UTC's Jay Person, Rusty Wright share similar tough-minded approach to football

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC edge rusher Jay Person, right, pursues Kennesaw State's Michael Benefield as he carries the ball on Sept. 9 at Finley Stadium.

Jay Person admittedly doesn't like what he refers to as "soft love."

That's not how his father Jason raised him, so that's not what the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior edge rusher responds well to on the football field.

"You've got to yell at me, get in my face," Person said.

It's why one of the most honest relationships Person has happens to be with UTC head coach Rusty Wright. Never one to back down himself, Wright has the sort of "in your face" style of coaching that Person craves. Needs.

Does it mean everything is always perfect between the two? Of course not, and being at a number of the Mocs' preseason practices would affirm that neither backs down from a confrontation. But it's rooted in love, and that love has resulted in success.

Person was selected as the Southern Conference defensive player of the year last season, when he was honored as an All-American by multiple media outlets, and in both cases, he received the equivalent preseason recognition this summer. He has since helped this year's Mocs to a 2-1 start in which the defense has been better every week.

"We can be honest with each other. That's the thing," Wright said. "I know when he's full of crap, and I know when he's doing what he's supposed to be doing, but the thing I don't ever worry about Jay is how hard he goes. We've had some hard conversations, we've been nose to nose, but he gives us everything he has, and that's all I ask of any of them.

"I'm on him like things like graduating and going to class more than I am football stuff because I want him to finish and do things the right way."

Added Person: "We butt heads like we do because we all think the same about everything, we both want to win, we compete a bunch, and when we get in that mode, it's kind of hard for anybody to tell you anything."

Person is one of seven UTC players who have been with the program since Wright replaced Tom Arth after the 2018 season. Those are seven players — Person, edge rusher Ben Brewton, cornerback Kam Brown, running back Ailym Ford, tight end Jay Gibson, long snapper Cody Olszewski and offensive lineman Colin Truett — who understand how Wright goes about his business, but all that time has also given Wright an opportunity to understand what works for those individual players.

In Person's case, it's tough love.

  photo  Staff photo / UTC football coach Rusty Wright shouts during the Mocs' spring game in March 2019 at Finley Stadium. UTC standout defender Jay Person not only doesn't mind Wright's intense moments in practices and games, he embraces them as a call to attention when something needs to be fixed.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound former Bradley Central High School standout entered this season fourth in UTC history with 39 career tackles for loss, and with 4.5 so far, he has moved into third place at 43.5, passing Keionta Davis (43 from 2013-16). Still ahead of Person on that list are Devonnsha Maxwell (55.5 from 2018-22) and Davis Tull (60 from 2011-14). (Last year, Maxwell did pass Tull's UTC record for career sacks, 37.5 to 37.)

Person had 16.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks while playing nine games last season, but through a third as many games this year, he has only a half-sack on his ledger. That's due at least in part to the Mocs facing three run-heavy teams (North Alabama, Kennesaw State and The Citadel), but Person's coaches have been preaching to him about staying patient and trusting the defensive scheme.

"Jay by himself can make plays, but he's going to have to be more disciplined," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "I get it: He's trying to get that tackle-for-loss record, just like (Maxwell) was trying to get the sack record.

"They're going to come by him doing what he's supposed to do within the call."

Wright said Person reminds him of Wes Dothard, a two-time All-American at UTC, in the sense that sometimes they weren't in the right place, yet the talent and skill of the individual helped make up for it.

"It's a fine line because you don't ever want to hold the guy back, but he's got to understand the grand scheme of things. If he does what he's supposed to, he's going to make all of the plays anyway," Wright said. "He's a little hard-headed when it comes to that, there's no question about it."

Person's goals are bigger than individual success, though.

As a Bradley Central senior, he was the defensive catalyst in the Bears' run to the TSSAA Class 6A quarterfinals, their deepest advance in the state playoffs under head coach Damon Floyd, a former Moc. A veteran of the Mocs' recent near-misses when it comes to making the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, which last included them in 2016, Person has pointed out the importance not getting caught up in the preseason rankings after the Mocs were picked to finish fourth in the SoCon.

They opened SoCon play successfully with last weekend's 48-3 home win against The Citadel, and now they're preparing to face reigning league champion Samford (1-2, 0-1) — nationally ranked 17th by coaches and 20th by media in this week's FCS polls — at 3 p.m. Eastern on Saturday in Birmingham, Alabama.

Person has also focused on the process of finishing his UTC career the same way he finished his high school career — with a postseason run. To be able to do that with Wright would only make it that much sweeter.

"That's one of my favorite things about it," said Person, who spent his first college season at Appalachian State in 2018 before transferring. "When he got here, I got here, so I've been here with him the whole time, sticking through it, and it's going to be fun at the end of it when we accomplish what we accomplish, and then I get to say I was here the whole time, I stayed through it."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.