The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team may indeed be 6-2 for the first time since 1997. Win at Appalachian State for the first time since 1983 this Saturday afternoon and the Mocs will improve to 7-2 for the first time since 1980, when UTC coach Russ Huesman was still a player.
But that doesn't mean the fifth-year coach is feeling as if his team has its first NCAA playoff berth since 1984 almost locked up.
"I still come off the practice field every day with a headache," Huesman said with a grin earlier this week. "But I do think winning like we did on Saturday [coming from behind in the final four minutes against The Citadel] will help our confidence. Just to know we're capable of winning those games."
It's what he's seeing from the players for the first time since he took over the program in December of 2008 that has Huesman's head hurting a bit less between practices these days, though.
"One thing they're doing really well," he said, "is preparing better when we're not around as coaches. We get 20 hours a week with them, but the best teams, teams that are going to compete for a championship, put in extra time on their own. We're starting to see that with this team a little more."
Junior linebacker Muhasibi Wakeel, the SoCon's defensive player of the week after recording 17 tackles against The Citadel, has certainly noticed a change this year.
"We've gotten tighter and tighter," he said. "We've really worked on relationships, become much more open with each other. It's really evolved as the season has gone on."
Offensive playmaker Marquis Green agreed, noting, "There wasn't enough team leadership before. We were depending too much on the coaches. But not this team. Everyone gets along. We all get together now and watch extra film or work a little extra after practice. We've all got the same mindset now. We're all going to do whatever we need to do to get better."
Huesman believes some of this is due to the passage of time, to those who didn't always completely buy in to his system moving on and those he recruited growing more familiar and comfortable with his coaching style.
"Experience is huge," he said. "And we're an old team, lots of juniors and seniors."
Indeed, even with the Mocs' injuries, 15 projected starters for the Appalachian State game are juniors or seniors not counting kicker Nick Pollard. Nine more upperclassmen are listed as second teamers.
Green gives much of the credit to three players -- sophomore quarterback Jacob Huesman, senior offensive guard Kevin Revis and senior cornerback Kadeem Wise. "We talked about how this needed to be our team," he said. "How we had to watch out for each other. Keep your composure. Stay calm. Play the next play. That's a big part of winning."
There has also been more subtle leadership from quiet types such as Wakeel, who said of himself, "I try to lead by example. Don't be late. Don't get into trouble. Things like that."
But the time they're spending together off the field is also paying dividends, a bullish band of brothers intent on enjoying each other's company while attempting to bring home the school's first Southern Conference trophy in 29 years.
"We eat out together a lot after practice," said Wakeel. "We've had a lot of guys go to Hooters [for the food, of course], Jefferson's and Applebee's. This is how it's supposed to be and how it will be from now on."
Added Green, "No other team I've been on here has had more fun or been closer than this one."
Nor has the apparent pressure from a long-suffering fan base to make the playoffs stressed this bunch so far.
"I don't think the pressure is that big," said Wakeel. "Our No. 1 goal all season has been to win the Southern Conference championship."
There is no foolproof recipe for college football success. If there was, everybody would probably be .500 every season. Any Moc Maniac believing Huesman could instantly erase a quarter-century's worth of futility was probably being unrealistic at best and foolish at worst.
Or as Green said, "Hearing [criticism] from a coach or hearing it from a guy who's doing the same thing as you is different."
And at least with these Mocs, different is proving better.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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