published Friday, August 1st, 2014

Rayl, McMillan thrilled to be on field again for Mocs

UTC defensive lineman Zack Rayl performs drills during a 2011 practice at Scrappy Moore Field.
UTC defensive lineman Zack Rayl performs drills during a 2011 practice at Scrappy Moore Field.
Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The braces hugging both their right knees, worn mostly for precaution, are the only reminders.

There are no more restrictions for Zack Rayl and Vantrell McMillan, both of whom missed all of last season with torn ACLs but have been turned loose now and are eager to regain their spots in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga defensive end rotation.

McMillan, who at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds is lightning quick coming off the left edge, tore ligaments in his knee in a noncontact drill during the second-to-last workout in the spring of 2013. Rayl's injury happened in the final scrimmage of preseason camp, just before last year's opener.

"I heard the pop and knew right away what it was from the pain," Rayl said after Thursday morning's second camp practice of 2014. "I had nightmares about that for weeks, hearing that pop. You hear it and then feel it and it's awful. It was gut-wrenching not to be out there with the guys. Just standing and watching is the worst.

"I tried to stay involved by helping the younger guys in the spring, but you know you want to be out there making plays yourself, so being back out here now is awesome."

The 6-3, 240-pound Rayl, who played quarterback at McMinn Central, now chases Southern Conference quarterbacks. In 2012, he had 22 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks and a pair of QB hurries.

"I'm proud of Zach because of his toughness," said Mocs defensive line coach Marcus West. "He's not complaining or babying his knee -- he's toughing it out -- and that's the kind of leadership you expect from a fifth-year senior. He's not the most talented kid, but I bet he's the toughest, and I love what he brings to that position.

"Vantrell is a freak. He's the next special one on the defensive line, mark my words. I'm such a believer in him and we're starting to see some shots of what he was bringing before he was hurt. It's like a baby going from crawling to walking, and once he feels completely confident in it mentally, he's going to cause people problems."

It's been two years since McMillan, who redshirted in 2012, was in a live game, and that was as an all-state pass rusher at Monroe High in Albany, Ga., where he had 10 sacks as a senior. But in only his second day back in the defensive line competition, he has shown flashes of why Mocs coaches are so high on his potential. He seems to glide through individual agility drills and has one of the quickest first steps at the snap among a talented group of pass rushers.

"That's a long time to have to wait to get to play in a game again," said McMillan, who like Rayl is a dean's list student. "It wasn't a good feeling seeing everybody else out there during the spring, and I'm by rehabbing by myself.

"I get excited right now just thinking about that first game, coming out of the tunnel and knowing I'm ready to play. I'll be nervous because I've waited so long to play in my first college game, but I'm just going to go out there and ball out -- do what I do best, rush the quarterback and show people what's up."

There is a neck-and-neck competition across the defensive line, which is widely considered the strength of a defense that led the conference in total defense and scoring defense last season. Rayl and spring game MVP Keionta Davis are battling for the starting nod at right end, while McMillan is backing up two-time All-American Davis Tull at left end and looking to play as many snaps as possible.

"We really don't have anything set there yet," head coach Russ Huesman said. "There's a lot of competition going on there, and we're going to play four tackles and four ends to keep them all fresh. When you feel good about three or four of them at each position, like we do, now you've got a lot you can do to keep them fresh and make it tougher on the offense.

"Zack was a starter when he went down and he's played a lot of football for us, so we know what he brings. Vantrell is an explosive player. He can run really well and do all the things we like our ends to do. I'm like everybody else out here, excited to have them back, and I expect both of them to contribute a lot for us this year."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

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