published Sunday, August 26th, 2012

UTC pegging its postseason hopes on a stout defense

Safety D.J. Key, No. 20, runs drills during practice at Scrappy Moore Field in this file photo.
Safety D.J. Key, No. 20, runs drills during practice at Scrappy Moore Field in this file photo.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga didn’t have the season it wanted in 2011. The Mocs finished 5-6 and struggled at times offensively. UTC also came up short in tight games, losing five by a combined 12 points.

But the Mocs’ defense emerged as one of the best in the Southern Conference. Statistically, it was the best, finishing No. 1 in the league in scoring defense and total defense.

“It was great. The kids played well last year, and if being No. 1 is a great compliment, then they were getting great compliments,” defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said. “It was a pretty good feat for the kids, and I told them in the first [preseason] meeting, great job, phenomenal, people will still probably pat you on the back in the preseason about last year — but it’s dead.

“We’ve moved on and now it’s a different year and it defines itself differently.”

The Mocs had three defenders voted preseason first-team All-SoCon and a total of five, more than any other team, on the first and second teams. Linebacker Wes Dothard was a first-team All-American in 2011, and he and defensive end Josh Williams have made several preseason All-America lists.

On paper, the defense appears to have the potential to be as good as last season in some areas and even better in others. But potential has to be realized for greatness to be achieved, and head coach Russ Huesman still is waiting to see it consistently.

“I think we’ve got seven really good defensive players, and we’ve got to develop more,” he said after the Mocs’ first preseason scrimmage. “We’ve got to find guys that can make plays. ... We’re talented enough; we’ve just got to improve.”

The defense has improved radically since 2009, when Huesman took over as coach and Fuller became the coordinator. In 2008, during the Mocs’ painful 1-11 season, UTC had one of the worst defenses in the Football Championship Subdivision. That group ranked No. 111 out of 118 in total defense and No. 112 in scoring defense.

Things changed for the better right away, and UTC moved up to No. 28 in total defense in 2009. Senior linebacker Shane Heatherly redshirted in 2008, so he’s seen the defensive lows and highs in his career. He said coaching has made the difference.

“I feel like it’s unbelievable,” he said. “When we get up there in the film room and we’re going over every instance, Coach Fuller breaks it down so easy. It seems tough for the young guys, but once they get into it, things just start clicking. I feel like our scheme sets us up in the best position to make plays.”

One position that should be improved from last season is defensive tackle. The Mocs had to rotate four freshmen — two true, two redshirt — who were learning on the job. That won’t be the case this season.

In addition to that now-experienced returning players, the Mocs will add Navy transfer Chris Mayes, who sat out last season, and Georgia transfer Derrick Lott.

Fuller said the defining characteristics he wants in his defense are speed, depth and playmaking ability.

“Especially on the D-line, that’s where depth really comes in,” he said. “We’ve got good players and numbers right now. This is the first time [UTC has had that] at that position, for sure.”

Asked what it would take for the Mocs to have the best defensive line in the SoCon, Mayes said it boiled down to work.

“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to work to be the best,” he said. “You can’t let anyone just say you’re the best; you’ve got to work for it.”

The same goes for every other position on the defense.

“The bar gets raised and expectations are high,” Fuller said. “We’ve always said [to the players] that the only time we’ll ever have a conflict is when our expectations are higher than yours.”

about John Frierson...

John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...

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