and I think that has helped us a lot with tackles for loss, sacks and things like that,” said middle linebacker DJ Sanders.
It’s a scheme the players love, although Stockstill has an easy explanation for that.
“One, because they’re having success,” he said. “That always makes it fun. But, two, now they’re getting to utilize all their athleticism as individual players in what we’re allowing them to do. It’s almost like the offensive players – receivers, quarterbacks, running backs – they’re running around throwing the ball, catching the ball. The defense is the same way now.
They’re running around, blitzing from this gap to gap. You’re not just stationary, you’re not a sitting duck out there all the time like you were.”
That can create plenty of problems for Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen in Saturday night’s game.
“We’re going to want to put pressure on the quarterback, hit him a couple of times, make him start looking at the blitzes instead of down the field at his receivers,” Sanders said.