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Motivated Skyhawks seek rings

Motivated Skyhawks seek rings

Posted: Friday, August 24, 2012 12:00 pm

By KEVIN WEAKS
Press Sports
UT Martin’s football players are mature and motivated.
Time will tell if that translates into a ring and postseason berth.
If preseason camp is any indication, the Skyhawks might be headed in that direction.
“We’ve had a good camp,” UTM head coach Jason Simpson said. “I feel we’re right on track. In our evaluations at the end of practice each day, we ask ‘Did we get better?’ We’ve had one frustrating day so far, and everything else has been good.
“We have a lot of experience. We have a lot of seniors and juniors who are good leaders, so we’re a mature team. We should have good practices, and we have. That leadership has carried us.”
That veteran Skyhawk team — 40 lettermen, including 15 starters return — will put all the experience to work on Sept. 1 in the season opener at Memphis. UTM will follow that trip with another tough road game against Northern Illinois.
“Those first two games won’t define our season,” Simpson insisted. “We just want to come out saying we played to the best of our ability. We want to improve from the first week to the second and hopefully have all the kinks worked out by the time we start our conference schedule. If we can get better each week, the wins will take care of themselves.”
While Memphis might be the better-known opponent to Skyhawk fans, simply because of location, Northern Illinois likely will be the tougher opponent after counting a bowl win among its 10 victories last season.
UTM will then host Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 13, a Thursday night, before playing eight straight Ohio Valley Conference games.
After posting a 5-6 record last season, the Skyhawks come into the year predicted to finish sixth in the league.
“I always say we’re picked too low,” Simpson said. “That’s just a reminder of how we finished last season; that’s what stock I put into that. They’re always going to vote Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State at the top. But, they’re going to have to come here and beat us if they want to win the league.”
There’s some extra motivation in that sixth pick, though.
“I showed the seniors the highlight video of the 2006 championship team, and the beginning shows the preseason predictions where we were picked sixth,” Simpson said. “And, I think it was two years ago where SEMO was picked sixth and they won the conference.
“There’s only one other person besides me in this building (Bob Carroll Football Building) with an OVC championship ring from 2006. My message to them was that it’s time for the next group to get one.”
Sizing up his squad for the 2012 season, Simpson has been pleased with overall team speed and physical play of the defense and the improvement of a fine-tuned offensive line.
“We’re vastly improved from last year,” the coach said of his defensive unit. “That comes from being older, so they’re bigger and stronger. Our personnel is better on defense.
“Our offensive line is good for several reasons. One, we have a center, Tyler Eady, who has played nearly every snap for two years. We’re bigger at the guard spots with Michael Bryant (6-5, 310) on the right side and John Johnson (6-5, 298) on the left side, so we’re at 300 pounds there. That whole group is fun to be around. They’re prideful and selfless,”
The men up front will have plenty of experience around them, too.
Leading the way is fifth-year senior quarterback Derek Carr, who threw for 2,482 yards last season.
Seniors Jason McNair and Tevin Barksdale, along with junior DJ McNeil, lead a deep running back cast that could get some help from freshmen this fall.
McNair (782 yards) and Barksdale (685) ranked seventh and 10th, respectively, in the OVC, while McNeil scored five touchdowns on his 58 carries.
All-conference wide receiver Quentin Sims is back after catching 54 passes for 712 yards and 10 TD last season.
The Skyhawks will have some parts to replace on offense, most notably receiver Stephen Shiver (657 yards) and tight end Kenny Jones (334 yards and five TDs).
UT Martin should be solid in the box on defense with Tennessee transfer lineman Montori Hughes (6-4, 330) in his second year with the team and former walk-on Ben Johnson now on scholarship after leading the team with 97 tackles from his outside linebacker spot.
The Skyhawks have holes to fill in the defensive secondary and hope converted linebacker Julius McNair can take over one of the safety spots and join a solid, though inexperienced, backfield.
“We did some research and we know that the No. 1 defensive team in this league has only won the conference one time, and that was in 2006 when we did it,” Simpson said. “The other five times, the team with the most interceptions has managed to win this league. We have got to make some things happen at this position.”
UTM returns all-league kicker Cody Sandlin to head up the special teams, but the team will have inexperiened return men. Published in The WCP 8.23.12

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