Outlook for Golden Eagle success boils down to one word: Depth

Photo: Marcus Edwards catches up to quarterback Clint Brewster for a sack during the team's first scrimmage of fall camp. (photo by Nick Burns)

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The age-old practice of predicting college football success rambled through another talkative summer with lots of discussions about team strengths and weaknesses, schedules, promising signees and quality returnees.

Tennessee Tech is right in the middle of the talk when it comes to picking the favorite teams in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Golden Eagles are picked fourth in the league, and all three teams ahead of Tech must visit Tucker Stadium.

In the preseason Top 25 of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly I-AA), the Golden Eagles received nine votes and are listed among “others receiving votes.”

What does it all mean? On paper, the Golden Eagles appear to be a solid squad in 2010. Coach Watson Brown and his staff are trying to mold a team that featured lots and lots of freshmen the past two years into a championship contender.

In a breakdown by position, Tech has the potential to challenge for a title and a spot in the Top 25. The outlook can be boiled down to one word: Depth.

If Tech’s depth is as good as Brown believes it to be, then season tickets in Tucker Stadium could be the bargain of the year, especially with late-season visits from Eastern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State.

“We need to play well on the road early in the year to have a chance to win the OVC championship,” Brown said. “If we do that, then we’ll be in the hunt when we host those games later in the year. It could make for a really exciting season for our fans.”

Tech has plenty of depth on the defensive side of scrimmage, particularly in the line where Brown thinks his squad can be three-deep at every position. On the other side of the ball, Tech’s strength is in the skill positions where an abundance of talent lines up in the backfield and receiver.

Up front, Tech boasts some of its most talented players in the offensive line, but Brown’s concern is whether there’s enough depth to keep the ball moving. Six of Tech’s linemen have not seen a collegiate snap, and there’s not much experience behind the starters in the interior spots.

Specials teams should live up to its name – special – with kickers, punters and breakaway returners galore.

“We’re as good as any team in the Ohio Valley Conference, but we’re no better than any team in the OVC,” Brown says evenly. “We need to play our best every week to have a chance to win, but if we do that we can win every game.

“I believe that our depth will give us the chance to win every week,” he says. “We might not have the best player in the league at any one position, but taken altogether I think that we’re as good as every team in the league at every position.”

So, the following position-by-position breakdown begins in the offensive line.

Malcolm Jones has been a two-year starter at center, and has been effective in that role. With the emergence of Michael Baker in the middle, Jones was able to move over two spots to left tackle where he is expected to flourish. On the other side, sophomore Hunter Beedle gained valuable experience in a backup role last year and moves into a starting assignment at right tackle in his second campaign. Behind that pair, however, a lot of learning will take place among two true freshmen and one redshirt freshman.  Jacob Hoot is the redshirt, a walk-on last year who has come a long way in his development in one year. The new faces are Nathan Bush and Wes Sherrill.

The strength up front is at the guard spots, where sophomore Slade Adams and junior Scott Schweitzer are listed as the starters. Pass protecting or run blocking, both will be among the best in the conference.  Matt Mercy and Ryan St. John have both seen some action in the past couple years and are primed to step forward after working hard in the weight room. Another option is junior Ben Davis, who made a recent move from the defensive line to guard in fall camp. He has the strength to excel once he learns his new position. Freshman Randall Reeves is also a  guard.

In the middle, the coaching staff saw such promise in sophomore Michael Baker that they moved Jones to tackle. Baker saw some action in 2009, and will start this season with support from junior Ryan Weeks and freshman James Normand.

Also along the front line, Tech’s tight ends will play an important role in 2010. Junior Cory Powers saw a lot of action a year ago and can be effective as a blocker and a pass catcher. Also back at the position is a bigger, stronger Tyler York. Joining that pair are two highly regarded freshmen in Doug Page and DaJuan Brown. In short, Tech is long on options at tight end.

Moving into the backfield, Tech has a good situation at quarterback despite the loss of record-setting four-year starter Lee Sweeney. Sophomore Tre Lamb was on the field quite a bit last year and came into fall camp as the projected starter. Senior Cass Barnes has been a starter and provides another fleet-footed option with experience. Both Lamb and Barnes are dangerous runners who can throw every pass in Tech’s playbook. Junior Clint Brewster is in the same mold, offering a strong passing option as well as the ability to run with the ball. Perhaps the quickest of Tech’s four signal-callers is freshman Darian Stone.

Whether throwing the ball or handing if off, Tech’s quarterbacks will enjoy having tremendous skills at every position in the backfield and at receiver. 

The Golden Eagles appear to be three-deep at all three backs, giving the offense-minded Brown a huge array of options in his imaginative playbook.

The list includes returnees Dontey Gay, Henry Sailes and Zack Ziegler, plus Tremaine Hudson and Demetrous Garrett. Gay was the team’s leading rusher a year ago and Sailes has shown the ability to be a game-breaker in a variety of ways. Ziegler and Garrett are both quick an elusive runners who will see lots of opportunities in Tech’s wide-open attack. Hudson has quietly provided outstanding support and delivered clutch plays time and again. 

Newcomers to the backfield include Josh Perez, Jocques Crawford, Zach Salada, Cory McDonald and Cody Forbes, all of whom have shown an ability to chew up yardage and defenders.

Junior Tim Benford, a two-time all-OVC selection, headlines the receivers with an ability to dominate games. In just two seasons he ranks ninth in career receptions with 98 and he’s knocking on the door of the school’s Top 10 list for career receiving yards, coming into the season with 1,362.

Far from a one-man band on the outside, BEnford is joined by returnees Colin Allen and Alden Olverson plus several new faces. Players coming off redshirt seasons and ready to contribute include Carter Crutchfield and Ryan Tilgman, while newcomers who could impact the passing game include freshmen Cy Ables and Josh Wilson.

Moving across the line of scrimmage, the defensive line could be Tech’s deepest area according to Brown, where his squad could be three-deep. There are six returning veterans listed atop the depth chart at the three positions, plus a handful of new names prepared to bolster the attack.

At the Bear defensive end spot, Charlie Seivers is the starter and could be an all-OVC performer. Jamere Hogue, who has been a bruising tight end the past two years, has moved to Bear and has learned his new role quickly. Also available are J.R. Richmond and freshman Midoho Okpokowuruk.

In the middle, senior Justin Hilliard and Dedrick Miley give Tech two solid performers at the Anchor position. They have help from redshirt freshman Lamar Moore and freshman Jordan Johnson.

It’s the same at the Rock defensive end, where returnees Travis Adkins and LaDarrius Verge headline the list. Redshirt Nick White and freshman Matthew Smith are also showing promise.
Tech’s linebacker positions include inside and outside spots. The outside spots, the Ram and Bandit, feature some of the teams most versatile athletes.

At the Ram, Dwight Evans, Tommi McBride and Barry Lenon all saw action last year while redshirt Christian Padrnos is coming along. At Bandit, Justin Vann has been a playmaker for two years and returns to his starting spot. Marcus Edwards could be the best pass rusher on the roster. Also lining up at Bandit will be Will Johnson, a transfer from Kentucky, and junior Gerel Harlan.

The inside linebacker positions, called the Bull and Renegade, will be a key to Tech’s success. Brown and his staff have developed several outstanding players over the past couple years and that patience is paying off.

At the Bull, senior Kelechi Ordu is one of the most physical players on the squad and is primed for a great season. Matt Moran and Jerry King are also listed at this spot, along with redshirt Sam Miller.

At Renegade, Jake McIntosh has been among the team’s leaders the past two seasons and is another playmaker who just finds ways to make a difference. Joining him are redshirt freshmen Blake Adams, Cory McDonald and Kevin Casler.

Tech’s secondary has stability with another group of returnees ready to shut down opponent passing attacks, including team leaders Dustin Dillehay at rover and Caleb Mitchell at cornerback.

Mitchell has moved to boundary corner from his safety position and has boundless possibilities with his mobility and quickness. Corbin Miles and freshman James Huguely also work on the boundary side.

On the field corner, Richmond Tooley is one of the team’s best in coverage and returns to his starting spot. Dominick Baker and Mauricio Wallace are also talented corners who give Tech plenty of depth.

Dillehay is back at rover where he led the team in tackles and ranked among team leaders last season.  He’s joined by Kedrick Towles, Chris Dickerson and freshman Cody Matthews. Marty Jones is the returning starter at free safety, while Corey Watson has made a move from wide receiver to add depth to the secondary. The safety spot will also see contributions from Taylor Hennigan, another wide receiver who made the move in the off-season, and freshman Heath Dyer.

Tech’s kicking game is in capable hands, beginning with sophomore long snapper Jordan Adams and holder Nick Campbell, who is Tech’s leading candidate at punter. Jason Lennartz is also an experienced punter.

Like punter, the Golden Eagles have two placekickers who can get the job done. Returnee Tim Donegan handled the duties last year as a freshman, and he’s joined by Oregon State transfer Matt Baker.

Kick and punt returns will be exciting once again in 2010, with the likes of Henry Sailes, Demetrous Garrett, Zack Ziegler, Tremaine Hudson, Dontey Gay and Mauricio Wallace all returning after showing flashes last year.