All Skyhawk talk about big-time Tennessee outing

All Skyhawk talk about big-time Tennessee outing
Though he estimates “about half” of his current roster was with the program when UT Martin played at both Auburn and South Florida in 2008, head coach Jason Simpson acknowledged the obvious in preparation for the Skyhawks’ upcoming season opener at Tennessee Saturday.
It’s not the same.
“Those were big-time programs, too, but playing UT, it’s different,” Simpson admitted. “So many of our kids grew up watching Tennessee, pulling for them and dreaming about playing for them and running through the ‘T’ at Neyland Stadium.
“So many Saturdays in the fall in these parts revolve around the University of Tennessee football. I think our kids are both excited and anxious for the opportunity to play them and see how they measure up.”
The Skyhawks and Vols play for the first time ever on the gridiron in the season opener for both teams this weekend.
And with an expected 100,000 mostly-UT fans set to witness the debut of new Vol head coach Derek Dooley, mimicking that environment as opposed to the around 5,000 that is an average UTM crowd has been a small part of Simpson’s challenge as he readies his troops for a unique experience.
“We’ve played loud music and crowd noise on the speakers at practice to deal with that aspect, but you can’t really simulate the total atmosphere that we’ll walk into,” the Skyhawk coach said.
“When you add the anxiety, the adrenaline and all of the emotion that our kids will feel, that takes it to another level.”
While there are many unknowns in the Big Orange Nation regarding the product Tennessee will put on the field in Dooley’s first season, preparation for the Vols has been a different type of chore for Simpson and his staff.
Not only has the new UT coach brought different schemes and philosophies with him from his previous three seasons at Louisiana Tech, but the Volunteers have a first-year defensive coordinator in Justin Wilcox, who arrived from Boise State as part of Dooley’s regime.
“We’ve had to scramble for a lot of film from Louisiana Tech and Boise State,” Simpson chuckled, when asked what he expected from Tennessee Saturday. “We have a TV copy of Tennessee’s spring game, but that doesn’t always show a lot.
“It’s one of those deals where we have to prepare for a little bit of everything. We’ve certainly tried to cover all the bases.”
The Skyhawks have some question marks of their own, the biggest having to replace record-setting quarterback Cade Thompson, who set school marks for passing yards, completion percentage and touchdowns last year.
Ex-McKenzie prep standout Derek Carr will get the first shot at the job. Simpson said his new signal-caller was tutored in the offseason in all aspects — including leadership — by Thompson, and that he’s confident Carr can handle the responsibility load of the position.
“We won’t be afraid to call anything in our playbook that we called with Cade with Derek this year,” Simpson insisted. “Physically, there’s very little difference in the two, except that Derek’s maybe a little more mobile.
“I believe when he gets a couple of games under his belt, he’s going to be a really good player for us.”
The coach also said backup Julius McNair — a converted defensive back and one of two nephews of the late Tennessee Titan QB Steve McNair on the team — would also see time at quarterback.
Ohio Valley Conference Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Jason Bey is the centerpiece of a Skyhawk defensive unit that will try to stop the Vols and their own new quarterback, juco transfer Matt Simms.
Simpson, who publicly voiced some concern earlier in the preseason over his team’s lack of energy and focus in practice, saw improvements in those areas at the beginning of this week’s workouts.
“It’s game week. That always makes a difference in everything, especially your mental focus,” he insisted. “We had a really good practice Sunday night — not perfect — but really good.
“They had the day off Monday which was the first day of classes on campus, and they probably got distracted a little bit by all that entails. I believe that because we’re getting into a routine that we’ll go through every week now in preparation for playing game, it will have them mentally sharp and focused.”
While few give the Skyhawks much of a chance in the contest, Simpson is among that small contingent.
He said not getting overwhelmed early — by either a play made by the Vols or the surroundings — is critical.
“If we can get to the fourth quarter and make it a possession game, anything can happen,” the UT Martin coach concluded. “We were able to do that against Auburn and were tied with them in the second half a couple of years ago.
“We can’t get shaken if they come up with a big play or if the crowd gets real involved. We obviously can’t turn the ball over and have a bunch of penalties either.”
That would be something that there’s no preparation for where the Skyhawks and Simpson are concerned.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at mhutch@ucmessenger.com.

 

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