THE SAFETY NET
The last line of defense for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is in really, really good hands with senior Cedric Nettles and junior Lucas Webb. Both were selected for All-Southern Conference honors a year ago, and this will be their third season starting together. Webb is the ball hawk, with three interceptions returned for touchdowns in his UTC career, which ties the SoCon record. He's also a preseason Lindy's All-American. Nettles is more of a hitter and finished his junior season with a 14-tackle performance against top-ranked Jacksonville State — the Football Championship Subdivision runner-up — in an overtime loss in the second round of the playoffs. There is above-average depth behind them thanks to junior Tae Davis and sophomore Montrell Pardue. The latter started the 2015 season opener against the Gamecocks, and he had a strip that turned into a fumble recovery and a go-ahead touchdown. Davis is like Nettles in that he is a hard hitter who gets to the ball quickly. He also helps out on special teams.
The unit took a hit in May when Dee Virgin, a three-year starter at cornerback, was dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules. That left the group without its most experienced player at the position. It also caused a reshuffling of the projected rotation. Trevor Wright, who has started 18 games at corner, was expected to move to the dime (extra defensive back) position, but has been listed as the starting corner replacing Virgin. Sophomore C.J. Fritz, who had an up-and-down freshman season after missing 2014 with a torn ACL, has a strong spring and could explode onto the scene with his length and athleticism.
Redshirt freshman Le'Vonte Larry was the projected starter dime after the spring. He is a big hitter and was a standout in the spring game. UTC coaches did a lot of work recruiting defensive backs in the offseason, with four of the team's 14 signees in the secondary. Cornerbacks Cortez Davis, Rashun Freeman and Elijah Pankey could contend for playing time immediately, especially with the loss of Virgin, while Jerrell Lawson fits right into the mold of the prototypical UTC safety in that he is big, fast, strong and physical.
Redshirt freshman D.J. Williams. He gained a lot of repetitions in the spring when he was expected to back up Fritz at one cornerback position, and the coaching staff felt good enough about his spring that it had no problem moving Wright to dime. He could ultimately end up as a starter at corner, which would allow Wright to move to dime.
There aren't many to speak of at safety, but there have been some concerns at corner, mainly due to the loss of Virgin. Wright has been solid in both seasons as a starter and Fritz looked a lot quicker and faster in the spring as he continues to gain confidence in his restructured knee, but the Mocs gave up a number of big plays in the passing game last season. They'll want to fix that as soon as possible.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.