ASHEVILLE, N.C. - At the end of last season, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright took some time to evaluate the program. In doing so, he couldn't avoid evaluating himself.
The result of that introspection is that Wright, a former UTC player and assistant hired in December 2019 to lead the Mocs, has made some promises to himself that there are certain things he "wouldn't ever do again and not waver from."
The Mocs were last summer's preseason pick to win the Southern Conference championship, which would have been their first such title since 2015, but they limped to a 6-5 record with a team primarily made up of super seniors in their fifth, sixth or seventh college season. Now a fair portion of those players are gone, replaced by a new crop of recruits and transfers ready to make their mark at UTC.
Even so, the expectations are still the same, as UTC is the pick to win the title this year by both conference coaches and media who cover the league. That news came as part of Thursday's annual SoCon media day for football, and it was slightly surprising considering all the program has lost from its 2021 roster.
"We love it. We love being the target," said senior defensive end Devonnsha Maxwell, who shared the SoCon defensive player of the year honor after last season and was the league's preseason pick for the award this season.
"We love to get everybody's best shot because everybody's best shot just proves how great we are, how good of a team we are, and helps us know we can't slack off - no time, no day. We've got to put in the work everyday because everybody who comes in is going to want to play Chattanooga the best they can play Chattanooga."
2022 SOCON FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLLS
First-place votes in parenthesesCOACHES1. UTC (5)2. ETSU (2)3. Mercer (1)4. Furman (1)5. Western Carolina6. Samford7. VMI8. The Citadel9. WoffordMEDIA1. UTC (18)T2. ETSU (7)T2. Mercer (5)4. Furman5. Western Carolina6. VMI7. Samford8. Wofford9. The Citadel
Maxwell begins his final season within reach of becoming UTC's all-time sacks leader, with his career total of 29 ranking third in school history behind Davis Tull (37) and Keionta Davis (31). He leads the way on that side of the ball for the Mocs, who have eight preseason all-conference selections. Maxwell was joined on the first-team defense by linebacker Ty Boeck and Jay Person, who plays outside linebacker for the Mocs but made the list as a defensive lineman. On offense, running back Ailym Ford and offensive lineman McClendon Curtis were first-team picks.
East Tennessee State University running back and former Marion County High School standout Jacob Saylors is the SoCon's preseason offensive player of the year.
Wright is 15-13 overall and 13-7 against SoCon competition as he enters his third season in charge at his alma mater - a stretch that includes the pandemic-altered 2020-21 season played mostly in the spring of 2021, when UTC opted out before completing its SoCon schedule.
After entering last fall with such promise, back-to-back losses to Mercer and The Citadel kept the Mocs out of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Wright, though, is optimistic again.
"I probably made some poor personnel decisions," he said about last year. "Not about players, not as far as playing in the game, but as far as handling some things and giving guys opportunities and dealing with things that I'm not going to deal with. We're going to do things a certain way this year.
"This group has been great since January, because they have wanted to, and that's what gives me hope. That's what gets me excited. They've had a great summer, a great spring."
It won't be until the months of September, October and November (and possibly December) that the story of the 2022 UTC football team will be written. There won't be a chance to ease into the league schedule, with Wofford visiting Finley Stadium on Sept. 3 for the season opener. That will be followed by a trio of nonconference games, then the final seven SoCon contests to complete the regular season.
Wright is encouraged by the work done to this point.
"Let's go, right? Let's go. I'm glad these kids are going to have that opportunity," Wright said of being the SoCon favorite again. "It'll get them excited, it'll get people excited. I'm good with it. I think this group has an opportunity to be that. I'm really excited to be with this group.
"We've still got to go do it, I get that. We've got to go play every Saturday. But these guys are going to give themselves a chance, and then we've got to go get it figured out."
2022 ALL-SOCON FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM
Offensive player of year: Jacob Saylors, RB, ETSUDefensive player of year: Devonnsha Maxwell, DL, UTCFIRST TEAMOffenseQB: Tyler Riddell, ETSURB: Jacob Saylors, ETSU; Ailym Ford, UTCOL: Tavon Matthews, ETSU; Anderson Tomlin, Furman; Pearson Toomey, Furman; John Thomas, Mercer; McClendon Curtis, UTC; Tyler Smith, Western CarolinaTE: Ryan Miller, FurmanWR: Will Huzzie, ETSU; Raphael Williams, Western CarolinaDefenseDL: Jalen Porter, ETSU; Devonnsha Maxwell, UTC; Jay Person, UTC; Michael Mason, WoffordLB: Nathan East, Samford; Ty Boeck, UTC; Stone Snyder, VMIDB: Destin Mack, The Citadel; Mike Price, ETSU; Travis Blackshear, Furman; Lance Wise, MercerSpecialistsPK: Tyler Keltner, ETSU; Jerry Rice, VMIP: Jack Culbreath, VMILS: Robert Soderholm, VMIRS: Jacob Saylors, ETSUSECOND TEAMOffenseQB: Seth Morgan, VMIRB: Dominic Roberto, Furman; TJ Jones, Western CarolinaOL: Tereis Drayton, The Citadel; Fred Norman, ETSU; Joe Schreiber, ETSU; Gavin Orr, Samford; Colin Truett, UTC; Jarvis Chandler, VMI; Al Hogan, WoffordTE: Aidan Twombly, VMIWR: Ty James, Mercer; Leroy Thomas, VMIDefenseDL: Carson Hatchett, The Citadel; Cameron Coleman, Furman; Solomon Zubairu, Mercer; Eric Weaver, VMILB: Marquise Blount, The Citadel; Isaac Dowling, Mercer; Kam Jones, UTCDB: Alijah Huzzie, ETSU; CaMiron Smith, UTC; Aljareek Malry, VMI; Andreas Keaton, Western CarolinaSpecialistsPK: Richard McCollum, Western CarolinaP: Trey Turk, Mercer; Bradley Porcellato, SamfordLS: Colin Springer, WoffordRS: Calvin Jones, Western Carolina