By Tim Gayle
Camellia Bowl Staff Writer
MONTGOMERY – Arkansas State won’t get to see the Middle Tennessee State team that took the field in early September for a 30-23 win over Syracuse, but the Blue Raiders will be as close to healthy as they’ve been since September when the two teams tangle on Saturday in the Camellia Bowl at Cramton Bowl.
“We lost more people this year than any year I’ve ever had as the head coach or as an assistant coach,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said. “It’s just incredible, the amount of people we lost to injuries this year. That’s why I’m proud of this team for the resiliency and the competitiveness that they showed. There were times it didn’t look good, it looked bleak, but we hung together and found a way to get back and get into this game.”
The Blue Raiders will come into this game having won three of their final four games and a large reason for that has been the return of quarterback Brent Stockstill. Stockstill, son of the head coach, is on pace to finish his career as one of the top 25 passers in collegiate history, provided he can remainder healthy for the 2018 season.
Stockstill turned heads as a finalist for Mr. Football honors in Tennessee in 2012 after his Siegel High team scored 590 points. He was grayshirted in 2013 and redshirted in 2014, giving him some valuable experience in 2015 as he passed for 4,005 yards and 30 touchdowns, falling just 53 yards shy of Jameis Winston’s record for passing yards by a freshman. His 327 completions were a freshman record.
Things haven’t been the same since. In 2016, he played in only 10 games after breaking his collarbone. In 2017, he played the first two games and then missed the six following the Syracuse win after cracking his sternum, which in turn separated his collarbone from his sternum.
“It’s been tough,” Brent Stockstill said. “Second game of the year, you have an injury like that where I miss six or seven games, it was tough not being out there with the guys but I’m back good enough. I don’t know if I’m 100 percent but I’m back good enough to give our team a good chance to win.”
Standing on the sidelines, watching John Urzua lead the team through late September and October, allowed Stockstill to watch the different pieces of the Middle Tennessee offense as injuries took a toll.
“I think any time a quarterback can sit back and see it from a different perspective, it definitely helps,” Brent Stockstill said. “I definitely learned a lot. When I get older, I want to coach, so it definitely helped me from that perspective. Obviously, I never want to be out, but if there is a good thing to it, that was good.”
There were concerns that he would miss the remainder of the season, but he returned just in time to lead the Blue Raiders to three wins in the final month of the regular season to earn bowl eligibility.
“He’s an incredibly tough person,” said his father. “We’re 4-2 with him and we were 2-4 when he wasn’t in there. He makes us better. We were a different team in November than we were in October.”
Rick Stockstill was forced to contend with a different starting lineup for each of the Blue Raiders’ 12 games because of injuries.
Offensively, Middle Tennessee was the same for the Vanderbilt and Syracuse games but has fielded a different starting lineup in each of the final 11 games. Urzua, who took Stockstill’s place, was forced to give up the game after the Marshall game as he suffered the third concussion of his career. Thankfully, Stockstill was able to return to the starting lineup the following week. For UAB and Florida International, there was only one change in the starting lineup for the offense.
That’s on a good day.
Brad Anderson, the midseason tailback who was sidelined with a leg injury, was replaced by Tavares Thomas, who was sidelined with an injury, who was replaced by Terelle West in the regular season finale. That’s the typical string of injuries that have plagued this team all year long.
“This team’s been through a lot,” Rick Stockstill said. “Their character has been tested. They’ve bounced back every time.”
Obviously, the offense has more confidence with Stockstill in the lineup. The fourth-year junior left hander, who was on the watch list for the Davey O’Brien, Maxwell and Johnny Unitas awards at the beginning of the season, can surpass the 9,000-yard career mark with 281 passing yards on Saturday.
“Getting the opportunity to go against him every day at practice helps me,” observed freshman free safety Reed Blankenship. “It’s a big learning experience for me because I’ve never faced anyone as good as Brent. Hopefully, I help him in return, but it’s just a really cool experience to go against No. 12.”
Among NCAA active passers, Stockstill is 15th in passing yards (8,719), sixth in passing yards per game (290.6), 17th in total offense (9,027) and 15th in passing efficiency (148.15). He’ll face one of his biggest challenges this weekend against the Red Wolves’ defense and their coordinator, former MTSU coordinator Joe Cauthen.
“They’re a great defense,” Brent Stockstill said. “I know Coach Cauthen because he was here my first year at MTSU. He’s a great coach and always has them ready to play. Obviously, they have one guy (Ja’Von Rolland-Jones) who is one sack away from being the all-time sack leader and they have the good inside guy (Alabama transfer Dee Liner) as well. They have a lot of great players, great schemes, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”