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Published 6:45 pm Monday, November 10, 2008

AUBURN — Auburn had the ball, first-and-10 from its own 34-yard line and nursing a 20-13 lead over visiting Tennessee-Martin when a defensive player forced a fumble that led to a game-tying touchdown.

The player who forced that fumble was none other than Dontrell Miller, a junior safety at UTM and a 2006 graduate of Demopolis High School. Miller also recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter and had a game-high nine tackles at Auburn last Saturday.

Miller and senior defensive tackle Ray Williams (DHS Class of 2005) — who had three tackles at Auburn — have played a great role in Tennessee-Martin’s rise from the doormat of the Ohio Valley Conference to a national playoff appearance. The Skyhawks (7-3 overall, 5-1 OVC) share the league lead with Tennessee State and Eastern Kentucky. UTM lost to Tennessee State 30-27 in overtime earlier this season and will host EKU on Nov. 22.

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At Auburn last Saturday, the homestanding Tigers were able to win their Homecoming game 37-20, but UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson does not believe in moral victories, just what the scoreboard reads.

“I am proud of how hard we played,” he said Saturday. “We will never be happy with just keeping the game close. It’s not the kind of program that we want to be.”

Williams and Miller were both excited about the opportunity to come “home” and play a team the size of Auburn, and were proud for their contributions to their team’s progress.

When Williams was recruited in 2004, UT Martin was on the bottom of the nine-team Ohio Valley Conference, a member of the Football Championship Series (formerly Division I-AA). In his freshman year, Williams saw the team move to a tie for fourth in 2005, a second-place finish and an FCS playoff berth in 2006 and a sixth-place finish last season.

“Most people from my hometown probably don’t get this opportunity,” Williams said of playing Auburn. “It’s a great opportunity to come back home and face one of the better schools in our state.”

Although football players may not list UT Martin among their choices to attend after graduating high school, Williams and Miller have shown that good football players are good football players, no matter where they go.

“Take everything as a blessing,” Williams said of what he would tell high school student-athletes about opportunities away from the known schools. “Sometimes, you may not get that call from Alabama, Auburn, Southern Miss or those other programs. Sometimes, you’ve got to take what’s given to you.

“I know when I was in high school, of course, I wanted to go to Alabama or Auburn, somewhere known. But, I also got on my knees and asked God to give me a sign, and UT Martin was that sign.

“My life’s been stable,” he said. “Martin is a great place for a student-athlete to go to. I know I’m going to graduate next year. The coaches here have really improved my fundamentals. At the college level, everybody’s strong. Everybody’s fast. It’s not like high school where you’re that much bigger than everybody else. So, basically, they developed my techniques and got my fundamentals strong.”

For being a key part in UT Martin’s turnaround to title contender, Williams said he feels really good about his contribution to the Skyhawk success.

“When it got down to the end of the wire on signing day, this is what I wanted,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of a turnaround, because if you’re part of something where you need to build from the ground up, it makes you and your teammates closer. In a way, that’s what happened in Demopolis, and that’s what we’ve done here in Martin.”

Williams was a pre-season All-OVC pick this season, being named to last year’s All-OVC Second Team. He played with a broken hand for most of last season, recording 40 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He ranks tied for sixth on the team with 42 tackles, and his three knockdowns at Auburn brought his career total up to 123 tackles in 44 games.

Miller forced one fumble at Auburn that led to a game-tying touchdown and recovered another fumble, picking up a game-high nine tackles against the Tigers at Jordan-Hare.

He is currently building on an unofficial NCAA record for defensive touchdowns in a dingle season, now with five.

Since it has been rare for teams to garner more than a few defensive touchdowns in a season, it is likely that Miller’s efforts will become the record this year.

“It feels good,” Miller said of the opportunity to play Auburn. “I had a lot of friends and family come, and I had a couple of high school teammates come. It felt good to play in front of them once again.”

Miller also learned more about fundamentals from his UT Martin coaches.

“They sat me down and showed me the small pieces and took it from there,” he said. “They taught me the techniques and the fundamentals of the game.”

Miller is also a defensive leader for UT Martin, ranking second on the team and 12th in the conference with 70 tackles. He was the OVC Defensive Player of the Week on Sept. 28.

“It feels good,” he said of being part of UT Martin’s success. “I came from a program in high school where we won all the time, but it feels good to help turn a program around.”

Miller is also proof that a good player will find a good home, no matter what level of play it is.

“Play hard,” is the advice he would give to high school student-athletes. “It doesn’t matter what the size is; you will always get a chance.”

Coach Simpson had high praise for the boys from DHS.

“Dontrell is tremendous with his play-making ability,” he said. “It is well documented. Our points-per-game average is high, in the high 30s or 40s, and our scoring defense is a big part of that, and he plays a large part in that. He walked on as a true freshman, and has been a part of our change from Day 1.

“He can make plays, and he’s also coachable and smart. He is always where he is supposed to be when he is supposed to be there. He leads by example. He’s a quiet guy — he doesn’t say a whole lot — but he leads with the way he prepares and plays the game.

“Ray Williams was here when I got here,” Simpson said after taking the helm when former coach Matt Griffin went on to Murray State. “I was pleasantly surprised with his size and speed, his quickness and his toughness. He had to play as a true freshman and didn’t redshirt like we wanted to, but he turned out to be all-conference.

“He has provided great leadership on and off the field. He’s a little more vocal. The kids respect his ability for making plays. He gives it an identity and toughness. He played as a freshman, so he’s been through the ways. It doesn’t matter if it’s Auburn or an NAIA team; he wants to win, and he’s proud to play. He also makes good grades, and he will graduate next Christmas (2009).

“Demopolis can be proud to have these players,” Simpson said. “If they have any more like this, we will definitely take them.”

Strong on the field, strong at their position, strong in character. Ray Williams and Dontrell Miller are exciting play-makers on the field and are a great part of UT Martin’s success in the Ohio Valley Conference. They are team leaders, respected by their teammates and coaches.

It’s not enough for them to come home to Alabama. It’s not enough to come play at Auburn. They have the drive and desire to play to win, to do their best, regardless of the opposition. They are two good examples that Demopolis can take pride in. They are our own.