After four games last season, the Skyhawk football team was 1-3 and close to, if not, last in the OVC.
What a difference a season makes.
After four games this year, the Skyhawks have done a complete 180 and boast a 3-1 record and are in second place in the conference.
Possibly the biggest improvement made in the offseason was that of the defense.
“The whole defensive line has really improved tremendously from last year to this year,” said defensive coordinator Mark Lister. “Will Grant and Joel Kilpatrick have really stepped up their game and Andre Plummer has continued to play well.”
Leading the defense so far this year is junior linebacker David Gilmore, with 33 total tackles, 19 of which are unassisted.
“[Gilmore] has improved quite a bit,” Lister said. “He still has a way to go, but he’s really come on. He’s the inspirational leader and is 10 times more mature than he even was in the spring.”
Behind Gilmore are four other Skyhawks with at least 20 tackles: rover Jack Greenwood with 24, defensive end Plummer and linebacker Jason Hockaday both with 22, and cornerback Jason Coleman with 20.
“Greenwood is doing a nice job for us, especially with that interception for a score against Central Arkansas,” Lister said. “Hockaday has stepped in and done well for [Markeseo Jackson]. He had a good game at Gardner-Webb. He deserves quite a bit of praise for his stats.”
“Coleman has become the leader that I expected from him,” said cornerbacks coach Matt Wise.
These improvements in the defense have held the Skyhawks’ opponents to an average time of possession to 23:50 per game, which is down nearly six minutes from 2004.
“One of our goals was stopping the run this year, and we’ve done much better at that,” Lister said. “[Against TSU and Central Arkansas] we’ve held the other teams to under 70 yards a piece.”
Although the defense is doing well, as with everything, there is room for improvement.
“We need to get back to our basics,” said linebackers coach Dwayne Wilmot. “We need to make the plays as they arrive, not go out and try and be a hero. If we play assignment football to our abilities, we’ll be good.”
“All it takes is one or two guys to be off assignment wise and that’s a 20 or 30 yard gain. We’ve shown in the past that we can be a good pass defense team. We just need to continue to clean up a few mistakes here and there,” Wilmot said.
That pass defense is one of the biggest areas that the team needs to work on according to Lister as well.
“We made great strides last year; we led the OVC,” he said. “It went from God-awful two years ago, to good. Now we’re back to God- awful.”
Injuries have plagued the defense this season, but it hasn’t stopped the overall quality of play.
A knee injury has kept preseason All-OVC pick linebacker Jackson sidelined for much of 2005. Hockaday stepped in and took over and as Jackson returns to the field against Tennessee Tech this weekend, it is Hockaday who will be out because of a knee injury.
Free-safety and team captain Chad McMahan sat out with a hamstring injury and defensive end Craig Worthen has been gone with a shoulder injury.
“Injuries are part of the game,” said Wilmot. “When those guys get back, the experience that they’re backups have gained will only make us better. We’ll continue to play Skyhawk football despite the injuries because other teams will have injuries, too. You just have to go out and play.”
“As a defensive unit this year, it would be nice to have everyone out there at once,” said Lister. “Hopefully we’ll get that at some point during the season.”
On the other side of the ball, the offense has shown improvements from 2004 as well.
“The biggest thing is that we’re executing,” offensive coordinator Mickey Fein. “We’ve got all 11 guys in right now. You’ve got a senior quarterback, and [Donald Chapman and Taurean Stephens] who’ve been around a little while now and have grown up.”
That senior quarterback, Brady Wahlberg, has put up good numbers so far this season. His passing efficiency after four games is 145.4, which is a league best right now, has made an impressive jump from last years 116.71.
Wahlberg has a total of 705 passing yards for an average of 176.2 per game, and has also picked up 154 rushing yards so far.
“[Wahlberg] is comfortable in what he’s doing right now,” Fein said. “He’s been a starter for four years and has seen everything there is to see on the football field. He has a great command of what we’re doing and he understands the offense. That’s what you need: and extension of the coaching staff and that’s what he’s doing for us.”
Helping him out on offense has been tailback Don Chapman, who currently sits atop the OVC in rushing yards with 536, averaging 134 per game. Chapman also leads the conference in touchdowns and total points with six touchdowns for 36 points.
Last year’s OVC Freshman of the Year also is second in the league in all-purpose yardage with 573.
On the receiving end, junior Taurean Stephens has done well catching Wahlberg’s passes.
“Stephens is our leader outside,” receivers coach Kevin Cahill said.
Currently, Stephens leads all receivers in the OVC with 6.5 receptions per game and was third overall with 300 receiving yards total for an average of 75 yards per game.
Stephens is also second to Chapman’s first in the conference in scoring with 24 points of four TDs.
Behind Stephens is junior tight end Cole Duncan with 155 total yards on 11 receptions. Duncan has an average catch of 14 yards and 38.8 yards per game.
Protecting these guys, the offensive line has shown changes since last season as well.
“[The offensive line] has placed importance on preparation and pushed through the everyday grind to come out and work harder than the day before,” offensive line coach Mike Hayes said. “Most of the O-line has at least a year of experience. They are playing with a tougher attitude, wanting to run the ball and push people around. They really want to finish each game by mashing the ball. Last year, we didn’t have that.”
Sophomore Adam Hansen is leading the line in knockdowns after four games. Behind him is senior and team co-captain Jody Wamble.
Juniors Alex Atkins and Billy Krause are also being consistent game in and game out to protect Wahlberg and the rest of the offense.
“As a unit, we have just played smarter, tougher and harder football than last year,” Hayes said.
Hayes also gave credit to the defensive line for his players improvement. “Since we practice against them all camp and certain times during the week, our play has improved with their’s,” Hayes said. “This is the best D-line I have been around in a long time and they push my guys to be better.”
But, just like the defense, the offense knows that it can be better.
“We need to focus on ourselves and getting back to fundamentals,” Fein said. “Executing and finishing things ... that’s the biggest thing.”
“We always need to work on finishing,” Cahill agreed. “Whether it’s finishing the big catch or finishing the big block to spring a TD. We’ve got to finish.”
“Technique is a huge part of an offensive lineman’s practice and preparation,” Hayes said. “We need to polish up on our run technique and pass protecting fundamentals. We cannot afford to let these two things slip. O-linemen are creatures of habit. I tell the guys nearly everyday ‘We are what we repeatedly do.’”
Looking ahead to homecoming, one thing that all of the coaching staff agrees on is that Tennessee Tech is not going to give up an easy game on Saturday.
“Tech is always a very good team,” said Cahill. “They will battle you for four quarters and showed that last year.”
“[Tech’s] Ship is a speed receiver,” said Wise. “He does athletic things, but I think as long as we do our job and read our keys, we will give ourselves a chance.”
“If we go out and execute,” Wilmot said, “we’ll be able to handle anyone and everyone who comes. The biggest thing is that we have to take care of is ourselves. When you start to adjust and cover individual personnel, that’s when you mess up. They’re a talented group. We have a daunting task ahead of us, but we will do fine.”
The Skyhawks, who defeated the Golden Eagles in a memorable overtime win two years ago for homecoming, look to keep the best overall record in the OVC. Tech is coming off a big 42-21 victory over conference member Murray State last weekend.
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 2 p.m. at Hardy M. Graham Stadium, with various homecoming events to take place before, after, and during the game.