Last season's SoCon offensive player of the year, Jacob Huesman, has a firm hold on the starting spot, and for the first time he knows he won't be sharing the job after the dismissal of Terrell Robinson. That leaves the redshirt freshmen to impress coaches before the arrival of talented signee Penny Smith for the fall. Bennifield and Roberson spent much of last season mimicking each week's opposing quarterback while running the scout team, but now they will split snaps to determine a pecking order.
"Jacob will get reps because we need him to stay sharp, but there's no question we definitely want the two young guys to get most of the snaps so we can see which one is ready," Coach Huesman said.
This is easily UTC's thinnest position on either side of the ball. Graduation took two-time All-American Wes Dothard as well as Gunner Miller and C.J. Murrell, and two others left the team during the offseason. That leaves just three players with significant experience at the position, led by senior Muhasibi Wakeel, who is expected to take over in the middle. He is coming off minor offseason surgery to have his knee "cleaned up" and will be joined on the field by junior A.J. Hampton, who had offseason surgery on his elbow, and sophomore Nakevion Leslie. Coaches believe Wakeel, who has played in 34 games, can become an all-conference type player. He showed glimpses of that talent last season when he was named conference player of the week following a 17-tackle game against the Citadel.
How good can this defensive line be?
Without question, this is the strength of the defense, led by All-American Davis Tull, who will be limited this spring just as a precaution. Mocs coaches also plan to keep Zack Rayl and Vantrell McMillen away from contact for the most part, while they continue healing from knee injuries that caused them to miss all of last season. Those injuries, as well as others sustained by Derrick Lott (broken elbow) and Toyvian Brand (shoulder) could have crippled the Mocs up front last year. Instead, however, it allowed former Red Bank star Keionta Davis and Navy transfer Danny Ring to step into key roles, and now the return of each of them, plus Freshman All-SoCon Josh Freeman and talented D.J. Prather and Taylor Reynolds will give UTC as deep a DL rotation as there is in all of FCS.
"We know what Zack Rayl can do, and if McMillen comes back to form, he can be electric at that spot," Coach Huesman said. "The biggest key there is having everyone healed by the start of the season. If that's the case, then we feel real good about what we've got."
Will Nick Pollard continue handling all kicking duties?
The senior did a nice job last season, averaging nearly 41 yards per punt. He pinned The Citadel inside its own 6-yard line four consecutive times, pinned Appalachian State inside its 20 three times and was named SoCon special teams player of the week after setting a school single-game record with a 54.7 yard punting average. He also connected on all 43 point-after attempts but was 5-of-9 on field goals, including a disappointing miss from 31 yards in the 17-14 loss to Samford. He will compete with former Baylor star Henrique Ribeiro, who redshirted last season. Ribeiro has a strong leg but has struggled at times with consistency. Coaches would like to be able to count on both kickers, allowing them to split up the chores of punting, place-kicking and kicking off.
Where will incoming freshmen need to step in?
The good news for the Mocs is that the program has stockpiled enough talent that true freshmen are now rarely depended on to become instant contributors. There are exceptions, especially with such a highly rated group coming in. One of those positions where a true freshman or two likely will play some is at linebacker. Being thin at that position already likely will open the door for playing time for one or both of the Mocs' talented 2014 signees: Dale Warren and Tim Whatley. Warren was a three-star prospect who had FBS offers and is a freakish athlete. Whatley is highly intelligent and should have a firm grasp on his defensive responsibilities. He was also a tackling machine at the prep level each of his last two seasons. Another position where a true freshman is almost certain to see early playing time is running back. Despite having Keon Williams, Derrick Craine and Marquis Green all returning, it will be difficult to keep Richardre Bagley off the field. The mere mention of Bagley is enough to make Mocs coaches' eyes gleam, and the word most use to describe him is "special."
While most football programs enter spring workouts with a level of hope for the next season, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will begin practice riding a wave of optimism unlike any in recent memory.
The Mocs followed an eight-win season that included the program's first Southern Conference title since 1984 by securing the nation's top-rated FCS signing class in February. And Monday afternoon they begin spring practice with a roster high on experienced talent and expectations.
"There's a lot of reason to feel excited and optimistic, but we've got a lot of work to do and it all starts now on the field," Mocs coach Russ Huesman said. "We've had a good offseason workout, but I think everybody is ready to get back on the field and start finding some answers at a few positions and see where we stand going into the fall."
Coaches and players alike aren't shying away from openly discussing the goal of reaching the playoffs this year, and spring practice is the first step in setting a depth chart of players who can achieve that.
With established talent at most positions, the 15 days of spring practice will be used to determine the order of depth, including at quarterback, where redshirt freshmen Alejandro Bennifield and Tyler Roberson will battle to see who earns the backup job behind Jacob Huesman.
"That's a huge competition and should be fun to watch to see how those two guys compete," Coach Huesman said. "Whoever wins the job has to be ready to play at any time. We have a physical schedule, so you never know when you'll need one of those guys to step in."
Keon Williams also returns healthy and is expected to be the top running back option, and the offensive line returns three starters and two other players with game experience to compete with three talented redshirt freshmen.
Defensively, the Mocs expect to be solid up front with a defensive line that, if healthy, will enter the season as the envy of most FCS programs.
The spring workouts will be used to fill in the blanks at linebacker, where graduation took a pair of talented starters, and secondary, where three starters must be replaced.
"We've got a lot of talent in the secondary. It's just a matter of figuring out which of those guys steps up," Coach Huesman said. "Spring is always about finding depth, seeing who you can count on in the rotation. The thing I like about going into this spring is that we've had some really good recruiting classes to build up the talent here, so there's going to be competition at every position, and that'll be fun to watch."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.