MARTIN, Tenn. – Fresh off an eight-win season and tying a school-record with six Ohio Valley Conference victories, The University of Tennessee at Martin football team enters Year Eight of the Jason Simpson Era with high hopes despite one of the most difficult schedules in program history.
The Skyhawks open with a rekindling of an in-state rivalry when they play at Chattanooga on Aug. 29. The meeting – which will be the first between the two schools in 20 years – marks the beginning of a three-game series that will also offer games in 2017 and 2018. The Mocs enter the season ranked No. 25 in the Football Championship Subdivision Coaches Preseason Poll after a 6-5 season in 2012.
Week Two features a trip out to Football Bowl Subdivision member Boise State for a visit to the blue turf on Bronco Stadium on Sept. 7. The Skyhawks will make the 1,280 mile trek to Idaho to take on the national powerhouse who is ranked No. 19 in the USA Today Preseason Poll after posting an 11-2 record last year.
The 2013 home opener follows on Sept. 14 against a Central Arkansas squad who finished 9-3 and earned a Southland Conference championship last season. This game starts a four-games-in-four-years series against the Bears, who are ranked sixth in the FCS Coaches Preseason Poll.
The eight-game conference season begins on Sept. 28 but UT Martin will step out of conference in Week 10 with a showdown at in-state FBS rival Memphis. The Skyhawks generated a 20-17 victory over the Tigers in the 2012 season opener, setting the tone for a year that ended with UT Martin boasting the OVC’s best overall winning percentage (.727).
UT Martin, who is receiving votes in the FCS Coaches Preseason Poll, will host three of the four teams picked before it in the OVC preseason polls, beginning with a Homecoming matchup against Jacksonville State on Oct. 5. The Skyhawks will also take on Tennessee State (Oct. 19) and defending regular season and preseason favorite Eastern Illinois (Nov. 23) at Hardy Graham Stadium. A matchup at Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 16 looms as a tough late-season road test for UT Martin.
The Skyhawks also host Murray State on Nov. 2 while traveling to Southeast Missouri (Sept. 28) and in-state foes Tennessee Tech (Oct. 10) and Austin Peay (Oct. 26).
While the difficult schedule will put UT Martin to the test early, Simpson hopes a roster that boasts 43 upperclassmen has been battletested to withstand it. Replacing All-Americans and current NFL players Montori Hughes (Indianapolis Colts) and Quentin Sims (New England Patriots) isn’t easy, not to mention Derek Carr, a three-year starter at quarterback who left as UT Martin’s all-time leader in passing yards (8,428) and touchdown passes (69).
Without a doubt, the question that Simpson has fielded the most since spring practice has been who the quarterback replacement would be. None of the five quarterbacks on the roster have officially attempted a pass in a Skyhawk uniform, but Simpson is confident in his group.
Redshirt sophomore Jarod Neal, redshirt sophomore Tyler Rice and junior transfer Dylan Favre have battled for the top spot since the spring game, when all three combined to complete 60.4 percent of their passes for 489 yards and eight touchdowns against zero interceptions. A starter has not been officially named, as the trio uses the competition in fall practice to get better day after day.
The receiving core in 2013 should be one of the team’s biggest strengths, led by senior Jeremy Butler. Playing alongside Sims last season, Butler hauled in 10 touchdown passes in 10 games and led the OVC with three multi-touchdown games. Senior Dylan Davis (23 receptions, 293 yards in 2012) and redshirt senior Chris Thompson (18 catches, 242 yards, two touchdowns) are coming off solid campaigns, while Malik Generett, Corey Jordan and Rod Wright should contribute if healthy.
The wide receiver position also offers the most intriguing newcomers. Arizona State transfer Kevin Anderson and Michigan State transfer Kyle Kerrick provide the Skyhawks with gamechanging abilities.
There is a two-man battle for the starting tight end slot, with redshirt junior Matt Stewart accounting for the only game experience at the position. Stewart caught just three passes for 65 yards last season but showed big play ability, as each reception went for 15 or more yards. Redshirt freshman Tyler McPeak from nearby Dresden will challenge Stewart.
The pulse of the offense will likely begin up front in the trenches, as the Skyhawks return three starters on an offensive line that has conceded just 17 sacks in the last two seasons. Tyler Eady has started in all 33 games at center in his collegiate career, as he will be joined by Charles Sweeton (21 straight starts at left tackle) and Mathew Axline (21 starts in two seasons at right guard). John Johnson, the returning starter at left guard, is lost for the season with a knee injury, opening up spots for 6-7, 300-pound Jackson Roberts at right tackle and Kenneth Crenshaw at guard.
Behind every good offensive line is an effective running game, which the Skyhawks will look to take advantage of in 2013. Senior DJ McNeil ranked fifth in the OVC last season with nine rushing touchdowns and is just 61 yards away from reaching the 1,000 yard plateau for his career. Utah State transfer Abou Toure (6-2, 230 pounds) offers a bruising back while redshirt sophomore Trent Garland and speedy redshirt freshman Najee Ray are also expected to contribute out of the backfield.
Defensively, the undeniable leader is redshirt senior linebacker Ben Johnson, who led the OVC and ranked sixth in the nation in tackles (131, 11.91 per game) last season. The 6-2, 235-pounder garnered Preseason All-American mentions five times this preseason and is expected to challenge for the OVC Defensive Player of the Year award.
Joining Johnson at the other inside linebacker slot is junior Tony Bell, who ranked fourth in the OVC with four sacks amongst his 78 total tackles in 2012. The two starting spots at outside linebacker will likely be occupied by a group that includes senior Bobby Ellis, junior Deilouse Jackson and redshirt sophomore Marquis Clemons.
Redshirt senior DJ Roberts (11.5 tackles for loss last season) anchors the defensive line. Redshirt junior Ryan Isom (20 tackles, six quarterback hurries in 2012) started in four games last season and is expected to take on a bigger role in 2013.
The defensive backfield is headed by redshirt senior Thad Williams (two interceptions, seven pass breakups in 2012), who was an All-OVC performer last fall. Also expected to return to a starting spot at defensive back is junior Taino Fears-Perez, who started in the first three games last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Seniors Camaren Harris (seven starts in 2012) and Kevin Barfield (speedster converted from wide receiver) will also push for playing time.
Senior J’Vontez Blackmon (76 tackles, two interceptions in 2012) is coming off a season where he started all 11 games at safety. Senior Jeremy Cannon (one start last season) and junior college transfers Brian Isaac, Leon Carlton III, Devontay Barnett, Ariel Arguello will be looked upon to provide experience, while Jordan Landry appeared in seven games as a true freshman last season.
On special teams, the Skyhawks return All-OVC second team punter James Satterfield, who boomed seven punts of 50-plus yards in 2012. Redshirt sophomore Jackson Redditt is expected to take over the kicking duties after going 2-for-2 in PAT attempts as the backup last season.