Grind City Football: Converging paths finally pit transfer QBs Cook, Harris in pivotal OVC clash
By Michael Wallace and Maurice Patton
Grind City Media
Troy Cook and Treon Harris were destined to be on a collision course.
Both are Miami natives. Both were high-profile prep quarterbacks at Dade County public schools in south Florida. And both signed college scholarships to play for two of the Sunshine State’s flagship football programs – Cook at Florida State and Harris at the University of Florida.
Had circumstances worked out differently, their inevitable matchup would have come near the end of the regular season and with, at best, FBS national championship implications on the line. And at worst, New Year’s Day bowl destinations would be determined.
Their paths instead finally converge in Martin, Tenn., on Saturday in arguably the region’s most intriguing game. It’s still a clash of nationally ranked teams – on the FCS level. And it still comes with all the high drama and intensity of just about any other in-state rivalry.
It’s just no longer Seminoles-Gators for these two.
Only now, Cook is a fifth-year senior and second-year starter at No. 24 UT Martin (2-1) after he transferred from Florida State. That’s where he spent 2013 and 2014 buried on the depth chart behind Jameis Winston as the Seminoles won a national title and posted a combined 27-1 record.
Only now, Harris is the dynamic junior quarterback at No. 20 Tennessee State (3-0) after he transferred last summer from Florida. That’s where he started 15 games and accounted for 3,265 yards and 21 touchdowns during a rocky two seasons on and off the field.
Treon Harris (No. 3) has experience in big rivalries after he started 15 games for the Florida Gators before transferring to Tennessee State. Harris has guided the Tigers to a 3-0 record entering Saturday’s game against UT Martin and former FSU quarterback Troy Cook. - Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Only now, at stake for both talented transplants is the inside lane to an Ohio Valley Conference title.
“The crowds aren’t as big, so you have to kind of bring your own hype and your own energy,” Cook cracked as he compared big rivalry games from the FBS to FCS level. “I always love football, so I can play whether it’s one person watching or 50,000. But the opportunity is you’re playing football. You’re still in college and have an opportunity to go out and do what you love every day.”
Either Tennessee State or Tennessee-Martin will be atop the OVC standings after Saturday’s opening game in league play. Staying there, though, will be the season-long challenge as both the Tigers and Skyhawks look to knock perennial conference champion Jacksonville State from that perch.
“It’s our first OVC game, our first Sgt. York (matchup) and it’s a ranked opponent,” UT Martin coach Jason Simpson said of the trophy series game between the OVC’s four Tennessee league members in honor of World War I hero Alvin C. York. “It means a lot of great things can happen if you win. But there’s still a lot on the table if things don’t go your way. There’s still a lot of time left before we start talking about a bunch of different scenarios.”
The Skyhawks are looking for their second straight victory over an FCS ranked opponent after last week’s 21-7 road upset against then-No. 15 Chattanooga. That win, coupled with a strong showing the previous week in a loss at FBS-level Ole Miss, thrusted UT Martin into the Top-25 for the first time since 2013.
Meanwhile, TSU has started 3-0 for a second straight season after a 24-13 win over Florida A&M in the Tampa Classic, and owns its highest ranking in the poll since 2014. For those reasons, it’s not too early to make a case for both of these squads as potential OVC frontrunners.
That’s especially the case after they emerged from the conference’s media day with UT Martin (second) and TSU (third) picked to finish behind Jacksonville State.
“I know we’ve got a lot of fight in our team,” said TSU coach Rod Reed, whose team made an early statement with its 17-10 season-opening win over Georgia State for the Tigers’ first victory against an FBS foe in more than 30 years. “There’s going to be adversity. We’ve got to fight through that. We’ve got to continue to do a good job improving each week. We have yet to play our best game.”
Entering league play, TSU is the only unbeaten team in the OVC. Jacksonville State, the league’s three-time defending champion and owner of a 24-game conference win streak, is ranked fifth in FCS. Before either TSU or UT Martin can be concerned with the Gamecocks, though, there’s the matter of Saturday – where the OVC’s top two quarterbacks will come in with plenty of momentum.
I’m just happy to be able to play football still ... That’s my main goal. UT Martin wanted me and I wanted to be here. And it’s worked out for the best.-- Troy Cook
Cook passed for 183 yards and all three Skyhawk touchdowns in Saturday’s win – UT Martin’s first over a non-conference ranked opponent in four years -- to earn OVC co-offensive player of the week. And defensively, UT Martin held Chattanooga to 150 total yards, including only six rushing.
Harris also received league recognition as OVC newcomer of the week after he completed 14-of-18 passes for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a triumphant return to his home state last Saturday. Harris added 37 yards rushing and keyed an offense that rang up 514 total yards against FAMU.
Basically, the OVC can save on postage and just bring its accolades to UT Martin’s Graham Stadium. Four of the league’s six weekly honorees will face off Saturday in Cook, Harris, UT Martin defensive lineman Anthony Brown (defensive player of the week) and TSU kicker Lane Clark (co-specialist of the week).
Harris admits he’s struggled to find his rhythm with his new team so far this season, and is ranked ninth in the OVC in passing efficiency. But the dual-threat quarterback has made enough clutch plays with his arm and legs to rank third in the conference in total offense at 217.7 yards a game.
Tennessee State quarterback Treon Harris waits for his postgame media session after the Tigers’ season-opening win at Georgia State. Photo Credit: Grind City Media
“It’s a great experience, but a learning experience at the same time,” Harris said of the transition from Florida. “Every day I’m being patient, using practice to get better. At game time, we’ve been off a little bit. It’s a process getting on the same page with my receivers, but we’ll keep getting better each week.”
UT Martin will try to delay that improvement process come Saturday.
Simpson, the OVC’s longest tenured coach, knows it won’t be easy.
“He’s played in the SEC,” Simpson said of Harris. “He’s tough, he competes and he can throw the football. You put that with the preseason player of the year (Patrick Smith) at receiver – he can make plays as well – and you have to pick your poison, because if you cover, he can take it and run.”
Cook knows all about taking an opportunity and running with it. He’s done exactly that at UT Martin to develop into the kind of quarterback he once imagined he’d become at Florida State.
“I’m just happy to be able to play football still,” said Cook, the OVC’s top returning passer from last year. “That’s my main goal. UT Martin wanted me and I wanted to be here. And it’s worked out for the best.”
Likewise, Harris is trying to take advantage of life after his stint with the Gators. With so many experiences in common and factors seemingly drawing them together, it was only a matter of time before Cook and Harris would end up on the same field as competitors.
Through equal parts fate, perseverance and coincidence, that time has come.
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