Spring football practice gets underway Tuesday



MURFREESBORO – The 17th spring practice for Head Coach Rick Stockstill may be his most unique as injuries, transfer portal losses and graduation have left him with around 66 players to compete with in spring practice. The first of 15 practices get underway Tuesday and the numbers will be more like an NFL camp rather than a college spring season.

“We lost around 20 players to graduation, 11 to the portal and have 16 sitting out while recuperating from offseason surgery so our numbers are the lowest I have seen in my career for spring practice,” said Stockstill. “We only have eight offensive lineman so we will have to be smart on how we work but on the positive side it’s a great opportunity for the ones on the field.”

Despite the low numbers, the vibe around the program is extremely high after winning five of the last seven games in 2021 to go with a Bahamas Bowl win over Toledo. Momentum is a great thing in sports and the Blue Raiders are riding a strong wave entering the 2022 campaign.

“The spring is always exciting because as coaches you get a chance to really teach and work on fundamentals,” Stockstill said. “It feels good coming off a bowl win but we are all very anxious to get back on the field and begin preparing for 2022.”

Offensively, the Blue Raiders welcome first-year coordinator Mitch Stewart who will have three returning starters and just 13 letters back on that side of the ball. The Blue Raiders lost three starting receivers and the starting running back but feel good about the guys ready to step up and take their place.

Leading the unit under center will be redshirt freshman Nicholas Vattiato who earned a spot on the C-USA All-Freshman team last year after completing 67 percent of his passes. The last time Blue Raider fans saw Vattiato he was accepting the Bahamas Bowl Offensive MVP award after throwing for 270 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Toledo.

Chase Cunningham will not participate during the spring as he continues to rehab his injury from last year but is expected to be 100 percent when fall camp opens in August. Freshman signee Kyle Lowe enrolled in January and will be participating in spring practice.

Talented Jaylin Lane highlights the receiving corps along with Yusuf Ali and Izaiah Gathings† Those three combined for 111 receptions in 2021. The spring will also have the debut of 2022 signees Quaterrius Tolbert and Jaylen Ward

at running back, Frank Peasant returns after registering 304 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman. He will have company in transfers Joe Ervin (Kansas State) and A’Varius Sparrow (West Virginia).

The Blue Raiders lost four starters along the offensive line to the transfer portal so revamping up front will be critical during the spring and summer. Center Jordan Palmerwho will not go through spring, is the lone starter returning.

“The spring will be a great chance for the eight linemen we have to step up,” Stockstill said. “We signed six linemen and have three sitting out with injuries but we will not have them back until this summer.”

In 2021, the Blue Raider defense put up some impressive numbers and played a huge role in the team’s turnaround. The defense led the nation in turnovers gained, defensive touchdowns and fumble recoveries.

Scott Shafer‘s 2022 unit returns six starters and 22 letters, including the entire two-deep on the line. The bell cow and leader is senior Jordan Ferguson who is coming off the best year of his career.

Jonathan Butler returns at linebacker to man the middle but the group has to find replacements for DQ Thomas and Jurriente Davis. Louisville transfer Zayvionne Peterson will vye for playing time as will returning lettermen Raquon HartleyJalen Davis and Drew Francis

The secondary took a big hit with the graduation of Reed Blankenship who ended his career as the program’s all-time leading tackler. The unit also lost starters Greg Grate and Quincy Riley to the portal.

Potential starters Jalen JacksonTeldrick Ross and Tra Fluellen will not be available during the spring so it will be another big opportunity for younger players to get reps.

“I love what we have up front on defense,” Stockstill said. “Those guys are coming off a great year and I only expect them to get better but we need some people to step up in the secondary. The spring and summer is when you can develop players but we also need to get healthy.”

On special teams, the Blue Raiders return a lot of experience with punter Kyle Ulbrichplace kicker Zeke Rankinkick-off specialist Scott Payne and long snapper Brody Butler† Ulbrich averaged 44.4 yards a punt and had 16 that went 50 or more yards, while Rankin made 10 of 14 field goals in his first year as the primary kicker.

The Blue Raiders get started on Tuesday and will conclude spring drills on April 16.

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