In one way, the road to Frisco starts today for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team.
But the journey really began soon after the Mocs lost to New Hampshire in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs last season, a moment of disappointment that bled into winter workouts, spring practice and summer training.
Now, the pads are about to go back on and the Mocs will return to work with hopes of playing in the national championship game on Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas.
After a couple days off at the end of last week, the Mocs have their first official practice for the 2015 season at 2:30 this afternoon at Scrappy Moore Field. The countdown toward their season opener against Jacksonville State at Finley Stadium is at 33 days. Both teams are expected to be ranked in the top eight of the FCS polls when they are released.
Today, The Times Free Press looks at the five biggest questions and concerns as the Mocs enter camp.
1. Will a starter emerge in the backfield?
As many as five players could be in the mix for playing time at running back — junior Derrick Craine, sophomores Richardre Bagley and Shaqualm McCoy, and incoming freshmen Kyle Nalls and Alex Trotter. Craine is by far the most experienced, and he did a good job of spelling 1,100-yard rusher Keon Williams a season ago. Bagley is a quick, versatile back. McCoy earned a lot of work in spring practice and was the leading rusher in the Mocs' three scrimmages. Nalls and Trotter come in highly regarded out of high school.
All five have the ability to be the guy. But it would benefit the Mocs for one player to emerge as the definite top running back, because the Mocs' rushing attack took off in 2014 with quarterback Jacob Huesman's ability to either hand off to Williams in the read option or tuck it and run. Developing a familiarity from the beginning of practice could go a long way to helping the offense maintain that consistency.
2. Can the defensive line maintain its pass rush?
Losing four players — three starters — off the defensive line was a crushing blow, but it was softened because junior Keionta Davis played a lot last season despite not starting, earning second-team All-Southern Conference honors with 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. He'll be expected to be "the man" in 2015, which leaves the other end spot open for grabs. Toyvian Brand chose to redshirt in 2014, and his return for his senior season gives the Mocs a player who has started 23 games in his college career. Josh Freeman mans one tackle position and has eight sacks in his career.
The answer to this question, though, could depend on the continued development of junior Vantrell McMillan, who battled some knee trouble last year but seems primed for a breakout season. If he's not the guy, Brand, D.J. Prather or Tennessee transfer Justin King should be next in line. Defensive line coach Marcus West sets goals for his line, and the sack number is somewhere between 25 and 30 for his group this season. If they can develop the rush, there won't be a dropoff from last season despite the loss of Davis Tull and Derrick Lott, who are on the training camp rosters for the New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans, respectively.
3. Can the offensive line develop depth?
The Mocs return four starters up front, and a fifth lineman — Synjen Herren — who was a preseason first-team All-SoCon selection in 2014 before a torn ACL stripped him of his season. His return will provide the coaching staff with five players with at least 10 starts in their career, but after that the questions begin. Georgia transfer Josh Cardiello comes in as a decorated prospect and will compete for time, but he didn't participate in the spring and today will be his first full practice in pads with the team. Alabama-Birmingham transfer Hunter Kennedy was a part of spring drills and could be helpful. Alex Hooper and Casey Hybarger had solid performances in the spring, but it would be best for the Mocs if they find some additional reliable linemen in case of injury.
4. Will a punter emerge?
It's a very simple question. Last season's starter, Nick Pollard, punted 67 times in 14 games, an average of fewer than five times per contest. His average of 41.7 yards per punt — with 19 punts inside the 20 — helped flip the field at times, but he was a senior and losing him is significant. During the spring, backup quarterback Alejandro Bennifield worked some at punter, but in the spring game, the punting was done by kicker Henrique Ribeiro. The Mocs brought in former Baylor standout Colin Brewer, a Times Free Press Best of Preps first-teamer who averaged 40.7 yards per punt with 21 kicks inside the 20 as a senior in 2014. However, he's more of a straight-ahead punter, and head coach Russ Huesman prefers a rugby-style punt.
5. How high should the expectations be?
As high as can be. Anytime a team brings back a senior quarterback with 22 wins in his career and a lot of skilled players around him, the team should feel good about its chances. Instead of side-stepping questions about preseason conference rankings and potential national rankings, the Mocs are taking them head-on, a sign of their inner confidence. They fought their way through some bad years that turned into mediocre years, which has now pushed them into back-to-back Southern Conference championships, including the outright title with a 7-0 mark in league play last season. There's no reason to believe that, barring injury, they couldn't be in the same position they were a year ago — in the playoffs as one of the 24 teams jockeying for a spot in the national championship.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.