Middle Tennessee defensive end Steven Rhodes began the season facing NCAA eligibility questions related to his participation on an intramural team while serving in the Marine Corps.
He’ll end it Monday in Fort Worth as a 25-year-old freshman who has become a contributor on a bowl team after a five-year layoff from organized football.
For Rhodes, a married father of two who joined the Marines after graduating from high school, his initial season as a college football player could not conclude in a more appropriate setting than the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, where the Blue Raiders (8-4) will meet Navy (8-4) at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium (10:45 a.m., ESPN).
“Absolutely. It’s a privilege and an honor to play in the Armed Forces Bowl, especially playing against Navy,” Rhodes said before Thursday’s practice at Burleson Centennial High School. “Granted, there are Marines on the Navy team. But that’s a long rivalry right there, between the Navy and the Marine Corps. So I’m going to enjoy it.”
So will Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill, who said Rhodes has proven to be a “wonderful teammate” while collecting 10 tackles and half a sack while playing primarily on special teams and as a situational pass rusher.
The best part, in Stockstill’s estimation, is that Rhodes has three years remaining at the school after an NCAA reversal of its initial ruling that Rhodes would be docked two seasons of eligibility for taking part in “organized competition” while serving in the Marines.
The initial ruling, announced Aug. 18, drew nationwide criticism. NCAA officials changed their tune the next day after the school’s second appeal, even waiving a stipulation that Rhodes must use the 2013 season as a mandatory redshirt year.
When the ruling was announced, Rhodes said: “The support I got from the entire nation is amazing. Everything happens for a reason, and I’m blessed to be where I’m at and doing what I love to do.”
Rhodes’ journey even included a position switch in fall drills. After reporting to camp as a tight end, he moved to defensive end. As he’s become more familiar with his new role, Rhodes’ playing time has increased to roughly 10 defensive snaps per game.
“He’s getting better. He’s got a wonderful attitude,” Stockstill said. “He tries to give you exactly what you want. Our players respect him. He’s fit in really well.”
For the first time since joining the FBS ranks in 1999, Middle Tennessee has had five backs top the 100-yard rushing mark in a game during the same season.
Because of injuries, none of the top seven rushers on the roster has played in all 12 games this season and the depth chart for Monday’s game is topped by Shane Tucker (226 yards, five TDs), a true freshman who burned his redshirt to play in the Blue Raiders’ last four games.
Tucker is backed up by sophomore Jeremiah Bryson (355 yards, three TDs). The team’s top two rushers, Jordan Parker (741 yards, six TDs) and Reggie Whatley (631 yards, three TDs), are battling hip injuries and might see only limited duty in Monday’s contest.
Notable DFW alumni
Roger Staubach, Navy’s 1963 Heisman Trophy winner who earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, will be the keynote speaker at the Armed Forces Bowl kickoff luncheon Friday in Fort Worth.
Middle Tennessee alums on the local sports landscape include Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, and Dallas Cowboys running back Phillip Tanner.
Ticket prices range from $20 to $150 per seat for Monday’s Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Tickets can be purchased through the bowl website at www.ArmedForcesBowl.com or by calling the bowl office at 817-810-0012.