Mocs may turn to Cole Copeland at QB today

Mocs may turn to Cole Copeland at QB today

October 7th, 2017 by Gene Henley in Sports - College

UTC quarterbacks Cole Copeland and Dominic Caldwell (17) talk before the season opener against Jacksonville State in August.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

During the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's first evening football practice of the preseason, Tom Arth was throwing passes to some of his players when one ran by, slapped him on the butt and said, "Coach, let's go. Let's have a great day."

The first-year head coach of the Mocs turned around and saw freshman quarterback Cole Copeland jogging by.

"I said, 'All right, this guy's going to be just fine," Arth recalled this week.

This time last year, Copeland was making plays for Bradley Central High School. This afternoon, there's a good chance the talented 6-foot-4, 200-pounder will play — and possibly start — as the Mocs (1-4, 1-1 Southern Conference) face Furman (2-3, 1-1) for homecoming. The game kicks off at 4 at Finley Stadium

The Mocs' top two quarterbacks on the depth chart, senior Alejandro Bennifield and sophomore Nick Tiano, were held out of practice this week. Bennifield suffered a concussion in the first quarter of this past Saturday's game against Western Carolina, and Tiano with a left shoulder injury in the fourth quarter while trying to fight for extra yardage. Tiano was at practice as a spectator all week, while Bennifield, still suffering from some lingering effects, was present only Thursday.

That makes the primary option either Copeland — whom the coaching staff hoped to redshirt this year — or redshirt freshman Dominic Caldwell, who replaced Tiano and threw a touchdown pass in the 45-7 loss to Western Carolina.

"It's the thing we were least prepared for," Caldwell said of playing last week, "but throughout the week, the coaches prepare us like starters, so it helped a lot when I got in there. I calmed down after the first drive."

When asked if he felt Copeland was ready if called upon, Arth quickly said, "Absolutely."

"He's competitive, he's tough, he's smart," Arth explained. "His teammates respect him, and he's got a real confident way about him."

The philosophy of the coaching staff has been to tailor the offense to the strengths of the quarterback. It's why the offense looked different when Bennifield was at the controls as opposed to Tiano, who started the first four games while Bennifield served an NCAA-issued academic suspension. With Caldwell or Copeland in the game, the offense would probably look different again.

"We have four quarterbacks on the roster that can play at a high level, so we're going to go in there and compete with whoever we play with," offensive coordinator Justin Rascati said. "We're going to work this week and prepare just like any other week. Whoever does play on Saturday, we'll expect him to perform at a high level, and we think they can."

There's a good chance that will be Copeland, who took a majority of the first-team snaps this week and seemed comfortable with the offense, although he made some freshman mistakes.

Never seemingly one at a loss for confidence, he feels prepared if his number is called today.

"Yeah, I do feel ready for it," Copeland said. "It's tough to lose two leaders in one game, but we always preach 'next man up,' so I'm looking forward to it. I think I'm ready to complete the challenge, step in and try to play to the best of my ability, trust my teammates and not try to do too much.

"I look forward to the opportunity if it does come up. 'Next man up' is cliché, but you don't realize it's coming until it comes and it's like, 'Dang, I guess people do say this for a reason.' It just means we've got to be prepared. We're here for a reason, so we've got to make the most of it."

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