Last month, Murray State athletic director Allen Ward extended the contracts of head basketball coach Steve Prohm and football coach Chris Hatcher. It’s become standard for Ward; Kentucky only allows four-year max contracts for public employees, and he like his coaches operating under that maximum four-year contract.
But in his four years with the Racers, Hatcher is only 24-21. Sure, his “Hatch Attack,” especially during the Casey Brockman years, made Murray State one of the most potent offenses in the league. But a leaky defense, which some would say is putting it kindly, has sunk Murray State year after year. For Racer football fans, who haven’t celebrated a conference title since 2002, another four years of .500 football aren’t going to be good enough.
1. Can defensive coordinator Dennis Therrell turn around the Racers defense, again?
Therrell is in his 2nd year back to Murray after a three-year stint in the United Football League. He was an assistant at Murray in 2004 under head coach Joe Panunzio, In just one year, the team went from 6th in scoring defense to first, allowing just 20 points game, falling a win short of a conference title.
The Racers defense Therrell is in a similar position: Murray State was 7th in scoring defense a season ago, but finished last in defensive yards allowed. (To be fair, a big reason was the fourth quarter. Murray was still in more of their games than SEMO and Austin Peay, whose opponents were often in clock-running mode.) The front four especially struggled, as Murray gave up 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, half a yard worse than the team above them.
If Murray State is going to take the next step, the defense has to be competitive. The good news…
2. Can the Racers five returning linebackers be game-changers?
Let’s be honest: in the FCS ranks, you’re more likely to be burned by a team nickel-and-diming their way up the field rather than the deep threat. If the Racers defense is going to get better, they’re going to have to find ways to stop the short pass, and keep rushers from getting to the second level of the defense. Last year’s top tackler, Sam Small, is gone, but five others, who all had 25 or more tackles last year, return.
In college football, great linebackers can be game-changers. If they, as a unit, can help shore up the defense, that will help. But if one can truly be that game-changer, it could help turn around the defense.
3. Who will anchor the ‘Hatch Attack’
There appears to be a two-way battle for starting quarterback: CJ Bennett and KD Humphries. Bennett is a senior, transferring to Murray from South Alabama, while Humphries is just a sophomore, who earned the backup role last year. If you’re long term, it makes sense for Humphries to get snaps under center — baring a high profile transfer, he’s likely the Racers starter in 2015 and ’16. If you realistically think the team has a shot to win now, Bennett has more experience against stiffer competition.
With three OVC teams making the FCS playoffs, none of them being Murray, the offensive performance of the Racers was kind of lost, but they had a solid, if unspectacular by their own lofty standards, year. Maikhail Miller was the only OVC quarterback not named Jimmy Garoppolo to throw for 2,000 yards, and the Racers were third in the league in scoring offense.
4. How does Murray State replace Walter Powell?
Powell was second in the league in all-purpose yards last year, falling only behind Eastern Illinois’ Shepard Little. Sure, he fourth in the league receiving, but it was his return ability that really made him a special threat in the OVC; Powell was one of just three players with a special teams return last year, and he and Little were the only players with two.
Special teams are often overlooked, but it one of the Racers’ strong points last year. With a new quarterback taking the reigns, field position could help provide a boost to the team’s offense.