Five questions for the Mocs as preseason practice starts

UTC head football coach Tom Arth speaks to his team at the start of spring football practice at Scrappy Moore Field on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo UTC players take the field for the Mocs' home football game against the Samford Bulldogs at Finley Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The offseason is officially over.

This afternoon at Scrappy Moore Field, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team will hold the first practice of its 2017 preseason camp, the Mocs' first under new head coach Tom Arth.

The first three practices will be split into two sessions, with returning players going in the afternoon and newcomers practicing in the evening. The first practice in shoulder pads is Friday, with the first practice in full pads Sunday.

"We are ready to get camp started," Arth said in a UTC release. "It has been exciting to see the progression of the guys through the spring and summer, and now it is time to mix in the newcomers and start working towards the first game of the season."

The season opener is against Jacksonville State on Aug. 26 at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala. It's a game that will be part of the ESPN Kickoff Classic, a week before the college football regular season officially begins.

With practice starting today, the Times Free Press looks at five intriguing questions surrounding the program:

1. How good can this defense be?

Arth always had good defenses at his previous program, Division III member John Carroll University, ranking either in or around the top 10 in the country in multiple categories. His first team at UTC returns six starters, but a change from a 4-2 front to a 3-4 should maximize the team's strengths - speed, strength on the interior and good, experienced defensive backs - in a multitude of ways. Defensive tackle Derek Mahaffey is primed for a breakout season, and his ability to create havoc in the middle - along with the talent of ends Isaiah Mack and Taylor Reynolds - is going to be important to make things easier on the other two levels as they adjust to a new defense and new coaches. Still, the defense won't miss a beat and may even take a step forward with the additional talent brought in mixed with what was returning.

2. Who's left on the offensive line?

Corey Levin was drafted by the Tennessee Titans. Jacob Revis and Hunter Townson graduated and decided not to play their final seasons. Kennington Cadwell, expected to be a starter, was dismissed from the program in February. What's left is a young, inexperienced line that returns two true starters and only three players - Josh Cardiello, Brian Marshall and Malcolm White - with any starting experience. The unit was pushed around a lot during spring practices, and they'll potentially take some lumps throughout the early part of camp and potentially the season. But there is a lot of talent at the position, and the unit should mesh as the season goes along under the direction of offensive line coach Nick Hennessey and tackles coach Chris Cook.

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3. Which newcomers could play immediately?

Darrell Bridges, who rushed for more 2,000 yards during his Presbyterian College career, has the best chance on offense because he'll probably be a part of some distribution of carries with fellow senior Richardre Bagley. There's a much better chance for newcomers to play on defense, primarily on the second and third levels. Although he's not a newcomer, Hawk Schrider has not yet played for the Mocs and will get a chance at outside linebacker, while Cincinnati transfer Matthew Draper and Syracuse transfer Zack Lesko, both linebackers, could get time on the field. Another linebacker to watch could be freshman Demond Ross. In the secondary, Arizona State transfer Kareem Orr and Nevada transfer Cameron Turner will push three returning starters for playing time.

4. Who takes over at kicker?

Victor Ulmo, a redshirt freshman and Baylor School alum, will get first crack at replacing Henrique Ribeiro, with incoming freshman Jacob Bailey also garnering a look at replacing the two-time All-Southern Conference first-team selection. Of all the significant losses the Mocs suffered after last season, the biggest may have been Ribeiro, who left as the school's all-time scoring leader with 307 points (48 field goals, 163 extra points).

5. Can this team compete for a playoff spot?

Yes. With the SoCon gaining national attention last season by getting four teams in the postseason, the Mocs will be in position for a spot simply if the preseason predictions, which have UTC fourth in the conference, hold true. There will be an adjustment for Arth in his jump to the Football Championship Subdivision, but not one that would potentially cost the Mocs a game. If they play well during their challenging nonconference schedule, they'll be ready for what is expected to be an even more challenging league race. The cupboard is far from bare in Chattanooga, and that will become evident as the season goes on.

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.