BIG MEN LEAD THE WAY AS GRIDIRON SKYHAWKS ARE PRIMED FOR SUCCESS IN 2016
August 28, 2016
2016 Media Guide
With the start of each season comes a new set of aspirations, expectations and standards for every program. The slate is wiped new, camp is over and it is time to strap on the helmets against opponents from another team.
While the Ohio Valley Conference’s annual preseason poll predicted the University of Tennessee at Martin football team to finish fourth in the quest for the league’s annual crown for the second straight year, the Skyhawks and head coach Jason Simpson know that the squad was just nine points away from winning a conference championship last season. Simpson, who enters his 11th season at the helm of Skyhawks, is optimistic that this team can not only compete for the conference crown but return to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs for the second time in school history behind a potentially potent offensive attack and strong defensive unit.
“Compared to last year’s team, offensively there is more big strike ability,” said Simpson, the league’s longest tenured head coach. “We think we have three receivers who can take short passes and turn them into big plays or can be dominant type receivers. I think the offensive line is more physical and there is more experience and depth at that position than before. The offense certainly has an opportunity to be more potent than last year’s. The question mark comes in the form of knowledge and experience at the quarterback position.”
Surpassing the production that the 2015 offensive unit presented could be a difficult task for the Skyhawks as the team ranked first in the OVC and 16th in the country in third down conversion percentage while ranking in the top-15 nationally in passing offense (11th, 293.5 ypg), red zone offense (13th, 86.8 percent), scoring offense (13th, 35.5 ppg) and total offense (14th, 456.6 ypg). Additionally, the Skyhawks allowed just 10 sacks on the season while leading the OVC in sacks per dropback percentage at 2.27 percent.
“Program youth is a great phrase to describe us,” said Simpson. “Last season we averaged a lot of points and took pride on Sunday when we watched the tape and saw how we executed with limited weapons. This group can put up the same amount of yardage or more, but the execution is going to be different this year. We may see more broken plays and I might have to call the game a little different, just because we have so many players at key positions that are limited in program knowledge of our playbook.”
In order to meet, let alone surpass those numbers, the Skyhawks will have to recreate the production from quarterback Jarod Neal, who graduated after having one of the best individual seasons in program history. Neal completed 246 passes for 3,117 yards and 30 touchdowns along with five games of 300-yards through the air or more in 2015.
With a hole to fill under center, UT Martin will look to senior Marshall transfer Gunnar Holcombe and Florida State transfer Troy Cook to man an offensive unit which isn’t afraid to move the ball through the air. Holcombe joined the Skyhawks during the early signing period while splitting reps with Cook throughout both spring and fall camp. Combined with Cook’s limited playing time in 2015 – completing 11-of-16 pass attempts for 109 yards and one touchdown – the Skyhawks are eager to see what type of leadership and production will translate from the quarterback position with just 40 practices of repetitions.
While UT Martin’s experience might be minimal, Simpson still believes fans will be pleased with the talent at the position.
“Gunnar is very similar to Jarod and arguably makes better decisions in the pass game than he did,” Simpson said. “He’s very decisive of when the ball is snapped and where he is going with it and that’s pretty good. He has an above-average arm and an extremely high IQ despite being extremely limited in this system. He brings a lot of zone read experience which should allow him to seamlessly incorporate some of our packages. Even though he’s not necessarily a runner, he knows how to execute those schemes.”
While there will inevitably be a new starter at quarterback, the signal-caller should feel reassured that he will have a strong pocket to work from. While the offense returns just four full-time starters on offense, three of those come in the form of offensive lineman who ranked amongst the nation’s best in sacks allowed. Losses of All-OVC left tackle Jackson Roberts and right guard Jordan Murphy should be minimal as the trio of Kadarren Bond, Robert Burleigh and Kenneth Crenshaw return at key positions. Seniors Tyrone Patterson and Olandrious Booker will look to fill holes while Jackson’s younger brother Alex Roberts has secured a spot as the team’s starting right tackle.
“With several veteran returners, our quarterbacks certainly have a cleaner pocket to work from and I’ve seen them take the next stride,” said Simpson. “Even when you look deeper to the second line, you have way more experience and depth on that secondary unit than from a year ago. The slogan this year is ‘big men lead the way’ and I certainly believe they deserve that respect.”
Not only will the veteran offensive line keep the pocket clean, but look for the Skyhawks to open running lanes for a deep ground attack. UT Martin will lean heavily on the sophomore campaign of Jaimiee Bowe, who tallied 40 carries for 153 yards and three touchdowns during his freshman season. After suffering a knee injury in the season finale, Ladevin Fair returns for his senior season looking to improve upon his 68 carries for 390 yards and two touchdowns a year ago. Another weapon out of the running back core comes in the form of speedy senior Najee Ray, who tallied 47 carries for 264 yards and two touchdowns along with 11 catches for 150 yards out of the backfield. The Skyhawks also welcome newcomer Marquez Grayson from East Carolina to the fold.
“We have some experience in the backfield with Ladevin and Najee both entering their senior years,” said Simpson. “What we have to work on is being able to find lanes and penetrate along with catching balls out of the backfield. With limited options at the tight end position, we could potentially play with two backs in certain sets. However, if you play with two backs - even if they are some of your better players - they have to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield and block for the other in order for it to be productive.”
After a breakout season from Rod Wright last year resulted in 14 receiving touchdowns – ranking third nationally - the Skyhawks are looking for another player to make a big splash in 2016. Making a mark for himself last year was Caylon Weathers, who tied for the team lead with 62 receptions while tallying 726 yards and eight touchdowns. The junior is looking to build upon that strong season with preseason honors by College Sports Madness.
Other players looking to make a splash are senior receivers Ben Axline and Kyle Kerrick, who both missed big chunks of time in 2015 due to injury. Healthy and ready to make an impact, the two will vie for starting time opposite of Weathers. The addition of transfers Greg McKillion (Memphis), Londell Lee (Phoenix College) and Jack Gammon (Marshall) should provide depth along with youngsters Jaylon Moore, Tyler Eddings and Rodney Williams.
“Right now we are depending on Caylon and Ben to carry a lot of the load this year,” said Simpson. “We have several players like Greg, Londell, Kyle and Jaylon who we know we can get big things from, but we are still searching for their consistency to become a primary target in our pass game. We are trying to find some glue guys in our passing game, which might not begin to take form until Week 4.”
Poised with a loaded slate once again, UT Martin will have to find its stride against one of the nation’s most difficult schedules that features three members of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The Skyhawks will open the season at Cincinnati (Sept. 1) before traveling across the country to the island of Hawai’i (Sept. 10) for a Week 2 showdown. A home matchup against NAIA foe Bacone College (Sept. 17) will serve as the team’s final tune-up before OVC play opens in Week 4 against Tennessee Tech (Sept. 24).
“I don’t know if there is a correct way to prepare for a schedule like we have,” said Simpson. “We basically have to pick a way that we believe in and practice accordingly. We are going to do our best to be as focused and prepared as possible, while giving the guys the ability to have fun. Bottom line is we want to get it into the second half with a chance to win, then get to the fourth quarter with one series to win the game. The first two games can’t make or break our season, but we have to be ready to go by that fourth game when it starts to affect your playoff picture.”
Playing 12 straight games without a bye week, the Skyhawks will then play five games in the month of October at Tennessee State (Oct. 1), against Austin Peay (Oct. 8), at Murray State (Oct. 15), at FBS member Georgia State (Oct. 22) and against Eastern Kentucky (Oct. 29). The final month of the season will see the Skyhawks close out the year at Eastern Illinois (Nov. 5), against Southeast Missouri (Nov. 12) and at preseason favorite Jacksonville State (Nov. 19).
With such a difficult slate, UT Martin will rely heavily on the shoulders of an experienced defensive unit for success. While last season’s defense featured a wealth of inexperience due to injuries which forced players into early action, the team leaned upon the foundation that fifth-year defensive coordinator Jeff Byrd has instilled during his tenure.
“The main thing we talk about defensively is playing with relentless effort,” said Byrd. “You can cover a bunch of mistakes if you just play hard. If you can get them where they are playing hard and lined up where they are doing things correct fundamentally, everything kind of fits together. Part of growing a defense is instilling that everyone has to do their job. The main thing we focus on is doing our job within the scheme – you don’t have to make another person’s play, just make your play.”
“Defense is played with passion and emotion,” Byrd continued. “We talk a lot about doing your job and being linked together. There are so many times on defense when you are put on an island and forced to make a play. After every practice we build a wall of players to show our camaraderie and know that we are all in it for each other. We are only as strong as our weakest link and we have to be together. If we play with relentless effort and win the turnover margin, we have a chance to beat anyone.”
When talking about a defensive philosophy, Byrd reiterated the defense’s simplistic thought pattern.
“We want to make the offense one-dimensional,” Byrd said. “If we can stop the run and make them have to throw the pass, it becomes easier to defend when you know it’s coming and can give different pressures and looks. Defense is not hard if you know what they are trying to do.”
A big part of the defense’s ability to control the air attack comes from a pair of senior linemen in Keith Jones and Damani Taylor. Jones enters his fifth year in the program after tallying 22 tackles - including 3.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks last season. Taylor – a Martin native – enters the season as the team’s lone All-OVC preseason selection after tallying second team and All-Newcomer honors following a breakout season in 2015. Taylor tallied 54 tackles while leading the squad and ranking amongst league leaders with 9.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
“Everything starts with Keith and Damani,” said Simpson. “Keith has been fun to watch grow over the years. If you ever watch to solidify if you are making good decisions, recruiting well and trusting your ability to be patient, let a guy develop and mature on and off the field, then Keith is the guy. He has great ball get off, great strength and really developed into a great leader. He will certainly go down as one of my favorite guys to ever coach. On the other side when it comes to Damani, he has a well-documented story on the type of person he is. Make no mistake about it, they are the two leaders of that defense.”
Fighting alongside the two featured lineman will be junior Jay Murphy who has quickly developed into a unique threat since playing as a true freshman. Joining the fold is the addition of Arkansas transfer Anthony Brown along with program staple Tyler Sweeden and redshirt freshmen Mike Turner and Donald Cofield, Jr.
“That’s got to be the strength of our defense,” said Byrd. “Everything with stopping the run comes from those guys drawing double teams, holding blocks and making sure they can keep people off the linebackers. Coming back with that type of experience and being a lot bigger than we were while gaining size and mobility is key. If you have six or seven guys that you can rotate in without having a whole lot of drop off, you have a chance to make that offense one-dimensional.”
Providing the second line of defense in stopping the run is the play of the linebacker core. Already playing with a wealth of inexperience last season at the position, injuries forced the team’s young depth to the front line. While there was a significant learning curve, players such as Caleb Counce, Kevin Prather, Jr. and James Gilleylen each rose to the occasion down the stretch leading to preseason honors by College Sports Madness. Counce enters his senior year as the veteran leader of the core, tallying 41 tackles – including six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Prather, Jr. started in all 11 games as a true freshman while ranking third on the team with 57 tackles – including 8.0 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Gilleylen also burst onto the scene, tallying 55 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and one interception. Look for Garrett Wall, Julian Thompson-Clay, DJ Simmons and TJ Jefferson to provide depth.
“Counce is a cerebral guy who gets everyone lined up,” noted Simpson. “He makes plays because of his intelligence and works hard on his athletic ability even though he maxes out on everything he’s got sideline to sideline. Gilleylen is the big run-stopper that’s very physical and has great energy and passion for the game. Prather is the most talented of the group – he’s very physical and is the big play guy on the defense.”
“Being forced to play like they were last year is making those guys become veteran players with several years to go,” said Byrd. “That crew is sort of our quarterbacks as we signal everything into them with our plays and checks. Last year, we took some bumps and bruises being so young, but they grew up a lot on the fly. With the defensive line and linebackers, our front-six certainly has the depth that we need. With the number of players we can run into those positions, we certainly feel like that will be our advantage defensively.”
While a lot of depth returns on the first two lines of defense, the secondary poses a different question after losing every starter due to graduation. One player who the coaching staff looks forward to seeing on the field is junior safety Kahlid Hagens, who returns from an injury which hampered him for much of last season. Despite being limited to just nine games and 24 tackles in 2015, Hagens provides leadership and experience to the secondary.
“Kahlid is our leader and our (defensive) quarterback,” said Byrd. “We brought him in as a quarterback but eventually moved him to safety, so he has that mentality to make the checks in the secondary – a lot like those of the linebackers. There are so many pieces that have to fit together, so with the time he has spent at quarterback, his development of leadership and knowing how to get the call and get the guys lined up provides a lot of security for us.”
“Kahlid is a FBS caliber talent and could probably start at quarterback if we needed him back there,” added Simpson. “He’ll be a NFL camp safety that’s extremely long, physical and has great ball skills. If he was able to roam freely, he could tally 10 interceptions a year but he fits a different mold within our system.”
The Skyhawks will turn the reigns of the other safety positions over to junior Tae Martin and redshirt freshman Brandon Anderson on either side of Hagens. Sophomores Andrew Horton-Martindale and Porter Streator III will provide depth at the position. The cornerback slots will be filled by senior Sheldon Dawson along with newcomer Joseph Este. Juniors Justin Jackson and Rakeem Battle will serve as primary backups.
“While there are still some question marks, the secondary is certainly better than I thought it was going to be even though we don’t have a ton of depth at the position,” said Simpson. “Tae is a player that we wanted to start last year and Brandon was a guy we had a hard time redshirting, but both have really come into their own this season. At the corner position, Sheldon has really progressed while Joseph is exactly what we expected him to be as a transfer. Both corners have made a big impact during camp and we look forward to what they will do when the lights are on.”
With loads of potential on both sides of the ball, the Skyhawks are looking to not only meet their aspirations, expectations and standards but add another championship to the record book.