Consistent UT Martin seeks next level in OVC

(STATS) – Coach Jason Simpson's first season at UT Martin in 2006 has been his most successful – nine wins, an Ohio Valley Conference championship and a trip to the FCS playoffs – yet it comes with a disclaimer.

“We've had three or four teams since then that have been better than that 2006 team,” Simpson said Monday as he enters his 11th season with the Skyhawks.

While UT Martin hasn't won a title since Simpson's first season, it's been one of the more consistent programs in the OVC. The Skyhawks are 51-28 in conference games and 65-49 overall under Simpson.

“The league has gotten better through the years,” said Simpson, whose team finished third last season and was picked fourth in the 2016 OVC preseason media poll behind two-time defending champion Jacksonville State, Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois.

Simpson has done so well in rebuilding what was once a struggling program that he can return only nine starters this season and be optimistic that his team will overachieve again.

His Skyhawks finished 6-2 in the OVC last year and their only losses were by a combined nine points to the conference's two playoff squads, Jacksonville State and Eastern Illinois.

“I stay up at night and think about that all the time,” Simpson said.

While UT Martin returns only four offensive starters and five on defense, there are other players from the two-deep who also have starter's experience and are ready for bigger roles. The big change is at quarterback, where Jarod Neal won't be behind center for the first time in 2 1/2 seasons.

Either former Florida State signal-caller Troy Cook or Marshall transfer Gunnar Holcombe is expected to be the starter, and he will look to big wide receiver Caylon Weathers (6-foot-4, 207 pounds) as the go-to player.

The Skyhawks have to replace all five starters in their secondary, but have a defensive anchor in tackle Damani Taylor, a Martin native who was selected to the All-OVC preseason team.

“Come to play early,” Taylor said. “Last year, we kind of felt the other team out in the game and tried to win the game. We can't do that this year.”

As they seek to win a third straight Sgt. York Trophy series between the four OVC teams in Tennessee, the Skyhawks have one of the most interesting schedules in the FCS. They are allowed to play 12 games because of a matchup at Hawaii (Sept. 10) and are one of only two FCS programs (joining South Carolina State) to be playing three FBS programs (also at Cincinnati on Sept. 1 and Georgia State on Oct. 22).

It's a challenge, of course, but something Jason Simpson is accustomed to facing at UT Martin.

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OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL=

Voted on by Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors

1. Jacksonville State (16 first-place votes), 128 points

2. Eastern Kentucky, 100

3. Eastern Illinois (2), 97

4. UT Martin, 96

5. Southeast Missouri, 66

6. Tennessee State, 55

7. Tennessee Tech, 45

8. Murray State, 43

9. Austin Peay, 18

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OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=

Offensive Player of the Year – Eli Jenkins, QB, Jacksonville State

Defensive Player of the Year – Darius Jackson, DE, Jacksonville State

Offense

QB – Eli Jenkins, Jacksonville State, Sr.

RB – Tremaine McCullough, Southeast Missouri, Sr.

RB – Devin Church, Eastern Illinois, Sr.

WR – Josh Barge, Jacksonville State, Sr.

WR – Patrick Smith, Tennessee State, Jr.

WR – Brock McCoin, Tennessee Tech, Jr.

TE – Jesse Blackburn, Murray State, Sr.

C – Casey Dunn, Jacksonville State, Sr.

OG – Jessamen Dunker, Tennessee State, Sr.

OG – Garret Baker, Southeast Missouri, Sr.

OT – Justin Lea, Jacksonville State, Jr.

OT – Dylan Cline, Jacksonville State, Jr.

OT – Justin Adekoya, Eastern Kentucky, Sr.

Defense

DL – Ebenezer Ogundeko, Tennessee State, Jr.

DL – Darius Jackson, Jacksonville State, Jr.

DL – Damani Taylor, UT Martin, Sr.

DL – Desmond Owino, Jacksonville State, Sr.

LB – Roper Garrett, Southeast Missouri, Sr.

LB – Joel McCandless, Jacksonville State, Jr.

LB – Seth McDonald, Eastern Illinois, Sr.

DB – Malek Hall, Tennessee Tech, Sr.

DB – Mike Ford, Southeast Missouri, Jr.

DB – Bradley Dewberry, Eastern Illinois, Jr.

DB – Jaylen Hill, Jacksonville State, Sr.

DB – Eriq Moore, Southeast Missouri, Sr.

Special Teams

PK – Lucas Williams, Eastern Kentucky, Jr.

P – Keith Wrzuszczak, Eastern Kentucky, Jr.

RS – Lawon DeBardelaben, Jacksonville State, Sr.