This is the first in a 12-part series that breaks down the Ole Miss Rebels’ football opponents in 2015.
By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
One of the most consistent programs in the Ohio Valley Conference over the last decade has been the UT-Martin Skyhawks, the team Ole Miss opens the 2015 season against.
Under the direction of head coach Jason Simpson, the Skyhawks have won 58 games, a figure that ranks 10th best in OVC history. Simpson, a native of Ellisville in Jones County, is the longest tenured coach in the OVC, a conference that includes Jacksonville State, Murray State, Austin Peay, Tennessee State and Southeast Missouri, among others.
Over the last decade, Simpson, a former player at Mississippi State and Southern Miss graduate, has won 44 games in the league, 24 more than the program had previously won in 14 seasons combined. Last season the Skyhawks were 6-6, with losses coming at Mississippi State (45-16) and at Kentucky (59-14).
UT-Martin averaged 29.7 points per contest last season, and 427 yards per game. Defense was the issue for Simpson’s team as they allowed 342 points (28.5) and almost 410 yards to opposing teams. Last season’s 1,000-yard rusher (Abou Toure) is gone, but the Skyhawks do return their starter at quarterback (Jarod Neal) and six starters overall on offense.
Neal passed for 1,880 yards and 14 touchdowns last season in 11 starts. The fifth-year senior completed 63.5 percent of his passes and only threw six interceptions, while adding six rushing touchdowns. Four of Neal’s top targets are back at wide receiver, including William Tanner, who finished with 38 receptions for 527 yards and four touchdowns.
Trent Gardner is the top returning rusher with 499 yards on 82 carries.
Seven players return on defense, including four in the secondary led by safety Marquis Clemons, who finished with 61 tackles last season. Linebacker Nick Dance is back after making 56 stops and being named to the OVC All-Newcomer Team in 2014.
Cornerback Walter Evans led the Skyhawks with three interceptions last season.
The OVC held its media day Monday and the Skyhawks were picked to finish fourth overall due to 20 seniors on the roster and the addition of transfers from Alabama, Florida State and UAB.