The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team begins spring practice today at Scrappy Moore Field. The Mocs are coming off a 6-5 season, 5-3 in the Southern Conference, and an offseason that included several staff changes, including at both coordinator positions.
Here are five questions facing the Mocs entering the spring:
1. How much different will the offense look under new coordinator Jeff Durden?
The version of the spread offense that UTC ran last season under Marcus Satterfield is similar to Durden's. The blocking schemes are a lot alike, Durden said, but he and head coach Russ Huesman want to get the wide receivers and running backs more involved.
UTC was second in the SoCon in time of possession last season with an average of 32:24 per game. The Mocs tended to play at a methodical pace, which chewed up the clock. Ultimately, Durden wants to see them play a bit faster.
"I think we'll start off [playing slower] to make sure we're getting lined up, and then as we start executing we're going to turn it up a little bit," he said. "You get where you can run two plays in a row fast, and then you get where you can run three, and then you start over. We're going to start slow and finish fast."
2. Will the defense be different under new coordinator Adam Braithwaite?
The Mocs' safeties coach last season, Braithwaite knows the defense UTC ran last season under Adam Fuller. The Mocs have been either first or second in the league in the key defensive categories the past two seasons, so there's little reason for big changes.
Even though the defense only lost two starters, there will be a lot of newcomers on the field. Veterans such as end Davis Tull, last season's SoCon defensive player of the year, and several other multiyear starters will often have limited repetitions so younger players can get snaps and be evaluated.
3. Who will replace all-time UTC sack leader Josh Williams?
For the past two seasons, Zack Rayl has been the Mocs' third defensive end, playing behind a pair of all-conference starters. Now it's the former McMinn Central High School standout's turn.
"He was productive for us last year, and he's a good, good player," Huesman said of Rayl, who had five tackles for loss and two sacks in 2012. "I think he's going to be really good this year."
Also competing for playing time will be two freshmen who redshirted last season, Vantrell McMillan and Keionta Davis. Davis, from Red Bank, was limited on the scout team last season due to injuries, while McMillan more than held his own at times.
Huesman said McMillan "showed unbelievable flashes of being a great one" while on the scout team. Now he has to show what he can do in the Mocs' system.
4. Will lead running backs and receivers emerge?
UTC's leading rusher last season was Jacob Huesman, who ran for 904 yards on 195 carries. The Mocs' leading receiver was part-time quarterback Terrell Robinson, who caught 40 balls for 489 yards; Robinson was also third in rushing with 222 yards.
For the offense to expand and become more explosive and efficient, more players must touch the ball and make things happen when they do.
At running back, UTC returns Kenny Huitt, Keon Williams, Marquis Green (who also lines up in the slot) and fullback Taharin Tyson. And freshman Tolerance Shepherd looked dangerous on the scout team last year.
"We're going to let those guys go with the first unit as much as possible and kind of make them interchangeable, so everybody gets a shot with the best blockers we've got," Durden said.
UTC returns all of its top receiving targets from last year, led by Robinson, tight end Faysal Shafaat (37 catches) and Tommy Hudson (31). None of the other receivers had more than 11 catches. Huesman said it was imperative that more wideouts get involved.
5. What are the Mocs doing differently this spring?
Competition will be a part of just about everything the Mocs do in these sessions. Not only are players competing for starting and backup jobs at most positions, but there will be a regular battle between the offense and defense.
Huesman has determined numerous elements he and his staff will measure during practice, whether the full offenses and defenses going at each other or individual positions, such as wideouts against defensive backs. At stake with the competitions will be end-of-practice sprints.
"There will be a bunch of different scenarios in which they've got to concentrate and compete," Huesman said, "and ... we'll make it where it's kind of a reward or punishment at the end of practice."