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OVC Preview: UTM expecting improved season
NASHVILLE - Tennessee-Martin coach Jason Simpson had some company for the first time Tuesday at the 2008 Ohio Valley Conference Media Day held at LP Field in Nashville.
This is the first year in which players from the nine OVC football teams were part of the media day fanfare, and the third-year coach brought junior quarterback Cade Thompson and senior defensive tackle Ray Williams.
Thompson and Williams are two of the 16 returning starters (8 offensive, 8 defensive) who will attempt to capture UTM’s second OVC title in three seasons.
2007 record: 4-7, 4-3 OVC
Starters returning: 16 (8 offense, 8 defense)
The Skyhawks were 2006 OVC co-champions with Eastern Illinois but were picked to finish fifth by conference coaches and sports information directors after ending the 2007 season in sixth place.
Phil Steele’s College Football Preview magazine picked UTM to win the OVC, partly because of their favorable schedule, according to Simpson.
The Skyhawks will play four of the top five teams from this past season at home.
The OVC coaches poll awarded six first-place votes each to three teams in the closest preseason vote margin in league history. Jacksonville State received 113 total points, defending OVC champ Eastern Kentucky got 111 and Eastern Illinois captured 108.
A major component in the bottom-half finish was a 1-7 start with a young team that dropped five of those games by a touchdown or less.
“I could stand up here and give you a bunch of excuses, but I am responsible for the slow start,” Simpson said.
Simpson employed a two-quarterback system with then-sophomore Dexter Anoka getting most of the snaps while Thompson played a lesser role.
But Thompson, who transferred from South Carolina in the spring before the 2007 season, was the primary quarterback in the Skyhawks three-game winning streak to end the season.
Anoka completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,369 yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. Thompson finished the season completing 65 percent of his passes
Simpson said he has not decided on a starter and that he will “play it by ear.”
“Those two guys are outstanding and are a good luxury to have,” Simpson said. “We will approach camp as which guy will give us the best opportunity to win.”
Whoever takes the starting job will have the four top receivers returning from this past season. Junior Roren Thomas led the corps with 39 receptions for 553 yards and six touchdowns.
The Skyhawks backfield will miss all-time leading rusher Don Chapman and goal-line bruiser Marcus Dawson, who recorded 10 rushing touchdowns.
Chapman finished his career atop the UTM rushing charts with 5,017 rushing yards and is only the 14th player in history to have four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
On the defense, Ray Williams said the defense will be much improved after allowing 30 points per game in 2007.
“Everybody was trying to find their niche last year,” Williams said. “We did not have a lot of starts under our belts, but now we know what our roles are.”
Williams was selected to the All-OVC preseason team along with teammates Thomas and offensive guard Kevin Bannon.
2007 record: 6-5, 5-3
Starters returning: 12 (6 offense, 6 defense)
Coach Jack Crowe gave one reason why fellow coaches ranked his Gamecocks as the preseason favorite - former LSU quarterback Ryan Perrilloux.
Perrilloux transferred to Jacksonville State after LSU coach Les Miles dismissed him from the team in early May for missing class and team meetings as well as a failed drug test.
“He has gained the respect of players in the locker room,” Crowe said.
Crowe said he had many conversations with multiple people familiar with Perrilloux, including Miles and Perrilloux’s high school coach Larry Dauterive.
“Everything that was said about him was positive,” Crowe said. “He just kept making bad decision after bad decision.”
2007 record: 9-3, 8-0
Starters returning: 9 (5 offense, 4 defense)
First-year coach Dean Hood can’t do much better than the undefeated OVC champion Eastern Kentucky did this past season.
The Colonels will rely on senior quarterback Allan Holland and an aggressive defense to repeat as champions playoff participants in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).
Holland was selected as the 2008 OVC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year after tossing 14 touchdowns and 1,990 yards in 2007.
2007 record: 8-4, 7-1
Starters returning: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
Eastern Illinois’ appearance in the FCS playoffs marks back-to-back seasons for multiple OVC teams to make the postseason since 1995 and 1996.
But coach Bob Spoo said the Panthers will face the stiffest conference competition from top to bottom that he has seen in his 21 seasons at the helm.
“Every team has a chance,” Spoo said. “Defense will win the division.”
Spoo has the 2008 OVC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in defensive end Pierre Walters.
Walters will attempt to lead Eastern Illinois to its fourth straight FCS playoff appearance.
2007 record: 5-6, 4-3
Starters returning: 17 (9 offense, 8 defense)
Tennessee State has finished third in the conference in each of the past two seasons.
Senior quarterback Antonio Heffner and senior running back Javarris Williams could improve that finish after combining for more than 3,000 total yards this past season.
Coach James Webster said his team will go as far as its offensive line, which returns four of five starters.
2007 record: 4-7, 2-6
Starters returning: 12 (6 offense, 6 defense)
Tennessee Tech was hit with the injury bug after starting this past season 4-1.
Coach Watson Brown said his team lost three quarterbacks in four weeks, sending his team into a tailspin the rest of the season.
“We were trying to find out who played quarterback in high school,” Brown said.
The Golden Eagles return junior quarterback Lee Sweeney, who threw for 2,292 yards and 17 touchdowns.
2007 record: 7-4, 5-3
Starters returning: 16 (6 offense, 10 defense)
Austin Peay was the surprise of the conference this past season, finishing in a tie for third after being picked to finish last place.
The Governors returned to the OVC in 2007 after spending 10 seasons away from the league.
Second year coach Rick Christophel said his team should be better but his schedule is more difficult.
“We are rebuilding rivalries in the OVC,” Christophel said.
2007 record: 2-9, 1-7
Starters returning: 19 (8 offense, 11 defense)
Third-year coach Matt Griffin said his program has finally built depth, having at least three contributors at each position.
Murray State might have to count on a platoon of players after returning just six seniors.
Sophomore quarterback Jeff Ehrhardt is one the youngest OVC starters but was named 2007 OVC Freshman of the Year after passing for 2,567 yards and a school freshman record 21 touchdowns.
Griffin said linebacker Nathan Williams will serve as the defense’s leader after gaining a rare sixth year of eligibility.
SE Missouri St.
2007 record: 3-8, 1-6
Starters returning: 17 (8 offense, 9 defense)
Southeast Missouri State will rely on experience to avoid finishing in last place as predicted by the coaches.
While its offense sputtered in 2007, kicker/punter Doug Spada boomed punts for an average of 42.5 yards to change field position, earning him an All-American selection by the Sports Network.
The defense will hold its own with linebacker Jared Goodson and twin safeties Marvin and Vincent Anderson.
OVC Media Day: UTM expecting improved season
By Matt Vines, The Jackson Sun