Rusty Wright's first signee as head coach for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was a kid he'd never actually met.
Now in their fifth season together, Wright and running back Ailym Ford are looking to take the next step by helping the Mocs win a Southern Conference championship or at least qualify for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. It's a goal that's seemingly been within reach for the past two seasons, and three if you count the condensed campaign in spring 2021.
If seasons ended in October, UTC would have made the playoffs the past two years. But two-game losing streaks to end each of those seasons have left many around the program — players, coaches, administrators and fans — frustrated.
After the 2022 season, Wright took inventory and stock of the entire program. He ultimately changed the process of getting players prepared, bumping spring practices up to February so that phase of the offseason would be done in early March, giving the team more time to get stronger and be better conditioned for the fall. The true test of that approach comes with the 2023 schedule, and the start just more than a week away for the Mocs, who will visit North Alabama for a 7 p.m. Eastern kickoff on Saturday, Sept. 2.
For a true answer on how it's going, check back in November.
"Two years ago, I don't think we had a group that was really committed to finishing, and I would tell them all the same thing if they were standing right here," Wright said. "Last year we were busting our hump to finish, and we didn't get it done. At the end of the day, is it execution? Is it the guys you've got out there? Is it a bounce here? It's probably a combination of all those things, and all we control is what we can control day to day."
Last year, players expressed frustration with how the 2021 season ended, reiterating what Wright said about the feeling that some older members of the team essentially quit when the Mocs fell 10-6 at Mercer in the next-to-last week of the season, which knocked UTC out of contention for the SoCon title.
Last season wasn't about quitting as much as it was about losing key players at key spots, which has led the Mocs to focus this year on being the best versions of themselves in the regular season's final month. In this case, it will consist of just one game against an FCS opponent (Furman will visit Finley Stadium on Nov. 6 to wrap up SoCon play), an open date the following week and a trip to Football Bowl Subdivision power Alabama on Nov. 18 for the 11th game.
Getting a 12th game would mean being one of 24 teams in the FCS playoffs, something that hasn't happened for UTC since 2016. Winning the SoCon title would guarantee that berth.
"It's been the same stuff every year, two years in a row the same thing happening, so this year we're not even going to think about the end result, we're just going to go out there every day and just handle it with the week that we've got coming up," said edge rusher Jay Person, an All-American last season who has received the equivalent preseason recognition this year.
"It's really just been working every day, staying on the grind and focused on the big picture and staying week by week," the former Bradley Central standout added. "A lot of times we like to look forward to the next week or later on down the road instead of staying right there where we're at, so we're just focused on what we've got right there in front of us and just handle it week by week, day by day."
If there is a current UTC player hard to find fault with in spite of the team's recent shortcomings, it's Person, the SoCon defensive player of the year last season. Right next to him is Ford, who enters the season third all-time in UTC history in rushing yards with 3,443 and second in rushing touchdowns with 32.
Ford signed with the Mocs in December 2018, days after a coaching change, having committed under Tom Arth, Wright's predecessor. During his time at UTC, the 5-foot-9, 215-pounder from Florence, South Carolina, has often been the central focus of UTC's offense; at times, he has been the offense — period.
But with Wright having four recruiting classes — high school guys mixed with a few key transfers, including Person, who begin his collegiate career at Appalachian State — to build the program at his alma mater, there appears to be enough depth to take some of the load off the workhorse Ford, who is the school's career leader in average rushes per game for both a season (23.2 last season) and a career (20.8).
"I've got teammates that are very similar to me, that work ethic is just as hard as mine," Ford said, noting the goals are first a winning season and then a shot at a SoCon title. "They're just as dedicated as me, and they're just as hungry as me. They compete every day, they want to get better and they're consistent, so it's not much leadership I have to do, because they're self-motivated.
"Working hard has been my mentality my whole life, and just being surrounded by great players, I can't slack off a day. I have to run hard, I have to practice hard to be consistent, so just being around players like that gives me the opportunity to be better and be the best that I can be."
And with pieces like Ford and Person, Wright might have what's necessary to help the Mocs take that next step back into the playoffs.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org.