After seven months of drama, coaching changes, transfers, and injuries, the 2010 edition of Big Orange Nation is ready to take the field. Simms is the starter at quarterback for now, and Gerald Williams has made a huge impact at defensive tackle and risen to the top of the depth chart. Their first opponent should be a good sandbox for Justin Wilcox's new look defense. Expect a couple turnovers and the most ambitious Tennessee blitz packages since John Chavis packed his bags for Baton Rouge. The UT Martin Skyhawks are mystery even in their own state. Here are some fun facts and solid info about this FCS school in west Tennessee
Motto: "The Total Collegiate Experience"
Conference: Ohio Valley Conference
Famous Alums: Pat Summitt (Head Coach Lady Vols basketball), Fred Thomas (New Orleans Saints cornerback), William Rhodes (President of AutoZone), Jerry Reese (GM New York Giants)
First college in Tennessee to be desegregated in 1961
Located in Martin, Tennessee (10,515) hometown of former Tennessee left tackle Chad Clifton
The Skyhawk mascot is one of the newer traditions at Tennessee-Martin. Beginning in 1900, UT Martin's sports teams were called the Vols. However, they were greatly in the shadow of the legendary Neyland squads of the 1940s and 1950s and were later nicknamed "Baby Vols." However, in 1971, they changed their name to the Pacer with a costumed horse mascot. The student newspaper, to this day, is still called "The Pacer." In 1995, the mascot was finally changed to Skyhawk. This was to pay tribute to the school's historical roots. During a short period, in World War I, Sky Pilots was the unofficial nickname of UT Martin's football team. Also, pilots were trained at UT Martin during World War II. Finally, according to utmsports.com, red tail hawks are very populous in the Martin area. All these historical anecdotes led to the present day Skyhawks and unisex mascot, Captain.
The UT Martin Vols became an official football in 1953, playing as a small football independent.. Their first game was a 0-13 lost to out of state opponent Itawamba Junior College, and they finished 2-5 in the inaugural season. It took them three seasons to break .500, but they joined the Volunteer State Athletic Conference in 1957. Under new coach, Bob Carroll, they went 6-1 in the VSAC and won their first conference crown in 1960. They also won the VSAC in 1961 and 1962, shutting out in state rivals Carson Newman in the process (33-0). The Vols' first bowl was the Tangerine in 1967 where they defeated West Chester 25-8. Then, UT Martin became wanderers playing in the Mid South Conference before settling down in the Gulf South Conference in 1972, which was a year after they became the Pacers. Coach Carroll retired in 1974 as the winningest coach at UT Martin with 85 wins and three VSAC titles. The Pacers were very mediocre without Carroll and didn't win a conference title until 1988, their last in GSC. They became a D-2 independent before joining the 45 year old Ohio Valley Conference in 1992 as members of Division IAA (now FCS). It took 14 tough years to make it to the top, and they were crowned OVC champs in 2006, earning their only IAA national ranking (13). This was their last championship, but they have only had one losing season under head coach Jason Simpson
Jason Simpson knows the SEC well as he played quarterback for Mississippi St. from 1990 to 1991. He's especially talented as an offensive coach, serving as wide receivers/quarterbacks coach at Jacksonville St. until 1999. Simpson coached Montressa Kirby, the all time receiver at Jacksonville St (7,688) and Joey Hamilton, who played with the Oakland Raiders. He also was an offensive coordinator at Texas St. and Chattanooga until he took the UT Martin job. In 2005, the Mocs finished 14th in FCS in passing offense and had their first winning season (6-5) in eight years. Simpson's first season at the helm of the Skyhawks was a soaring success. He led UT Martin to a conference title, number 13 ranking, and a 9-3 record. This squad finished in the top ten nationally in rushing offense, kick returns, pass defense, and total defense. In 2007, the Skyhawks went 4-7, but Don Chapman became UT Martin's all time leading rusher (5,017), rushing for 1,000+ yards in four straight seasons. 2008 was more successful, and the Skyhawks were ranked 25th in FCS, but Simpson suffered another losing season (5-6) in 2009. Trademarks of a Simpson coached team include great skill position players and good special teams. Jason Simpson has the highest winning percentage of any OVC coach (.574).
After an outstanding 8-4 season in 2008 along with a top 25 finish, the Skyhawks took a step back in 2009. They finished 5-6, partly owing to the loss of four all conference players and FCS All American cornerback Dontrell Miller. UT Martin did go 4-1 at home, including wins against rivals Murray St. and Austin Peay. They were pasted on the road by FBS opponent Memphis (41-14) who the Vols blew out in 2009. Their offense was excellent (27.4 ppg) and was led by the two headed rushing attack of Miguel Barnes and Brandyn Young (1,537 yards 18 TDs). Tackle Joe Gibbs was a great bodyguard for signal caller Cade Thompson (2,546) and earned a tryout with the New York Jets. The defense was very anemic without Miller, surrendering 52 points to Jacksonville St. and 49 to E. Illinois. The lone standout on this unit was linebacker Josh Bey who had 16.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, and 107 stops. This team had great firepower but couldn't defend and make a return appearance to the playoffs. UT Martin had three All Conference players in Gibbs, Bey, and Young. Joe Gibbs was also named Athlete of the Year at Tennessee-Martin.
The Skyhawks put together a nice recruiting class that included seven offensive linemen and former Minnesota tailback Kevin Whaley. Whaley is the crown jewel of his class because he was the second leading rusher for the Gophers as a freshman (367 yards). Most of the players are in state prospects from Tennessee who were too small and light to play for Memphis and MTSU. Some standouts on offense include offensive lineman Anthony Tropps, who was named All State twice and won three state championships at Ft. Campbell, KY and All West Tennessee tailback JoBronski Gilbert who had 83 career touchdowns and led Milan High to the AA state championship last year. On defense, the Skyhawks will feature Missouri All State nose tackle Ryan Isom (280 lbs), who was a two star rivals.com prospect and fearsome linebacker Clayton Smith who had 132 tackles as a senior and was also named All West Tennessee. UT Martin features five players who could play both offense and defense for the Skyhawks. This stellar recruiting lays the foundation for future OVC dominance.
UT Martin had enough NFL level talent to hold their own pro day in 2010. Red zone receiver Michael Hicks (10 TDs) and left tackle Joe Gibbs, who was the road paver for the 2nd best offense in the OVC and an FCS All American attended. Both players signed undrafted free agent deals. Also missing from UT Martin's squad is two year starting QB Cade Thompson (2,546) who was second in the OVC in passing and four defensive starters. The final missing piece is UT Martin's two headed backfield of All OVC Brandyn Young and leading rusher Miguel Barnes (843 yards). The Skyhawks will definitely be a very young team in 2010.
With the aforementioned losses of Thompson, Young, Hicks, and Gibbs, UT Martin must retool on all fronts. Over the spring, redshirt junior Derek Carr has won the starting QB job. He was the backup last year (121 yards) and threw for two touchdowns in an open fall scrimmage. At tailback, All Freshman OVC tailback Jason McNair (292 yards) and powerful two star freshman DJ McNeil will split carries. Also, watch out for Minnesota transfer Jason Whaley, who was a Big 10 caliber back (326 yards) before being dismissed. Three of the top four pass catchers are gone, and the inexperienced Carr must rely on the statuesque Stephen Shiver (6'3" 479 yards), oft injured senior Bryant Milligan (222 yards) and newcomer Chris Thompson. The offensive line has a great 2010 class with players from Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky, converted backup tight end Jeremy Buchanan, and Gibb's replacement two year starter Rodney Irvin who is moving over from guard. This UT Martin offense will definitely not be as high powered as Jason Simpson's previous squads.
Unlike last year's team, which gave up almost 30 points an outing, defense should be the Skyhawks' strength in 2010. The heart and soul of the D is middle linebacker Josh Bey. Bey led the team in tackles (102), sacks (6.5), and tackles for loss (16.5) in 2010. According to Coach Simpson, he is UT Martin's best NFL prospect. Also returning on offense is senior pass rusher Tim Cox (2.5 sacks) who is the only defensive lineman returning. He is coached by a former Ed Orgeron assistant, so UT Martin will definitely bring in the blitz. Jonathan Utley will flank Bey at linebacker, and he can catch tailbacks by surprise too (9.5 tfls). In the secondary, Jett Howard returns to be a hitman at safety (28 tackles). On defense, Bey will be a standout and show he can hang with SEC level players. But the rest of the team with the exception of Brandon and Tim Cox will be tasty meat for new Tennessee quarterbacks Matt Simms and Tyler Bray.
Daniel Lincoln getting his butt handed to him.
Tennessee-Martin had one of the worst special teams in FCS last season. They were 3-8 on field goals (worse than Tennessee) and average a little over six yards on punt returns. Sophomore Cody Sandlin, who only did kickoffs last year, will place kick and add some juice to the weak special teams unit (47 yard FG in fall scrimmage). Handling punts will be the incompetent Joe Hooks (36.9 yards per boot), who must kick the ball away from speedy Janzen Jackson. This game could be the battle between poor special teams as the Vols have struggled in this area in the past.
My prediction for this game is plenty of long runs for Tauren Poole and a 49-7 rout for the Volunteers.