The on-field version of the Tom Arth era begins today for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Arth was introduced as the Mocs' new football coach on Dec. 20 after former coach Russ Huesman left to become the coach at Richmond. UTC is coming off back-to-back 9-4 seasons, each ending in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at the No. 1 team in the country: Jacksonville State in 2015, Sam Houston State in 2016.
The Mocs lost a number of key players off last season's team, including five who received some sort of All-America recognition.
Here are five questions facing the Mocs as they begin spring practice today:
1. Have the players adjusted to the new coaching staff?
Early returns have been positive about the new staff. The group is young overall — there are more coaches in their 20s than their 40s — and they've proven to be knowledgeable as well as energetic. Arth, offensive coordinator Justin Rascati and wide receivers coach Ryan Aplin played quarterback at the collegiate level, and Arth and Rascati had NFL opportunities, so UTC's quarterbacks will be able to gain a lot of tutelage. Offensive linemen will have the advantage of Nick Hennessey, who also spent some time in the NFL. The style of coaching will be very different than what it was under Huesman, but the new staff has been able to connect with the players in three months, which says something.
2. How will the new offense look?
The Mocs are expected to move to a more pro-style offense, which should suit the skill set of 2016 second-team All-Southern Conference quarterback Alejandro Bennifield, a natural passer. Instead of a single-back set, there will be a hybrid H-back/fullback position involved, which will be a change for former tight ends, but with four of the top seven pass catchers and five of the top seven rushers returning, there's enough experience on the roster that the players should be able to figure out the changes.
3. How will the new defense look?
Well, different. Although new defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman — who has been on staff for only two weeks after replacing Brandon Staley, who left for the Chicago Bears — wouldn't completely commit to what style of defense he was planning to run, there were early reports that Staley was going to switch to a 3-4 defense. Having recruited to that style, the Mocs most likely will go that route. Defensive ends under Huesman are outside linebackers under the new regime, and defensive tackles such as Isaiah Mack and Taylor Reynolds are now defensive ends. Seven defensive players return who have starting experience, with the secondary (three starters) returning most of that experience. It will be the team's biggest adjustment.
4. Who is left on the first two levels of the defense?
The Mocs lost All-America defensive end Keionta Davis and linebacker Nakevion Leslie, in addition to all-conference selection Vantrel McMillan and defensive tackle Justin King, but there's still plenty of talent on the defense. Previous ends Khayyan Edwards, former Middle Tennessee State basketball player Joshua Phillips, whose brother Jacob is a freshman at LSU, and Hawk Schrider now are outside linebackers. Schrider played linebacker as a true freshman at Richmond, so it should be a smooth transition. Derek Mahaffey came on strong as the 2016 season went along and became a key contributor late in the year, so he should perform well in a starting role. The biggest change will be Tae Davis shifting from strong safety to middle linebacker, but it's not an impossible one.
5. How will the running back rotation work out?
Richardre Bagley will get first crack at replacing Derrick Craine, the two-time All-SoCon and 2016 All-American who had 2,997 yards and 31 touchdowns in his career. Bagley rushed for 315 yards and four touchdowns during a two-game span last season in which he started for Craine, who was bothered with an ankle injury for most of the season. Juniors Alex Trotter and Kyle Nalls provided some solid moments when given opportunities, and their roles could expand as the Mocs look for a featured back, but the job will be Bagley's to lose.
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