5 questions surrounding the Mocs this spring

5 questions surrounding the Mocs this spring

Mocs return lots of talent, but some questions remain

March 28th, 2016 by Gene Henley in Sports - College

UTC's Alejandro Bennifield is brought down by Furman's Carl Rider, left, and John Mackey at Finley Stadium on Saturday, October 10, 2015.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Quarterback Alejandro Bennifield warms up during the first day of football practice for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Quarterback Alejandro Bennifield warms up during the first...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Turnover on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football roster was fairly minimal this offseason, with the Mocs losing nine seniors and four other players choosing not to continue their careers.

The changes on the coaching staff, however, were something else.

When the Mocs start practice this afternoon at Scrappy Moore Field, five assistants will be participating in their first spring with the team.

A good portion of the turnover occurred as the result of former wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Will Healy being hired as head coach at Austin Peay, because Healy took two more UTC staff members — defensive line coach Marcus West and director of football operations Carter Crutchfield — with him. In addition, offensive line coach Chris Malone took a job with Old Dominion, and Alex Schnitzer left his position as video coordinator.

The new staff additions are Carey Bailey (defensive line coach), Adam Ross (offensive line coach), Rob Spence (wide receivers coach), John Srofe (video coordinator) and Kadeem Wise (director of football operations). Rod West, the team's defensive backs coach, has added recruiting coordinator to his titles.

With so many experienced players returning, expectations will be extremely high this season for a program that has won three straight Southern Conference titles and made two consecutive appearances in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. But there will be a few questions that still need to be answered.

Here are five of them:

1. Is Alejandro Bennifield ready to be "the guy" at QB?

UTC coaches definitely believe that — to the point that they didn't consider bringing in a transfer at the position to replace three-time SoCon offensive player of the year Jacob Huesman. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Bennifield played well in limited time as a redshirt sophomore last season, passing for 139 yards and a pair of touchdowns while rushing for 87 yards and a score. Coaches worked him into the offense as the season went along, and he seemed more comfortable on the field at the end. Now it's his turn to replace the most decorated quarterback in program history.

2. Can the offense's newcomers contribute?

This really only applies to two players — receiver Thomas Richard and tight end Duke Ethridge. The former spent the past two seasons at the University of Missouri before transferring to be with his brother Joseph, an incoming freshman receiver. Ethridge played basketball for UTC the past two seasons, compiling 401 points and 218 rebounds, but he was a talented high school football player who was recruited in that sport by several big-name Division I programs. Of the two, Ethridge — a 6-6, 225-pound senior who will have one season of eligibility on the football field — might have an easier time making an impact, because UTC tight ends combined for one catch last season. However, Richard will have a chance to crack a loaded position group that returns its top seven receivers from 2015.

3. How good can this offense be?

The Mocs return nine starters and plenty of experience. Bennifield will have the ability to look into the huddle and see running back Derrick Craine, who rushed for a school-record 1,251 yards last season; a plethora of receivers with lots of starts among them; four returning starters on the line; and at tight end, either a playmaker (Ethridge or Bailey Lenoir) or solid blocker (Steve Pickren or Malcolm Colvin).

4. Who will fill the gaps on defense?

A.J. Hampton was a starter only during his final season with the Mocs, but he finished with 79 tackles and earned second-team All-SoCon honors at linebacker. His departure looks like the biggest hole on a defense that lost four starters, considering there is no experienced backup replacing him. Junior Dale Warren, who had a solid sophomore year on special teams, is first in line at the "Sam" (strongside linebacker) position, while Tavon Lawson is next after having spent his previous two seasons playing at the "Dime" position in the secondary. Lawson's move paves the way for Le'Vonte Larry — who was impressive in practices last season as a freshman who was redshirted — to move into that secondary spot.

5. Will any players who redshirted last season contribute?

Larry has already moved his way up the depth chart, to the point where he's listed first on the depth chart. That's also been the case with Malcolm White, a 6-6, 280-pound offensive lineman slated to replace Synjen Herren, who started 35 games in his UTC career but was a senior last season. Aside from those two, it seems unlikely — not because the players aren't good enough, but because there's so much quality depth in front of them that it's going to be hard to move into the rotation this season.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.