How will the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team respond after going 5-6 in 2011? It was the first losing season for Mocs coach Russ Huesman, who heads into his fourth year with a lot of new assistant coaches, a new offense and what should be a very stout defense.
The Mocs battled youth, injuries and the inability to close out some games in 2011, losing five Southern Conference contests by a total of 12 points. Amid some of the disappointments, including quarterback B.J. Coleman's shoulder injury, a star was born in quarterback Terrell Robinson.
The former South Pittsburg High School star was so good running the Mocs' "pro spread" offense, which wasn't set to arrive until this season, that Robinson shared SoCon Freshman of the Year honors despite playing quarterback in only three and a half games.
Here are some of the questions facing the Mocs as practice begins today at 3 p.m. at Scrappy Moore Field:
1. Can UTC's defense be even better than the 2011 squad that led the SoCon?
The Mocs led the league in scoring defense and total defense, and most of that unit is back, led by two preseason All-Americans: linebacker Wes Dothard and defensive end Josh Williams.
UTC was young and thin in some defensive areas last season, such as the line, but that is no longer the case. At every position, the defense has a solid group of returning players and some backups who should be up for the challenge.
In 2011, UTC allowed a combined 91 points in first halves but 126 in second halves.
"We've just got to keep it up," said safety D.J. Key, a preseason first-team All-SoCon pick. "We feel like we're the best defense and we've got to go out there and prove it."
2. How will the new offense perform with Robinson and Jacob Huesman taking over for Coleman and splitting time at quarterback?
The "pro spread" offense works; of that there is no question. Robinson didn't run for 417 yards and throw for 336 in limited action last season solely on his many athletic gifts. That style offense was thrown together at times last season, and now the Mocs and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield have had time to work on the system.
Robinson and Jacob Huesman were both ideally suited to run the spread and both will play this season, though not always at quarterback.
"They're both too good of players that if they're not playing quarterback they need to be doing something to help us win other than standing on the sideline," Satterfield said.
The Mocs got a lot of work done in the spring, but Satterfield has been installing totally new terminology ever since. It was something he wanted to do earlier but couldn't because of the new offensive assistant coaches.
3. Does UTC have receivers who can make the passing game effective?
Marlon Anthony caught 27 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore last season. He was the No. 2 option behind Joel Bradford (53 receptions) and benefited from teams paying extra attention to Bradford. As the top returning wideout, Anthony could be the defense's top passing game concern.
No other wide receiver has more than five career catches, which means there is amply opportunity for one or two players to emerge this preseason.
"I think there will be a bunch of balls caught because of what we do, but I have no idea who's going to catch them," Satterfield said. "I don't care if it's Marlon or who it is."
4. Could the Mocs have the best defensive line in the SoCon?
It's hard to argue with the notion that the Mocs have the top defensive ends in the SoCon when senior Josh Williams was on the preseason All-SoCon first team and sophomore Davis Tull was on the second.
Three freshmen played most of the snaps inside last season - Josh Freeman, Keyon Reed and Toyvian Brand - and should be much improved in 2012. The line also will have Navy transfer Chris Mayes (6-foot-3, 295 pounds), who sat out last season, and Georgia transfer Derrick Lott (6-4, 303).
"We'll be better up front," Huesman said. "If we're not, something's wrong."
5. Which new players will have the biggest impact?
Mayes and Lott could make a big difference on the defensive line, especially against the triple option, while North Carolina State transfer Dean Haynes could play a pivotal role at safety. Elsewhere in the secondary, freshmen Will Johnson and Dee Virgin could challenge for playing time in UTC's nickel defense.
Offensively, one or two of the Mocs' freshman wideouts - C.J. Board, Al Thompson or Tray James - will have a shot at playing right away.