Ask University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman if the Mocs' defense this season has the chance to be one of the best the former defensive coordinator has ever had, and he'll tell you to ask him again at the end of the season.
Huesman knows good defenses and has coached good defenses. He said the best he's ever had was probably one of his at William & Mary in the mid-1990s, when future six-time NFL All-Pro safety Darren Sharper was patrolling the secondary.
The 2012 Mocs finished ranked No. 10 in the Championship Subdivision in total defense, allowing 307.9 yards a game. All but two players are back from that squad, and the 2013 defense has received plenty of attention - perhaps more than Huesman would like.
"Sometimes I think they get a little full of themselves," he said after a recent practice.
Directing them is first-year defensive coordinator Adam Braithwaite. He took over for Adam Fuller after last season, when Fuller left for Marshall.
"We have the opportunity to be better, because we have so many guys that are back and have been in the same system for a long time," Braithwaite said. "It's what you do, not what you've done."
The Southern Conference coaches voted five Mocs to the preseason first-team All-SoCon defense: defensive end Davis Tull, defensive tackle Derrick Lott, linebacker Wes Dothard, cornerback Kadeem Wise and strong safety D.J. Key. Tull, a 2012 All-American and the SoCon co-defensive player of the year, is a redshirt junior while the rest are fifth-year seniors.
Dothard, a two-time All-American already, said UTC's defense has loads of talent throughout, but it starts with the line.
"I think we can be the No. 1 defense, and it's going to start up front," he said. "Those guys, Derrick Lott, he's unblockable. Nobody should be able to block him. You've got Davis Tull, the defensive MVP of the league.
"It's going to start up front with them, and it's going to just trickle back. The big thing is we've got to get our safeties going."
Key missed most of the preseason with a foot injury but is expected to play early in the season, possibly even the opener against UT-Martin. Injuries have forced much shuffling among the Mocs' secondary, and it remains to be seen who will be ready to go when.
Tull's 17.5 career sacks are second in UTC history only to his good friend Josh Williams' 23.5. Surpassing Williams' mark is just one of Tull's goals for himself and the Mocs this season.
"I've got goals in my head," he said. "I don't really want them out there, just because - I don't say I'm going to jinx myself or anything, but a lot of things have to go right for everything to work out in football. A lot of it stems from doing everything right, but you've still got to be lucky."
Luck hasn't necessarily been on UTC's side when it comes to preseason injuries, but a healthy Mocs defense likely won't need much luck to be more than a lot of teams can handle in 2013.
Contact John Frierson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6268. Follow him at twitter.com/MocsBeat.
The preseason all-socon defense had five players from UTC and six from the rest of the league.