Players, coaches sign autographs and meet fans
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – More than 1,200 fans streamed into Tucker Stadium Saturday afternoon for the annual Gathering of Eagles picnic and a chance to watch the Golden Eagle football team hold its final scrimmage before opening the season in less than two weeks.
“I really appreciate all the people coming out, and it’s neat for the players to see that kind of support,” said third-year head coach Watson Brown. “It’s good for the kids to see that people really care about them.
“I wasn’t surprised at all about the crowd, because this is really a special time,” Brown added. “This is a neat event for the Upper Cumberland, and when they learn more about it I think it will grow and grow.”
What the fans got to see was the next major step for Brown’s current work in progress. The veteran coach and his staff rested most of their starters for the chance to evaluate the second and third units, the youngsters hoping to make an impact on the 2009 squad.
“We will have a lot of young guys in the ‘twos’ on both sides of the ball,” Brown said. “A lot of freshmen will be backups, and they’ll play. We’ve got to watch the film and decide who will be in the ‘twos’ but I think we’re good enough to play them.”
Starting quarterback Lee Sweeney never strapped on his helmet, watching the entire scrimmage from the sidelines with most of the offensive starters including Tim Benford, Henry Sailes, Cedric Wilkerson, Antonio Robinson and Tremaine Hudson.
The starters in the offensive line got a few snaps, then let the backups fill the trenches. On defense, starters took the field only for the first couple of series.
“I thought the first defense looked good on the first two series,” Brown said. “They played well, they showed some quickness, and I was real pleased with them.”
Among the standouts on defense, junior linebacker Kelechi Ordu made some big plays early in the scrimmage, knocking down a pass at the line of scrimmage and following with back-to-back tackles. Taron Ryce nearly got an interception, while Gerel Harlan blocked a point-after attempt.
The “D” also got big plays from Mauricio Wallace and Richmond Tooley, and quarterback sacks from Kelvin Quarles and Justin Vann. Freshman Barry Lenon, an outside linebacker from Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Ga., made some noise late in the day. He batted down consecutive pass attempts at the line of scrimmage, and made a tackle-for-loss on the same series.
With Sweeney handling a clipboard, that left the signal-calling chores to redshirt freshman Tre Lamb, junior Cass Barnes and sophomore transfer Clint Brewster, and it was the newcomer from that trio whose numbers were the most impressive. After watching Lamb and Barnes run the attack for the first half of the scrimmage, Brewster played three series later in the day and finished 9-for-12 for 107 yards while leading the team on two touchdown drives.
In his first series, Brewster was 5-for-6 for 57 yards, directing Tech 75 yards in nine plays before Jimmie Blair scored a touchdown on a 12-yard run. The only incompletion in the drive was a dropped pass.
Minutes later, after his offense was halted near midfield, Brewster again revved the engine and moved Tech 43 yards in nine plays, culminating in a three-yard burst into the end zone by freshman Zach Salada
Lamb, who started 1-for-6 through the air, settled down to hit 50 percent of his remaining passes and finished the afternoon 7-for-18 for 79 yards. He had one carry for a 27-yard touchdown. He also took the team to the 13-yard-line before coming up empty on a missed field goal.
Barnes directed Tech for five series, leading the team to a field goal on the opening drive and two touchdowns. He was 3-for-5 passing for 30 yards, and also rushed nine times for 40 yards.
“I was a little surprised that he (Brewster) had the best numbers,” Brown said. “He went to the right people with the ball. He’s still got a ways to go, but I think today was the best he’s been in the 10 days he’s been out here. I think I’ve seen improvement from him every day.
“The other two (Barnes and Lamb) ought to know better where to go, because they’ve been out here. I thought Cass and Tre were both very inconsistent, and we need consistency out of that group. That just shows us how important Lee Sweeney’s experience will be. One of those guys needs to step up.”
Blair, a transfer from UAB who moved to tailback just this week, had seven carries for 29 yards and two touchdowns, reaching paydirt from 12 and two yards out.
“I thought he really stood out,” Brown said. “He showed some quickness, but he’s still a little behind on where to go. We still have some issues with the transfers on learning the system, so they will need to work with their coaches. It’s the same with Clint (Brewster).”
Redshirt freshman Ronquez Beech had the longest play of the day, a 37-yard run to the two-yard line to set up a touchdown. He finished with a team-leading 52 yards in five carries, and added two catches for 38 yards, giving him a team-best 90 all-purpose yards in seven plays.
Sophomore Dontey Gay had six carries for 42 yards and two catches for 14, giving him 56 all-purpose yards. Junior Raymond Coleman also looked strong, gaining 30 yards on five carries and grabbing two passes for 21 yards, to account for 51 all-purpose yards.
Salada was a workhorse in short-yardage situations, pounding his way for 10 yards on seven carries, including the final touchdown of the day from three yards out. The Cookeville High School product caught two passes for 19 yards, finishing with 29 tough all-purpose yards.
“Zach Salada looked good,” Brown said. “He’s such a strong kid. He’s going to be a good player. He’ll be the kind of back who can move the pile.”
Another Cookeville freshman who saw some playing time was Taylor Hennigan, who caught one pass for 12 yards.
“Taylor will play for us, and he’ll play this year,” Brown said. “He will play at inside receiver and on special teams.”
With some of the team’s top receivers on the sidelines, Tech spread the ball around to several others pass catchers who are hoping to make an impact. Tech’s quarterbacks combined to go 19-for-35 for 216 yards, and those 19 catches were made by 11 different receivers.
True freshman Colton Billups was the leading receiver with three catches for 32 yards. Six receivers caught two passes apiece, and four more had one catch. The longest passing play of the day was a 23-yard connection between Lamb and tight end Cory Powers. Freshman Zack Zeigler had two catches for 22 yards, and freshman Demetrous Garrett grabbed two passes for 18 yards.
In all, the offense had 453 total yards in 63 plays. Tech gained 237 with five touchdowns on 44 carries in addition to the 216 through the air.
Tech opens the regular season against Pikeville College on Thursday night, Sept. 10, with kickoff in Tucker Stadium at 7 p.m. Season tickets are on sale online at TTUsports.com, at the Athletics Ticket Office in Eblen Center, or by calling (931) 372-3940.
Photos of signing provided by Gerard Harlan (top and
Action photos provided by Thomas Corhern, Cookeville Herald-Citizen.
Top: Cass Barnes. Bottom Raymond Coleman.