There weren't many holes in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga defense last season. The Mocs ranked second in the Southern Conference and No. 10 in the Football Championship Subdivision in total defense, and they return nearly everyone from the starting unit.
All-time UTC sack leader Josh Williams at defensive end and linebacker Shane Heatherly must be replaced, however.
Linebacker has been one of UTC's most productive and effective positions in Russ Huesman's first four seasons as head coach. And that's not likely to change with rising redshirt seniors Wes Dothard (Mike) and Gunner Miller (Will) leading the way.
Dothard twice has been a first-team All-SoCon and All-America selection and made a combined 182 tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons. When on the field, Miller typically has been effective in his three years as a starter. He has 131 career tackles and 12 tackles for loss.
The former East Ridge standout has recovered from the shoulder stinger that forced him to miss the final two games of the 2012 season, and Huesman said he's never looked better.
"I just think he looks more athletic than he's looked in the past, and I've been really pleased with him," Huesman said last week, before the Mocs took the weekend off. They resumed practice Monday.
The third linebacker spot is up for grabs this spring. Huesman said if the Mocs had to play a game today, rising redshirt junior Muhasibi Wakeel will be the starter at the Sam position. Wakeel is back with the team after being suspended following a January arrest.
"Muhasibi is going to be a really solid player, I think," Huesman said. "Mu's a bright kid and he can play Sam or Mike."
Wakeel is the Mocs' most experienced linebacker behind Dothard and Miller, but he has just 25 career tackles. The first-team repetitions he's getting this spring are the most he's ever had.
"It hasn't been a bad spring, but everything can improve," Wakeel said last week. "I need to work on my explosiveness and reading plays and knowing where I have to be on specific plays."
Among the other linebackers competing for playing time are returning backup A.J. Hampton and Alex Kirby, Andrew Glaize and Nakevion Leslie, all of whom redshirted last season and haven't played a down of college ball yet.
Leslie, a freshman, signed as a safety and served as a scout-team option tailback at times last season. He's been moved to the Will linebacker spot this spring and said he likes the switch.
"I was excited because moving down gives me the chance to play sooner than I would playing strong safety behind D.J. Key," Leslie said. "It started off slow the first or second day, but now I'm starting to catch everything."
New linebackers coach Rusty Wright said he likes what he's seeing from the veterans and the rookies.
"It's a smart and savvy group of guys," said Wright, a former Mocs tight end. "Wes and Gunner have played a lot of football, Mu's played enough to understand the defense and I think the older guys are helping the young guys. It's a good group that works together, and we've got to have some of the young guys step up and give us some depth."
Contact John Frierson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6268. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mocsbeatCTFP.