UTC football team's spring practices vital for evaluation at four key positions

Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Curtis McClendon (52) is a three-year starter on UTC's offensive line, but the Mocs lost four seniors who started games for that position group in 2021 and will use this spring's practices to see who is ready to step up this year.

Rusty Wright wasn't about to dwell on the events of 2021.

Last year didn't go how anyone planned for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program. It started with the Mocs playing four games in the spring, which yielded a 3-0 record with their true starters and a No. 9 national ranking in the Football Championship Subdivision before the program essentially punted with its lineup for the fourth game, a 35-28 loss to Mercer that was followed by UTC opting out of the remainder of its schedule days later.

Then came the fall, when UTC's spring success led to deserved high expectations, but the Mocs failed to live up to those, stumbling to a 6-5 record that ended short of a Southern Conference title and the playoff berth the team aspired to.

Wright's fourth year as head coach at his alma mater, though, will finally feature his first normal spring.

In 2019, there was flooding at Scrappy Moore Field, causing the program to scrap and find multiple venues to get 15 practices in. Then there were no spring practices in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also led to the SoCon season and FCS playoffs being moved to the spring last year, so things are different in 2022 - in a good way.

"We've put on 500-something pounds of muscle and lost 400-something pounds of fat. We've transformed some bodies," Wright said earlier this week, the first of five in which the Mocs planned to have practices this spring. "We've got to go find some young guys, and we'll spend all spring figuring out people. It'll be all 15 practices, and then we'll evaluate after we get done."

But there are some positions that need evaluation a little more than others, and if Wright and his staff - which underwent a makeover of sorts this offseason with two additions and three members taking on new job titles - don't like what they see, then there will be more work done in the transfer portal.

At what positions? Let's take a look.

photo Staff file photo / Cole Copeland, pictured, went 6-3 as UTC's starting quarterback last year, but the Mocs have options at the position, including Eastern Michigan transfer Preston Hutchinson.

Quarterback: The Mocs have already done work here, so the question hinges on who takes the lead position. Senior Cole Copeland is the incumbent after starting nine games in 2021 and going 6-3 in those contests, but the program has added Eastern Michigan transfer Preston Hutchinson, a senior who had 1,868 yards of total offense with 20 combined scores in six games in 2020.

Offensive line: The Mocs lost four seniors who started games last season. That includes two-time SoCon Jacobs Blocking Award winner Cole Strange, who could be picked in an early round during next month's NFL draft. But there are a lot of players who got a lot of work last season on the line, led by three-year starter McClendon Curtis. In addition, Colin Truett has experience, and there are some younger players who were on the field in that infamous Mercer spring game in 2021.

Wide receiver: The Mocs had an experienced group at this position last year; new receivers coach Ricky Spradling - who moved over from working with running backs - will have a talented yet young group. It doesn't lack for playmakers, as Tyron Arnett, Jamoi Mayes, Tyler Smith and Tyler Walker have either started or appeared in games for the Mocs, but eight of the 11 receivers on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores. Wright noted this week that the staff was going to "see those young guys play" this spring.

Secondary: UTC lost two multiyear starters and All-SoCon first-team selections at safety in Brandon Dowdell and Jerrell Lawson (as well as multiyear starters Rashun Freeman and Jordan Jones), but the cupboard is far from bare. Getting D.J. Jackson, who started nine games in 2018, back for a final season helps. So does the presence of Romeo Wykle, a former Chattanooga-area prep star from Cleveland who transferred from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and sat last season out. Telly Plummer started a game last season, and redshirt freshman Jordan Walker could be a player. But settling into a rotation in the back end has become a priority this spring.

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