UTC defensive line ready for new guys to 'take the reins' and uphold standard

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC (0) Quay Wiggles celebrates with teammates after (37) Jelen Lee intercepted a pass at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga on Saturday, March 27, 2021.

It would be easy for Quay Wiggles to focus on the 35 sacks the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga defense had just a season ago.

But there's a standard that's been set within the program, one created long before the 6-foot-3, 281-pounder was anywhere near college-ready. One that's seen four different players earn All-American honors in the past decade, including two (Jay Person and Devonnsha Maxwell) last season. Maxwell is now gone, off to the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, but the standard still remains.

So Wiggles was more focused after Tuesday's practice on the sacks the Mocs missed last year than the times they did get to the quarterback in 2022.

"I'm dwelling on every one I missed," Wiggles said, estimating the Mocs missed "around 30" sacks last season. "I think anytime I don't finish on a play, I'm thinking about it the whole game. I try to go to the next play, but I'm always thinking about how I could have done better on that play I missed."

Part of taking over a program, like head coach Rusty Wright did in 2019, is that attrition sometimes happens. It can sometimes be easier to keep the headliners — which Wright was able to do — but a lot had been lost in the transition. As a result, depth became an issue for UTC, so while headliners like Maxwell and Person existed on the line, there wasn't always a lot of depth behind them.

That doesn't appear to be the case this season, as every spot on the line has a solid piece behind them. Wiggles, a three-star prospect coming out of high school that was committed to Georgia Tech, will slide into Maxwell's vacated spot, but Marlon Taylor, a second-team All-Southern Conference pick a year ago, is back as is Person and edge Ben Brewton.

For depth the staff has been really high on the improvements of redshirt freshman Montrell Henderson and true freshman Jamarr Jones, and Wright noted that junior-college All-American E.J. Thomas will be back from an injury that sidelined him for much of camp.

These guys have waited their turn.

  photo  Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC (0) Quay Wiggles and (4) Romeo Wykle converge on Mercer (14) Nakendrick Clark at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga on Saturday, March 27, 2021.

"At some point, the headliner guys like D-Max were true freshmen out there playing that nobody had heard of, so it's got to start at some sort of capacity," defensive line coach Anthony Shakir said. "You're going to see guys take the reins and take it to another level that you might not have heard of, but then you'll eventually have those names that seem like you've known them for the past three or four years.

"Then guys like Montrell or Jamarr Jones are going to start making flash plays here and there, but that comes from those previous guys taking guys under their wing. Isaiah Mack taking D-Max, D-Max taking Quay, Quay taking Montrell, taking Jamarr, so it kind of is that ripple effect from the previous classes and I think that's why we're so great here historically at that spot because it's just from the previous generations. It just goes on to the next and keep it going that way."

Shakir admitted that the history played a factor in him leaving East Tennessee State after the 2021 season and coming to UTC. Marcus West, who coached under previous head coach Russ Huesman from 2009-15, helped develop Davis Tull and Keionta Davis to All-American honors and is now the assistant line coach with the Buffalo Bills. Davern Williams coached Isaiah Mack to All-American honors, and of course Maxwell and Person earned those honors last year.

"I'm trying to fight my own fight and figure out I'm a totally different coach than those other guys," Shakir said. "It's good that we've got that coaching tree that's extensive now, especially in the defensive line position. I'm just trying to make sure I'm doing the best I can to take those reins and continue, and then make it better and get some rings involved in that, too."

But Wiggles isn't worried about being the next man up. He's just trying to become the best version of himself with the extended opportunity he's been given.

"I'm really not trying to think about it as much about me stepping up and being that guy," he said. "I've been patient for about three years now so I've just been keeping regular, just playing basic football knowing that at the end of the day they've got to put pads on the same way I do.

"I'm not trying to get into the hype of being behind a four-time All-American. Just more playing my type of ball."

And that's the standard.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.