2017 UT Martin Football Media Guide
The University of Tennessee at Martin football team has built itself into one of the top competitors for an Ohio Valley Conference championship under the direction of head coach Jason Simpson. While the Skyhawks have finished in the top two positions of the league standings five times since 2006, Simpson believes this is the year that his team is ready to take the next step and breakthrough preconceived glass ceilings both individually and as a team.
“When you go back the past five years we haven’t finished lower than third in the conference based off record,” said Simpson. “We know we have been consistent for 11 years. We talk around here every year that we want to compete for a playoff berth and a conference title, yet we just haven’t been able to get over the hump. While we have been consistent, we look for this to be the year that we breakthrough and accomplish those goals. We need to be able to be mature enough to not only talk about it in our building and offices, but to make the fans aware of the expectations we put on ourselves.”
“When we look to the rallying cry of ‘breakthrough’, it isn’t just about our overall teams goals,” Simpson continued. “We look throughout our programs and we are looking for breakthroughs in many areas. Whether it is All-OVC guys elevating to All-Americans, role players becoming starters or even walk-ons trying to make the bus for our first road trip. We want to create individual goals which our players can breakthrough that ceiling by elevating their individual game which in turn strengthens our team as a whole.”
UT Martin will officially open the 2017 season with a non-conference matchup against Division II foe Clarion University on Thursday, Aug. 31. The Skyhawks will then hit the road for back-to-back non-conference matchups at Southeastern Conference foe Ole Miss on Saturday, Sept. 9 and in-state foe Chattanooga on Saturday, Sept. 16.
After a difficult non-conference slate, the Skyhawks will open OVC play on Saturday, Sept. 23 against Tennessee State. As a whole, UT Martin host Clarion, Tennessee State, Murray State (Oct. 7), Eastern Illinois (Oct. 28) and Jacksonville State (Nov. 11) while traveling to Austin Peay (Sept. 30), Eastern Kentucky (Oct. 21), Southeast Missouri (Nov. 4) and Tennessee Tech (Nov. 18).
“Without a doubt, we are looking at a tough schedule ahead of ourselves,” said Simpson. “With that being said, we feel confident that we can use every week to consistently get better and breakthrough into the FCS playoffs and a conference championship. Whether it is opening our season at home, attempting to wash out a bad taste in our mouth from our last trip to Ole Miss, looking to knock off a top-10 FCS program like Chattanooga or facing off against an OVC foe, we need to breakthrough as a program to reach our ultimate goals.”
While UT Martin is set to face a challenging schedule once again, the Skyhawks feels balance on both sides of the ball and strength in upperclassmen will provide a valuable foundation for the program’s ascension. As a whole, the Skyhawks boast 24 seniors within the program, including 22 of which will don their school colors for the final time this season in Brett Arkelian, Kadarren Bond, Robert Burleigh, Jose’ Carballo, Antonio Clifton, Troy Cook, Demonta Daniel, Chris Davis, Joseph Este, JP Fowler, Marquez Grayson, Kahlid Hagens, Chris Jackson, Londell Lee, Ethan Lewis, Corey Madlock, Tae Martin, Mitch Mersman, Jay Murphy, Sema’j Reed, DJ Simmons and Caylon Weathers.
“With 24 seniors – and 20 of those being fifth year guys – that needs to be our strength not only in experience but in numbers as well,” said Simpson. “That needs to be what we hang out hats on, gets us through tough games, the highs and lows of the season and long weeks of practice. You’ll see some games where our defense is the better unit on the field and vice versa with the offense. It’s comforting to know that we have enough experience on the field to offset some of these things so we may be able to overcome any adversities we might face along the way.”
“This team has a good understanding of the challenges we face,” said Simpson. “We make sure to stress the strengths and weaknesses to the guys while watching film about what corrections need to be made so we can make the improvements necessary to be a successful program. We went through the schedule and stressed things like in-state rivalry so these guys understand how important these matchups on the schedule are, as well as pointing out just how important every conference game is. Our seniors are listening though. They understand the challenges we face on a weekly basis. We feel that their leadership and guidance on the field and in the locker room will translate to wins.”
UT Martin will look to its crop of talented individuals throughout the roster to push the Skyhawks into the FCS Playoff conversation as many players have been recognized by preseason outlets as key players to watch heading into 2017. As a whole, 11 different players have earned preseason accolades by the OVC, STATS, Lindy’s Sports, College Sports Madness and HERO Sports including Bond, Jaimiee Bowe, Burleigh, Donald Cofield Jr., Cook, Este, Hagens, Lee, Martin, Murphy and Weathers. Highlighting the list were preseason All-American recognitions for Burleigh, Hagens and Lee.
“The fun part about this season is that our different units (offense, defense and special teams) are at a level of success,” said Simpson. “The fact that we have a fifth-year quarterback, a balanced offensive line, a veteran secondary and a seasoned kicker only adds to that fact. This team knows what it takes to win.”
The Skyhawks have the luxury of keeping the keys to the offense in the hands of preseason All-OVC performer Troy Cook, a fifth-year quarterback, for a second season. Cook has found himself on the College Football Performance Awards FCS National Performer of the Year Trophy Watch List after completing 166-of-298 passes for 2,321 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 starts a season ago. The gunslinger ranked 12th nationally in passing yards per completion (13.98), 22nd in passing touchdowns (22), 26th in yards per pass attempt (7.79) and 29th in passing efficiency (137.4). Redshirt-sophomore Kyle Akin will serve as the primary backup.
Quarterbacks: Troy Cook, Kyle Akin, Dresser Winn, Clay Beathard and Joe Hudson.
“We’ve got five guys with pretty talented arms,” said Simpson. “Troy is a very knowledgeable quarterback that has paid his dues and is a lot more relaxed this year without the stiff competition. It’s been fun to see how our fifth-year quarterbacks relax and really take control of their team. As far as Kyle, he has not only earned my respect, but the respect of his teammates to be able to go out there and move the football. Just from watching him through camp, I don’t think anyone has worked harder or grown more as a player than Kyle. We have great depth at the position.”
If there were to be a position with question marks, it would be the position of running back. Counting on the performance of preseason All-OVC member Jaimiee Bowe, the Skyhawks lost the talented junior running back which rushed for 840 yards and seven touchdowns to an offseason injury for the year. With a fresh set of starting reps to be had, the Skyhawks will look to returners Marquez Grayson (26 carries, 133 yards, one touchdown) and Ty Brown (16 carries, 68 yards and two touchdowns) along with newcomers Ladarius Galloway, Deshaun Fields and Peyton Logan to shoulder the load.
Running backs: Jaimiee Bowe (injured), Marquez Grayson, Ty Brown, Ladarius Galloway, Deshaun Fields, Peyton Logan, Chris Davis, Marcus LeFlore, Terry Norris, Jordan Tucker, Bryce Warner (injured), Kylan Watkins and Dylan Yates.
“I told these kids the other night that Juice (Bowe) was a big part of this team because of how he brings an element of electricity with the way he runs the ball,” said Simpson. “With that being said - collectively as a group - the production has still been there in different forms and fashions. It might be a different guy you turn to every game or every quarter, but there is a lot of depth. That’s a position where new guys can play if you have the ability, the quickness and the vision to find gaps and make a difference quickly.”
The senior receiver tandem of Caylon Weathers and Londell Lee brings starting experience to a young yet talented core. Weathers returns as the team’s top receiving leader with 32 catches for 385 yards and three touchdowns while Lee caught 25 passes for 355 yards and four touchdowns. Top receivers to watch are Weathers, Lee, Jaylon Moore, Rodney Williams II, Jaylen Smith and Tyler Eddings.
Wide receivers: Caylon Weathers, Londell Lee, Jaylon Moore, Rodney Williams II, Jaylen Smith, Donnell Williams, Tyler Eddings, Devonte Howard, Colton Dowell, Victor McClinton and Hunter Watkins.
“Caylon is a solid player whose big body is a tough matchup for guys and we expect a big year out of him while Londell is a smooth, easy player who flies under the radar and makes plays when they come his way,” said Simpson. “Our third guy is by committee with Moore, Smith and Williams who have all shown flashes of greatness but we’re just waiting for one guy to give us some consistency there. We’ve got several guys coming off of a redshirt season where one has size, one has speed, one has good hands and one has a good understanding of the offense. So we are looking to see what these younger guys can give us on the field.”
A position group with loads of potential and versatility is that of the tight ends. Branded as the silverbacks, the Skyhawk group will look for a big season from Brett Thompson who returns to the fold after missing 2016 with an injury along with the return of veterans Chance Key and Demonta Daniel while adding newcomer Christian Philpott. Look for the squad to be able to utilize different packages with blocking and receiving groups.
Tight ends: Brett Thompson, Chance Key, Demonta Daniel, Christian Philpott, Collin Tatko, Christian LaBreche, BJ Daniel and Boone Gibson.
“We like the playmaking ability of our tight ends,” said Simpson. “This allows us to stray away from being a six or seven wide receiver personnel type of team. Brett is coming off of an injury from last season but he’s having an outstanding camp and Chance has improved as well. These tight ends are as good a group as any in the conference. When you add in Christian and his big body along with the personality of Demonta, it gives us several options.
The offensive line looks to be another key anchor for an explosive offense with the return of All-OVC honorees Robert Burleigh and Kadarren Bond along with several other contributing factors from a year ago. As a whole, the Skyhawks conceded just 15 sacks all of last season while leading the OVC with a 4.79 sacks per dropback percentage and blocking for an offense which generated 43 touchdowns and 384.2 yards of total offense. The quintet of Bond, Burleigh, James Walker, Nick Thomas and Corey Madlock will serve as the team’s starters while Terry Fultz, Kyle Naes and Sema’j Reed will provide added depth.
Offensive linemen: Robert Burleigh, Kadarren Bond, Nick Thomas, Austin Newsom, Corey Madlock, Terry Fultz, Mark Garrett, Chris Jackson, Kyle Naes, Austin Pauley, Sema’j Reed, James Walker, Dallis Sangster, Drew Beymer and Zach Parker.
“With the offensive line, there is strength in numbers,” said Simpson. “Burleigh has the accolades but these five to seven guys may be the best we’ve ever had in my time here. Nick really brings leadership and physicality which galvanizes the offensive line and he is going to be a great replacement after losing Kenneth Crenshaw which may have been the biggest loss from last season. Coach (Kevin) Bannon has done a really good job with this group. I think we’re as versatile and balanced as we have ever been.”
The Skyhawks will look to prove that the cupboard is far from empty at defensive line after the graduation of two All-OVC performers in Keith Jones and Damani Taylor. One player looking to put that unit together is Jay Murphy who has been a consistent contributor on the line for four seasons, tallying 28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack a season ago. Primed to flank him on both sides is the junior duo of Anthony Brown (18 tackles) and Mike Turner (19 tackles) while Donald Cofield, Jr., Julian Crutchfield, Chase Joy, Joey Hobbs and Joseph Murry will provide added depth.
Defensive linemen: Anthony Brown, Jay Murphy, Mike Turner, Donald Cofield, Jr., Julian Crutchfield, Matthew Counce, Joey Hobbs, Gemarta’ Jackson, Joseph Jones, Chase Joy, Andrew Kerobo, Joseph Murry, Austin Pickett, Sean Turner and Teeshaun Turpin.
“We aren’t going to be able to just go in there with three guys on that line, we had to build depth and we certainly have done that” said UT Martin defensive coordinator Jordon Hankins. “Last year we had a ton of guys who took valuable reps for us. Right now we are looking at about eight different guys until someone just takes those reps for themselves. With that said, we know with our depth, it isn’t a matter of just throwing numbers at a position, we feel there are several players who will continue to contribute.”
The linebacker unit will look to elevate from consistent to elite in 2017. The Skyhawks return starters Kevin Prather, Jr. (71 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss) and James Gilleylen (65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss) who combined to force two interceptions and two fumble recoveries while forcing five fumbles. Junior Garrett Wall will look to slide into the third starting spot at linebacker after appearing in all 12 games a season ago. The group of Julian Thompson-Clay, TJ Jefferson, Sherrod Pittman and DJ Simmons look to also contribute valuable reps.
Linebackers: James Gilleylen, Kevin Prather, Jr., Garrett Wall, Julian Thompson-Clay, TJ Jefferson, Sherrod Pittman, DJ Simmons, Ryan Davis, David DuBose, John Ford, Malik Harris, Koreyon Jordan and Deylon Williams.
“There are so many players that have made a lot of plays for us at that position over the years,” said Hankins. “When you have James at the center of the linebackers, he is sort of our quarterback of that unit. Between James in the middle and Kevin rushing off the edge, that’s a dangerous tandem while Garrett is a solid contributor. When you add in players like DJ who have made plays for over three years along with Boobie (Thompson-Clay) and TJ – who is just starting to come into his own – we like our depth at the position.”
UT Martin will rely heavily on its experienced secondary in 2017 after ranking as one of the most explosive in the OVC a season ago. The Skyhawks tallied 17 interceptions last season, led by the play of preseason All-American Kahlid Hagens who led the squad with 93 tackles, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. While Hagens serves as the defensive leader and signal-caller, he is flanked by another pair of standout safeties in Tae Martin and Joseph Este. On the outside of the defense, the Skyhawks will look for Jackson and Chris Williams-Hall to return to fold at cornerback. Brandon Anderson, Antonio Clifton and Porter Streator III will provide depth at the safety positions while Antavis Rowe and Kevin Reid will back up the corners.
Cornerbacks: Justin Jackson, Chris Williams-Hall, Antavis Rowe, Kevin Reid, Evan Gowdy, Hamilton Hendricks, Andrew Horton-Martindale, Armunz Mathews, Quentin Montgomery, Wanya Moton, Deven Sims, D’Carrious Stephens, Lamarcus Young and Takeem Young.
Safeties: Kahlid Hagens, Joseph Este, Tae Martin, Brandon Anderson, Antonio Clifton, AJ Daniel, JP Fowler, Ethan Lewis and Porter Streator III.
“This unit plays really well together,” said Hankins. “When you have the three returning safeties along with Chris and Justin at the corner position, while adding in Skip (Rowe), we see our secondary as a point of strength. With the addition of role and rep guys like Antonio, Kevin, Brandon and Porter into the fold it makes us dangerous and explosive. Our size and length makes the windows smaller and forces the quarterback to make their throws more precise. The wingspan and length that we have can translate from pass breakups to interceptions.”
UT Martin will put its specialist responsibilities in the hands of veterans with senior place kicker Mitch Mersman, senior punter Brett Arkelian and senior long snapper Jose’ Carballo. The Skyhawks will look to build upon a unit which converted 11 of 18 field goal attempts a season ago while averaging 37.2 yards per punt. Redshirt-freshman Ryan Courtright and newcomer Zane Cox will provide depth at the kicking positions while Mathew Counce serves as the backup long snapper.
Specialists: Mitch Mersman, Brett Arkelian, Ryan Courtright, Zane Cox, Jose’ Carballo and Matthew Counce.
“We are excited to return veterans on our special teams,” said Simpson. “While Mitch is still coming off an injury, we look for him and Brett to put us in a good place to be successful. Conversely, on the return side, we are excited to have Londell and Tae back in the mix while adding Skip and Logan into the fold.”