Mocs expect to have more versatility at running back behind Ailym Ford

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ UTC running back Lance Jackson catches a pass during an Aug. 3 practice at Scrappy Moore Field. New UTC running backs coach D.J. Knox hopes to be able to take advantage of a deep position group that could help the offense open up by doing more than just take handoffs.

As running back Ailym Ford enters his fifth season at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, it's no secret that he has been a major part of the Mocs' offense since he was a freshman.

In fact, he's been the offense at times while rushing for career totals of 666 carries, 3,443 yards and 32 touchdowns, all numbers that are expected to grow for the 5-foot-9, 215-pounder.

But in addition to the presence of the prolific Ford, new UTC running backs coach D.J. Knox has even more reason to be excited about his position group: the versatility within it.

The Mocs didn't lose any of their running back production from 2022, but most of it was from Ford, who rushed 232 times for 1,199 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing a game. Of course, good teams want the ball in their best players' hands as many times as possible, but there were instances when the scheme was too reliant on Ford's skill set.

Entering the 2023 season, which begins for UTC with Saturday's 7 p.m. Eastern kickoff at North Alabama (0-1), the Mocs are looking for more production from others.

"The running back room has always had talent, but this year, we have a lot of speed, a lot of aggressiveness, and a lot of guys that have the same mentality at the running back position," said Ford, who has accounted for 49% of the team's rushing yards in the past four seasons. "They'll run you over there, juke you and they get downfield, so they're versatile as compared to most of us being big backs."

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC running back Chris Houston takes a handoff from quarterback Luke Schomburg during an Aug. 3 practice at Scrappy Moore Field. Houston played primarily on special teams last year but could be a bigger part of the offense this season, which will kick off for the Mocs on Saturday night at North Alabama.

Gino Appleberry (5-9, 205) had a solid junior season with 426 yards and a trio of scores on 95 carries in 2022, but aside from that, Lance Jackson (5-10, 196) was the only running back who played for the Mocs, generating 39 yards on 10 carries as a sophomore last year. Appleberry, Ford and Jackson have all produced during their time at UTC — Jackson had 135 yards and a pair of scores against Mercer in spring 2021 — but the trio have similarities in their games.

The versatility will come the position's depth.

UTC coaches have been extremely high on redshirt sophomore Reggie Davis (6-0, 195), who has been brimming with potential since he joined the program, and junior Chris Houston (5-8, 169), who primarily played on special teams last year. Add their skill sets to those of the established trio, and there is a feeling the offense may have the ability to diversify after being slightly limited in recent seasons.

"It's a blessing because now you can open up the playbook. It's not just handing the ball off," Knox said.

He further pointed out that Houston "has a wide receiver background, he has some quickness and bending skills. He's very explosive, so with his hands you could split him out and we could do a couple of things with him. Then you've got a guy like Reggie who has a lot of speed, and we could challenge them down the field, and then you get the best of both worlds with Ailym, so it helps to develop all aspects of the playbook. Nothing really handicaps us."

The biggest challenge entering the season is figuring out how to use the pieces to make it all work with the offense, which requires planning ahead of games and adjustments within them. This isn't the first time in recent years the Mocs have entered a season with potential and promise regarding balance on that side of the ball, but they have usually defaulted to an attack that leans heavily on Ford, who has the highest averages for carries per game in a season (23.2 last year) and in a career (20.8) in UTC history.

So as Knox tackles the challenge of mixing things up more, what is he looking for?

"Playing without the ball," he said. "Seeing the coverage, seeing the umbrella of the defense and understanding down and distance, where they fit in the play, not just their assignment. That's one thing we try to harp on, especially with those guys and developing, because it's a lot of production. Those guys, you've got Ailym, you've got Gino, you've got Reggie, Lance, and all of those guys have played, and it's like, 'OK, let's make sure that we know exactly what it is that we're looking for and what we need to see out of every play to be successful.'"

If it all works out, UTC could have its most balanced season under head coach Rusty Wright, who is in his fifth year.

"You have to figure out how we use those guys to make them successful, and I think they'll help us a lot," he said. "We're going to be able to do some things, some different personnel groupings we haven't be able to do before, and I think that's going to just help that offense even more."

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