By KEVIN WEAKS
UT Martin’s spring season officially ended at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The off-season began exactly 26 hours later.
Skyhawk football head coach Jason Simpson wants a solid bridge built between the 15-day spring practice session, which ended with the Orange and Blue Game on Saturday, and the beginning of fall practice in a little over three months.
The building process began immediately with a team meeting Sunday afternoon.
“Everybody in the country had spring ball, and everybody feels good about spring practice,” Simpson said. “But, now what will we do the rest of April, May, June and July before we come back out for camp as far as guys sacrificing, being here in the summer, dedicating themselves. That’s where you separate yourself so you can steal a game or two in the upcoming year.”
There was a lot to do in the three weeks worth of practice sessions, beginning on defense where Jeff Byrd joins the staff as defensive coordinator.
“We have the same staff on defense except for our defensive coordinator,” Simpson said. “What I like about coach Byrd is that he really teaches his coaches well and teaches his players. There’s a lot of chemistry in that room, and the players really love playing for him.”
While Simpson can’t simply say the mission was accomplished, he does feel that side of the ball is a lot closer to making a successful transition.
“Defensively, I’m very excited about our growth,” Simpson said. “We have a new scheme and had 15 practices to put it in, but I’m very excited about the athleticism, the enthusiasm we played with and the tempo.
“We gave up a couple of big plays that we have to tighten up on, but overall I thought we made some big strides.”
In a controlled scrimmage where the first-team and second-team offensive units finished with 24 points each against their defensive counterparts — and both defenses recorded a safety for a 26-all final score — scoring plays included passes of 33, 60, 14 and 18 yards and a run of 32 yards. The first offensive score did not come until 40 minutes into the 90-minute session.
Senior quarterback Derek Carr started the scoring with a 32-yard strike to Dylan David for the first-teamers. Trent Garland came right back for the second group with a 33-yard TD run three plays later.
DJ McNeil had a one-yard TD run, and Carr hit Corey Jordan with an 80-yard scoring strike for the starters, while Jarod Neal found Bobby Ellis for a 14-yard TD pass and Tyler Rice connected with Rodrigues Wright for an 18-yard score.
Each team also had a field goal.
“Offensively, Jarod Neal made some strides as back-up quarterback,” Simpson said. “Tevin Barksdale had a very good spring. Jeremy Butler (wide receiver) really opened up some eyes. On defense, it was good to see some of those linebackers — Julius (McNair), Ben Johnson, and having Jett Howard back out here made a big impact as well.”
Simpson will bring a veteran team into fall practice in preparation for the 2012 season, which begins Sept. 1 at Memphis. He hopes their experience and maturity will provide the edge missing from last season, when UTM posted a 5-6 record, five of those losses decided by a total of 19 points.
“You’re looking at a team with 18 seniors, and 10 are fifth-year guys, so we have guys who have been through wars,” Simpson said. “They know how to act, how to prepare. The things we have to strive for is to understand you can’t just roll out here on Saturday and play because you’re a fifth-year guy. And, that’s one thing I think they understand.”
UTM’s squad will grow by more than two dozen players in the fall as the recruiting class bolsters the roster. Several of those players attended the spring game, and Simpson liked what he saw.
“It was good to see them here,” the head coach said. “It’s a good looking group. I hope they saw the tempo and dedication our players have. I’m very excited about our future with this group coming in.”
Sports reporter Kevin Weaks can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 4.16.12