Murray State beat writer Jeff Arenz previews the Racers at the Illini

Murray Ledger & Times sports editor Jeff Arenz -- a Streator, Ill., native -- answers five key questions about the Murray State Racers heading into Saturday's season opener against Illinois at Memorial Stadium

Murray State went 3-8 last year in Mitch Stewart's first year at the helm. What is the overall feeling around this program and what are the major storylines going into the season at Murray State?

Jeff Arenz: Redshirt senior quarterback KD Humphries is the undisputed leader of the offense. He led the nation (FCS) in passing yards (3,778) and passing yards per game (343.5) last season. The last two years, Humphries has completed 649 of 1,005 passes (64.5 percent) for 7,261 yards with 49 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.

Humphries has received numerous preseason awards, including being named a first-team Preseason All-American by HERO Sports and a third-team Preseason All-American by STATS. A camp instructor at The Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana this summer, he is among several FCS players on the STATS Offensive Player of the Year watch list.

The feeling throughout training camp is the Racers' defense has taken a huge step forward. During three scrimmages in August, Murray State defenders made 12 interceptions and forced four fumbles.

Defensive coordinator Chris Boone, who was the architect of strong Jacksonville State defenses in 2011 and 2012, has been at MSU since 2015 and expects the Racers to create three turnovers per practice and/or game.

Illinois is 11-0 against FCS opponents the last 13 seasons with an average margin of victory of 30 points. What is the mindset of a team like Murray State coming into a Big Ten stadium?

Arenz: The Racers are excited to play in front of a large crowd in a large stadium against a prominent head coach such as Lovie Smith in a game televised on the Big Ten Network. Murray State is relishing this opportunity because, as MSU wide receiver Jesse Blackburn said, “They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like we do.”

In 2015, the Racers lost non-conference FBS road games at Northern Illinois and Western Michigan in Weeks 2 and 3. Murray State averaged 23.5 points per game in those contests and 30.5 points per game overall.

Murray State returns six starters on offense. What is their offensive identity, who are some players to watch and what must they do to have success against an Illini defense that features a fearsome front four?

Stewart is the play-caller for the offense and Humphries is his top weapon. Humphries improved his decision-making in 2015, when his touchdown-to-interception rate was 22-to-7. The Racers quarterback tossed 27 touchdowns and had 12 interceptions in 2014. 

Murray State is handing the role of running back to Mark Dodson II, who sat out the 2015 season per NCAA transfer rules. Dodson ran for 261 yards and six touchdowns in two seasons (24 games) at Ole Miss in 2013 and 2014. Demetric Johnson, who originally came to MSU as a running back, is back at that position after spending last season playing defense.

Blackburn is the top returning receiver in 2016 after Murray State lost its top three wideouts. Of the 16 wide receivers on the MSU roster, 10 of them are true freshmen or junior college transfers.

The Racers have gotten bigger on their offensive line, where Joe Irby and Chris White return. Murray State must prove it can protect Humphries, who was the second-most sacked quarterback in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The Racers also return six starters on defense. What is their defensive identity, who are some players to watch and what must they do to limit an Illini offense that features a possible pro quarterback in Wes Lunt and strong running back like Ke'Shawn Vaughn?

As Murray State has shown an improved defense this year in training camp, the Racers' defensive line has been able to put more pressure on the quarterback. That has allowed the MSU secondary to make as many interceptions as it has in scrimmages. Bishop Woods returns at defensive tackle.

Linebackers Lamont “Big Hit Crit” Crittendon, Quincy Williams and Zach Wade were role players for Murray State last season. Crittedon will share time at middle linebacker with senior Jonathan Jackson, who has combined to make more than 200 tackles the last two years.

The secondary is led by Marquez “Black” Sanford, D'Montre Wade, Zach Shipley, Toby Omli and Dylan Boone, who have been the stars of training camp.

If the Racers are going to improve on defense, Murray State must do two things: 1. Although the offense can put up points, MSU sometimes scores “too fast” and its defense is worn out by the end of the game; 2. The Racers have to get better at stopping the run.

What's your score prediction for the game and what would be considered a positive for Murray State out of this game?

Illinois would be smart to give the ball to Vaughn and control the clock. The more time you give the ball to the Racers and KD Humphries, they will score points.

I see this game much like the Racers' games at Northern Illinois and Western Michigan last season, when Murray State averaged 23.5 points, but was overwhelmed by the depth of an FBS school.

Other stuff...

There are 47 new faces on Murray State's roster, which is considered to be Stewart's first recruiting class. The newness of the players have made for a team that is still getting to know itself. One of the new faces is freshman Eli Oltean, who spent the last four years as a quarterback at St. Joseph-Ogden High School near Champaign. … Murray State's kicking has improved during training camp after going 9 of 14 on field goals last season. … After the graduation of nationally-recognized returner Pokey Harris, Dodson, Sanford and D'Montre Wade have been employed as returners in the preseason. 

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