HEAD FOOTBALL COACH TELLS SKYHAWKS TO GO MAD (Make A Difference) THIS SEASON
August 28, 2012
MARTIN, Tenn. – The University of Tennessee at Martin football team learned two things after the 2011 campaign. The team must do the small things, such as cut down on penalties, gain at least one more yard and grab an interception along the way, to make a difference. The other thing the Skyhawks took away from the disappointing 2011 season is lessons learned. “You always hope to learn lessons from one year to the next,” head football coach Jason Simpson said.
It didn’t take long for the Skyhawks to learn a lesson this past season. After suffering a heart-breaking 24-23 loss to No. 9 Jacksonville State in the season opener, Simpson and the Skyhawks were still encouraged because the moral victory gave them some self confidence. “We thought we would be 6-2 in the OVC (Ohio Valley Conference) after that loss,” Simpson said. “We knew we had the ability to play well and win.”
The Skyhawks recorded back-toback wins over Union College and No. 24 Murray State and added to their self confidence. In fact the pair of home-field victories were ominous because the Skyhawks outscored the two foes, 111-26.
Then reality sat in the first week of October when the Skyhawks suffered a 34-31 loss to Tennessee Tech on their home turf at Hardy Graham Stadium. After a disappointing road loss at South Alabama, the Skyhawks rattled off back-to-back OVC victories over Eastern Illinois and Southeast Missouri State. With two OVC games left and a 4-2 record, the Skyhawks were poised for their second OVC title in five years. Instead of making a statement with road wins at Tennessee State and at Eastern Kentucky, the Skyhawks suffered back-to-back losses and finished with a 4-4 OVC record which was only good enough for sixth-place proper or tied for fifth. Four OVC setbacks by a total of 16 points.
Simpson, who will enter his seventh season when the season opens Sept. 1, knew something had to change during the offseason. The head coach and his staff watched game film continuously. They studied every aspect of the season, and when spring practice opened Simpson’s new battle cry, Go MAD (Make A Difference) revealed the findings of the intense studying.
“Everything we said, everything we did and everything we told the team was go make a difference,” Simpson said. As the beginning of fall camp approaches on Aug. 5, the diatribe continues to be “make a difference.”
While some of the personel from this past season returns, the biggest change is the team’s dynamics. “We have more talent then we had a year ago, we have a fifth-year senior at quarterback and two seniors at the running back position,” Simpson said. “We must capitalize on our strengths.”
Here is a quick look at the Skyhawks, position by position …
Fifth-year senior Derek Carr will call the signals for the Skyhawks. The McKenzie native threw for more than 300 yards three times in 2011, including an ominous 387 yards against Austin Peay. He finished 27th in the nation in total passing yards (2,482) and 34th in the country for completions per game (18.18).
Carr finished third in the OVC in passing average (225.6 per game) and fifth in the league in passing efficiency (136.1).
Sophomore Jarod Neal will get the back-up job. Neal is a sophomore from Beech High School in Hendersonville.
Seniors Jason McNair and Tevin Barksdale, along with junior DJ McNeil will see plently of action in the backfield for the Skyhawks. Both McNair and Barksdale finished among the top 10 rushers in the OVC this past season. McNair was seventh with 166 attempts and 782 yards. Barksdale was tenth with 107 carries for 685 yards.
McNeil was the team’s third leading rusher with 58 attempts for 275 yards. He also had five rushing touchdowns.
As a team the Skyhawks finished second in the league in total offense with 2,108 rushing yards. However, UT Martin was fifth in the OVC in rushing offense.
Missing from last year’s squad are fullbacks Jarvis Perry and Kenny Jones. The two only accounted of 69 yards of rushing. However Kenny Jones, who also played tight end, accounted for 25 catches for 334 yards and five touchdowns.
All-Ohio Valley Conference wide reciever Quentin Sims returns for his senior season. Sims led the Skyhawks in 2011 with 54 catches for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Cincinnati native was fourth in the OVC among receivers. He averaged 64.7 yards of receiving per game.
While Sims returns, the Skyhawks will miss Stephen Shiver who was the OVC’s fifth leading receiver with 42 catches for 657 yards.
The Skyhawk receiving corps is not one dimensional. Newcomer Jeremy Butler, from Brandenton, Fla., will contend for playing time as well as Kevin Barfield, Dylan Davis, Chris Thompson, Rod Wright, Malik Generett, Walter Evans and Ben Axline.
This year’s offensive line is probably the best UT Martin has had in a long time, Simpson said. Matt Axline and Charles Sweeton will play the tackle positions. Tyler Eady will handle the center chores, while Michael Bryant and redshirt sophomore John Johnson take care of the guard postions. Senior Ben Everett will play tight end. The senior from Loudon is more than capable of handling a blocking assignment and he showed in 2011 he could catch the ball.
In 2011, the Skyhawks were 25th in the nation in rushing offense and 13th in the country in scoring offense. A large portion of that credit goes to the offensive line.
“Our offensive line averages 300 pounds and for the first time in a long time looks like an offensive line in the OVC,” Simpson said. “With the exception of Eady at center, they are all tall and and athletic.”
One of the biggest questions for the Skyhawks is the defense. For the third time in the past three years, the Skyhawks will have a new defensive coordinator. Jeff Byrd and David Reeves, both from Southern Arkansas, join Simpson’s staff this season. Byrd will handle the defensive coordinator’s assignment, while Reeves works with the secondary.
Simpson, being the offensive minded coach that he is, will not say much about the defense. “You can expect a lot of things to be going on, and you should probably count on seeing multiple formations.”
In the middle of the defense line is Tennessee transfer Montori Hughes (6-4, 330 pounds) and Darrin Nalls (5-10, 300 pounds). DJ Roberts and Ryan Isom will see time at defensive ends as well as Dean Wathen, Nick Brown and Matt Murphy.
This past season walk-on Ben Johnson didn’t waste any time earning a scholarship for the 2012 season. Johnson led the team in tackles the first game of the season at Jacksonville State. He led the Skyhawks with 97 total tackles and 7.5 TFLs.
Johnson and Jett Howard will both play outside linebacker positions. “Ben has good strength and he is consistent,” Simpson said. “I think we are all waiting for Jett to have a big year.”
Howard played in two games in 2011 and was sidelined with an injury for the rest of the season. However in two games Howard record nine tackles and 2.5 TFLs.
The Skyhawks will have plenty of depth and options at this positon. Tony Bell, James Ratliff, Jarvis McCann and Chris Wright will battle for playing time.
The Skyhawks have some big holes to fill at the cornerback positions with the graduation of TJ Drakeford and CJ Estelle. However Taino Fears Perez, Thad Williams, Aaron Simms and Fred Flenorl are ready to go. The success of the Skyhawks could hinge on this position and the number of interceptions the group can grab.
“We did some research and we know that the No. 1 defensive team in this league has only won the conference one time and that was in 2006 when we did it,” Simpson said. “The other five times, the team with the most interceptions has managed to win this league. We have got to make some things happen at this position.”
Local product Kendall Harper was supposed to be the answer for the Skyhawks in 2011 at the safety position. Unfortunately a nagging injury spoiled Harper’s senior season. The nearby Trenton native managed to play in 10 games and make 30 total tackles. He also had 4.5 TFLs and one sack.
This season the Skyhawks will move Julius McNair from the linebacker position to safety. “We think Julius has the cerebral ability to play back there,” Simpson said. “We need knowledge back there and we think Julius can get the job done..”
The Skyhawks will also have junior college transfer Jvontez Blackmon (6-0, 190 pounds) to play safety. Junior Obi Nwankwo, Aaron Simms and freshman Amiri Hawkins can also play the position.
Special teams presents another question for the Skyhawks. This unit suffers the loss of punter, Joe Hook, and punt returner CJ Estelle. Both players graduated. Hook averaged more than 38 yards a punt, had seven inside the 20 yard line and had two that went for more than 50 yards. Estelle led the nation in punt return yardage. He returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown against Austin Peay and was named National Punt Returner of the Week.
While the Skyhawks will have to find a replacement for Estelle and rely on James Satterfield, from Gallatin, to handle the punting chores, All-OVC place kicker Cody Sandlin returns for his senior campaign. Sandlin made 14-of-17 field goals, including a record-tying 53 yarder. He also made 45-of-48 PATs.