Aug. 3—The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team, which was picked as the favorite to claim the Southern Conference championship recently, begins practice Wednesday at Scrappy Moore Field in pursuit of what would be its first league title since 2015.
The Mocs — expected to be a top-25 team once the official polls come out — went 3-2 in a truncated 2020-21 season, including a 3-1 mark in SoCon play. The team's most well-known players, sophomore running back Ailym Ford and tight end Chris James, didn't play a snap as they recovered from injuries, but the Mocs claimed wins over Wofford, The Citadel and Furman before a 35-28 loss to Mercer in which 21 starters sat and were replaced by 17 first-time starters and 13 freshmen. All things considered, it was a solid performance.
Two days later, the Mocs opted out of the remaining four games.
But that's in the past, and practice begins today in preparation for the Sept. 2 opener at home against Austin Peay, another potential top-25 team.
Here are five questions the Mocs face entering camp:
1. Has the quarterback position been fixed?
The most-important position in sports was shared by senior Drayton Arnold and junior Cole Copeland last school year, but neither really did anything to distance themselves from the other. Now enter Mercer transfer and McCallie graduate Robert Riddle, who was successful in his freshman season in Macon, Georgia under then-Bears offensive coordinator Joe Pizzo, now at UTC. But Riddle has been riddled (pun intended) by injuries, so it's fair to question his long-term health. He could be the answer, but Arnold and Copeland both had good moments last year so this is no doubt the competition to watch over the next few weeks.
2. Could COVID become an issue?
We may want to act and believe that COVID is a thing of the past, but it's still quite possible that the pandemic could play a role in the season (especially with the unknowns of the new Delta variant). We've already seen it at the NFL level, where players have been put into protocol, and we saw it last year when numerous college games at all levels were either rescheduled or canceled (UTC had one postponed that was never made up). The thought was that we'd be beyond this by now, but we're not, so it'll be interesting to see how college football is affected, if at all.
3. Have the special teams improved?
The Mocs' kicking gamelet's just say it was less than stellar. After four-year starter Victor Ulmo graduated in December and left the program, the team was left with a true-freshman walk-on in Skyler Wilson, who didn't perform badly (11-11 extra points, 4-6 field goals) but never fully earned head coach Rusty Wright's confidence. Then you throw in punting, with Arnold sometimes handling duties. Some people have pointed to the return game against Mercer, where the team muffed two punts, but that was a backup and not the normal starter. The team has a new kicker in Arkansas State transfer Aaron Sears, who missed the spring with an injury, and two punters now in incumbent Gabe Boring, as well as Jacksonville State transfer Jason Pierce, who averaged 43.1 yards per punt in 2019. They should be better.
4. Is this team ready for the target?
The only people that were around during the run from 2013-16 — when the Mocs won 36 games, made three playoff appearances and claimed three SoCon titles — are Wright, who was the linebackers coach then and tight ends coach Jacob Huesman, the former All-American quarterback for the Mocs. In the last two years of that run, the Mocs got everybody's best shot because well, they were the best. Since that run the program is 18-21 with only two seasons at or above .500, so while beating Chattanooga meant something because it was a win, it had no national appeal to it. We don't know how good this team is going to be, but the expectation is that it's going to be a team competing for a playoff spot so the conference games will have some added intensity.
5. Are the Mocs good enough to make a playoff run?
The Mocs return all 22 starters from the spring. They have proven to be at least four-deep at running back. Multiple receivers have had moments. The offensive line is solid (for that matter, the all-freshman unit rolled out against Mercer held its own.) Defensively the unit is solid and deep at some key spots. From a talent standpoint, this team has everything necessary to make a run. But the SoCon is a good league with some improving teams — the Mocs have road games at spring champion Virginia Military Institute and Samford, which features preseason offensive player of the year quarterback Liam Welch. The reason expectations are high is partly because the spring team chose to give up a shot at playing in the playoffs (a legit possibility) to be at full strength in the fall and do the same thing. Playoffs HAVE to be the expectation this fall. Anything below that will be unacceptable.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.