Having spent the first two days of spring practice working out in shorts and helmets, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team ratcheted things up a notch Friday evening by going out in full pads. And even without any heavy contact, the excitement level among players and coaches was noticeably raised also.
Coach Russ Huesman said the plan is to amp up the workload a bit more for this morning's practice, when the Mocs will go live for about 16-18 plays.
"I think the big thing is when you put the pads on, whether you're tackling, which we didn't do today, or just out there going through plays, it lets these guys play a little freer," Huesman said. "You don't cringe like you do when you're not wearing pads. It's just another step as we progress into spring, but it's definitely way better for everybody when you've got pads on."
Besides individual and group workouts, the Mocs did have a short round of one-on-one drills early on, with the defense setting the tone.
"You want to get your name called in those one-on-one matchups so you can show everybody what you've got," said senior defensive end Toyvian Brand. "That felt great because we've all been anticipating this moment all during offseason workouts, just waiting and getting ready for the time they let us start hitting again. That's why we're out here. It's fun."
With the defensive line stacked with more depth than any other position on the team, it's also a chance for players such as Brand, Keionta Davis, Josh Freeman and Daniel Ring to solidify their spot,s knowing Davis Tull, Zack Rayl, Derrick Lott and Vantrell McMillan are expected to return to the mix after being limited this spring by injury.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound McMillan redshirted last year after injuring his knee just before the season began. While he is still limited to working out in shorts, coaches have used the term "potential star" several times when describing him.
"The competition on the defensive line is a 10," Brand said. "We've got so many great players out there, I can't even explain how much talent we have there. You know you have to come out every day and show the coaches what we've got and show improvement.
"I'm making sure the coaches see me working hard and what I can do, because you know there are some guys out right now who are really good, and when they get back it's going to be even tougher for all of us to stay in that rotation."
The Mocs return a good corps of receivers, and the competition for playing time at those positions also is heating up as redshirt freshmen Alphonso Stewart and James Stovall continue to show flashes of ability in the early going.
Stewart is a 6-3, 190-pounder from Robertsdale, Ala., who was recruited by FBS programs and had basketball scholarship offers. He made a nice catch on a post pattern covering about 45 yards, using his size to get inside the cornerback and his speed to get behind the coverage before hauling in the pass.
Stovall, the former Bradley Central all-state player who sat out last season after transferring from Navy, also made a couple of plays that got his name called out by coaches, including one across the middle in traffic.
"I've been impressed with a couple of those young guys," junior quarterback Jacob Huesman said. "Alphonso runs really precise routes, and he shows pretty good hands. James Stovall I think has been having some really good practices. I've been impressed with him, too. He looks fast out there and has shown good hands.
"We've got a good group of receivers all around, and it's always nice to have a good rotation of weapons around."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.