Housing has been assigned, physicals have been administered and equipment has been handed out. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team now is ready to take the field this afternoon for the start of preseason camp and the first steps toward the season opener at Central Michigan in just four weeks.
The Mocs will work out in helmets and shorts today in what coaches have termed an "acclimation day," and the team will begin practicing in full pads Sunday morning, sprinkling in four two-a-day sessions while taking just one off day between now and their "Meet the Mocs" day Aug. 17 at Finley Stadium.
"The early mornings are pretty bad during camp," quarterback Jacob Huesman said, referring to the 6:30 a.m. sessions. "But I enjoy being with the guys all day every day, because that builds camaraderie. We're looking forward to figuring out some things at practice and it's fun eating all our meals together, but waking up early every day is pretty rough."
Huesman and senior defensive end Davis Tull are the preseason picks for Southern Conference offensive and defensive players of the year and are two key reasons the Mocs also are the early favorites to win the conference and earn a trip to the playoffs.
But there are questions elsewhere on the team that need to be answered before the wave of optimism and expectations can become reality for the program. The answers will start to become clear beginning today.
Here are five of those questions:
1. How will the Mocs handle high expectations?
There has been a seemingly constant stream of praise for the program this summer as several players earned preseason watch-list honors and UTC was the media and coaches' preseason pick for the first time since 1982 to win the Southern Conference. But while all that has built an excitement level around the program unequaled in recent memory, it could also begin to pile pressure on a team that still has questions at several key positions. And remember, there was plenty of buzz leading up to last season's kickoff before the Mocs fell flat in a season-opening 31-21 home loss to UT-Martin. They rebounded for eight wins and a share of the SoCon title, which has again built a level of expectations for this fall. And while coach Russ Huesman is glad to have players recognized with preseason honors, he has made sure to remind the team that the ultimate goal is a playoff berth.
2. Which redshirt freshman quarterback will establish himself as Jacob Huesman's backup?
Both Alejandro Bennifield and Tyler Roberson showed flashes in the spring of being capable of running the offense, but neither surged ahead of the other. One of them needs to take command, since they're just an injury away from getting on the field. Bennifield has the stronger arm, while Roberson is the better runner and both showed playmaking ability at times in the spring. Bennifield seemed to be a step ahead in the competition and was working with the second team by the final week of spring, but there were also enough misreads and mistakes to keep the competition unsettled.
"That's important," Coach Huesman said. "We'll go through camp and see who emerges. All you can do is compete, get them as many reps as you can and see who we feel comfortable with. They're both talented players but they're going to have to grow up pretty quick. It's going to boil down to who has the intangibles, who does things the right way. It's not just who can sling it the best. You have to run the offense and lead at that position."
3. Can Nick Pollard or Henrique Ribeiro become a consistent field-goal threat?
Pollard is a defensive weapon at punter and the Mocs' special teams as a whole is in good shape, but at some point during the season a game is likely to come down to a clutch field goal, especially considering the level of balance within the conference. While Ribeiro, who sat out last season, has the stronger leg, his inconsistency last spring left the job open. Pollard was a SoCon-best 43-of-43 in PATs and averaged 40.7 yards per punt last season but was 5-of-9 on field-goal attempts and is most remembered for the 31-yarder in overtime that hit the left upright and fell back to the turf in a 17-14 loss at Samford.
"All people see is whether you make or miss a field goal, but there are so many other aspects where I felt we won because of our special teams," Coach Huesman said. "We've got strong enough legs that we can be effective, but we didn't kick field goals the way we wanted to last year. We have to make a higher percentage of field goals."
4. Will an inexperienced secondary be a liability or solidify the defense?
The defensive line is as dynamic and deep as any at the FCS level, and Coach Huesman believes there's enough talent among returners Muhasibi Wakeel, A.J. Hampton, Nakevion Leslie and T.J. Jenkins as well as heralded freshmen Dale Warren and Tim Whatley to fill the two linebacker spots. That makes the prospect of running the ball against the Mocs very difficult and likely means teams will test UTC's completely overhauled secondary, where only cornerback Dee Virgin and safety Sema'je Kendall have any starting experience. The rest, including corner Tolerance Shepherd, who converted from running back, and safety Cedric Nettles must prove themselves quickly because there are four incoming freshmen, as well as juco transfer Jeremiah Hay, looking to grab spots in the rotation. The staff believes Hay, who combined for more than 3,000 all-purpose yards as a prep quarterback in Miami, played one year at Ole Miss and spent last season at Pasadena City Junior College, could nail down one cornerback spot.
"He's still an unknown, but if he does what he's shown on film he can help us," Coach Huesman said of Hay. "We're talented but very inexperienced back there. Virgin and Kendall have played a lot of football for us, but we're going to have some guys who haven't yet, and they're going to have to get going pretty quick."
5. How many incoming freshmen will get on the field and where?
There is enough talent at most positions that true freshmen now are rarely needed to become instant contributors, but the Mocs still are thin enough at a few spots for there to be exceptions, and some from the nation's top-rated FCS 2014 signing class are sure to find their way onto the field. Typically the positions farther away from the ball are the ones easiest for true freshmen to pick up. That combined with the natural ability of running back Richardre Bagley, receiver Wil Young and linebacker Dale Warren make them good candidates to earn early playing time. Bagley and Young didn't look like typical freshmen during the summer workouts and Warren, a three-star prospect who had FBS offers, is another freakish athlete the staff can't wait to see in action.
"It's a good class coming in that we expect to compete and help," Coach Huesman said. "I'm guessing at least five or six freshmen will play this year. Who they are and what position they are will be determined when camp starts."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
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 ...