UTC's success in passing game a credit to offensive line

From left, UTC offensive linemen Cole Strange (69), Malcolm White (56) and Noah Ramsey (67) take the field for the season opener against Tennesee Tech on Aug. 30 at Finley Stadium. The Mocs host Samford there Saturday night.
photo From left, UTC offensive linemen Cole Strange (69), Malcolm White (56) and Noah Ramsey (67) take the field for the season opener against Tennesee Tech on Aug. 30 at Finley Stadium. The Mocs host Samford there Saturday night.

A year later, Nick Tiano looks much better as a quarterback in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's system.

Through three games, the same can be said for the Mocs' offensive line.

A much-improved front has paved the way for an offense that has averaged 422.7 yards and 30.3 points per game during the Mocs' undefeated start. UTC and Wofford lead the Southern Conference by averaging 7.2 yards per play.

The Mocs will look to earn their second SoCon win of the season when they host Samford (1-2, 0-1), the No. 17 team in both Football Championship Subdivision polls, at 7 p.m. Saturday at Finley Stadium.

How good has the offensive line been? The Mocs allowed a league-worst 34 sacks last season, but Tiano has been sacked only twice this year. Both occurred in the season opener against Tennessee Tech, making this the first time UTC hasn't allowed a sack in back-to-back games since 2014.

Tiano, a former Baylor School standout who transferred from Mississippi State before last season, ranks first in the SoCon in pass efficiency (174.0), second in passing yards per game (291.0), second in yards per completion (15.3) and first in yards per attempt (10.4).

UTC coach Tom Arth calls the junior quarterback's success a team effort.

"The most important part of pass offense is pass protection, and that responsibility falls on a lot of different people," Arth said. "The biggest responsibility falls on the offensive line, and they've done a very good job of protecting Nick, understanding our protections and communicating with each other the protection schemes, but our running backs have done a great job in pass protection and Nick has done an excellent job of getting the ball out of his hands, making quick decisions and throwing the ball away when he needs to.

"Those three factors combined have really helped us in that area."

The line went through an offseason overhaul, with junior left tackle Malcolm White and sophomore left guard Cole Strange the only returning starters for the position group. They've been joined by three transfers: sophomore center Noah Ramsey, sophomore right guard Chris Barnes and junior right tackle Harrison Moon. The line's depth has improved as well, with senior Luke Schultheiss, junior and former starter Taylor Helton and promising freshman McClendon Curtis among the reserve players who have contributed.

"Those guys up front are doing an awesome job. I feel like we've got the best group in the country," Tiano said. "Those guys work their tails off every day. They're banged up. It's part of football, but they're playing tough, playing hard, and they're doing a great job for us."

Tiano said communication with the line has been key, adding that "as long as we're on the same page, we're going to get in the right protection and get it done."

The challenge against Samford could be the toughest of the season. In addition to senior quarterback Devlin Hodges, the preseason SoCon offensive player of the year, Samford also features defensive lineman Ahmad Gooden, who was the league's defensive player of the year in 2017, when he had 101 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss.

Gooden is off to a slow start this season, but he did have six tackles and a sack against Florida State on Sept. 8.

"It's going to be extremely important for us to be our best this week," Strange said. "Nick has been doing incredible. It shows why he was so highly recruited out of high school. Last year he didn't play as well, but it's kind of hard for him to play well when someone is coming at him full speed every single play. This year we're doing a lot better, so it's giving him time, and I feel he's got a lot of confidence and he knows he's going to do well and we're going to protect him.

"Protecting against this front is going to be big."

Injury report

Earlier this week, UTC's practice looked like it could have been mistaken for Baylor School's with all the red (noncontact) jerseys being worn.

However, only linebacker Tavon Lawson, who was injured against The Citadel two weeks ago, has been ruled out of Saturday's game. Some other injured players went through practice but are considered questionable.

"We're banged up, but everybody is this time of year," Arth said. "We've had three games, three physical games for us against three tough opponents, and coming out of that you expect to be a little banged up, but the team has responded to all of that. We've had guys who have had to step up, play increased roles, and the guys playing the new roles have done a great job, so we're excited for that challenge in addition to the other challenges we have dealing with Samford.

"We're excited to embrace the challenge of being there for teammates and stepping up in a special way for them."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.