It was supposed to be a year of learning for freshman Cole Copeland at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Redshirting was the plan for the 6-foot-4, 200-pound quarterback from Bradley Central High School, with a chance to learn behind 2016 and expected 2017 starter Alejandro Bennifield and to compete with current sophomore Nick Tiano for the full-time job in 2018.
But then came a four-game NCAA mandated suspension for Bennifield for an academics violation, which made Tiano the starter and Copeland the backup. Copeland's redshirt status, in case something happened to Tiano, was in jeopardy until Sept. 30, when Bennifield was slated to return.
And aside from a play in the first quarter of the Jacksonville State game in which Tiano's helmet came off, everything went according to plan. (Copeland went in but forgot the play call, so UTC coach Tom Arth had to call a timeout, which allowed Tiano to re-enter.) Tiano took all the snaps in the first four games, including a 249-yard, four-touchdown performance in the Mocs' lone win, 63-7 over Virginia Military Institute on Sept. 23.
Bennifield came back a week later, so the plan was still intact. Bennifield started the Western Carolina game, with Tiano backing him up.
Then everything changed. Bennifield suffered a concussion in the first quarter on a hit by linebacker Tahjai Watt. Tiano led the team again until hurting a shoulder in the final quarter while fighting for extra yards on a quarterback run.
Uncertain of the status of his two primary quarterbacks, Arth decided to insert redshirt freshman Dominic Caldwell into the game, instead of Copeland.
But last week, as it became clear that Bennifield and Tiano would not be available, Arth placed a phone call to Copeland's father, Brian, who Arth said "understood the situation we're in" concerning the quarterbacks.
"We haven't had a great start to the season, but in reality, who knows what the conference brings?" Arth explained of the decision to play Copeland. "Who knows where we're at when it's said and done? You feel like it's a must-win type of scenario, and in order to do right by the older guys and everybody in the program and what we believe personally, you've got to put the best guy out there to do it, and we felt that Cole was the best quarterback available to play that game, and we put him out there with the intention of doing a great job and getting us a win."
Copeland passed for 317 yards and a pair of scores in the 41-14 loss to Furman, but he also had four turnovers and was "hard on himself" about the mistakes, Arth said. The quarterback position is the most important one on the football field, and with a lack of experience there this year, the team has struggled to gain any level of continuity on offense.
With Bennifield and Tiano both spectators at practice this week, it would appear Copeland will get another chance to start.
"It's tough, especially when you just got a new offense, a new coaching staff and you have to deal with one of the main positions on offense getting injured — two great players in the same game," Copeland said. "It's tough, but we've got our backs against the wall and we've got to build on it and get better each week."
Although Arth wouldn't declare anybody officially "out" for Saturday's game at Mercer (3-3, 2-2 Southern Conference), the Mocs (1-5, 1-2) will be banged up.
In addition to the two quarterbacks, running back Richardre Bagley has sat out this week, as have linebackers Tae Davis and Tavon Lawson and defensive back Markell Boston.
Arth said Thursday he wasn't sure if Bagley would be able to play, while adding he "hoped to have him." If Bagley — who has 654 total yards and two touchdowns this season — can't play, junior Alex Trotter, who had a good week of practice, most likely will replace him in the backfield, with senior Darrell Bridges taking on a bigger role. Trevor Wright likely will return kicks instead of Bagley.
If Davis and Lawson can't go, senior T.J. Jenkins and sophomore Marshall Cooper could be in line to play more. In addition, senior preseason All-American Dale Warren — who missed the first six games of the season — is available and will play.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.