Rusty Wright admittedly wasn't excited when he saw Chase Artopoeus throw a contested ball to tight end Jay Gibson during last week's game at Samford.
The fifth-year University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach changed his tone quickly when Gibson, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound former McCallie standout from Cleveland, Tennessee, came down with the pass over one Samford defender with another one hovering. The clutch catch for a 23-yard gain set up a field goal in the Mocs' 47-24 throttling of the Bulldogs in Birmingham, Alabama.
"I'll be honest with you, when it was up there, I was like, 'Oh no,' Wright said. "But he threw it to the only place Jay could go get it."
The growing confidence in the UTC passing game has started to branch out as Artopoeus shows faith in — and chemistry with — not only his receivers but his tight ends. Gibson accumulated a career-high 44 receiving yards in last week's 23-point win as the Mocs improved to 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the Southern Conference. In addition to his 23-yard grab, he had another for 21 yards, catching the ball at the line of scrimmage and eluding one tackle before bowling over another defender.
The Mocs moved into the Football Championship Subdivision rankings for the first time this season at No. 22 in this week's coaches' poll, and they sit atop the SoCon standings heading into Saturday's 6 p.m. game at Wofford (0-4, 0-1). The reliable passing attack has been a big part of UTC's success during its three-game winning streak, and having Gibson and fellow tight end Camden Overton as options has only helped Artopoeus, a first-year starter who transferred from UCLA in the offseason.
"I think it shows the faith that the coaches have in myself, in Camden, who is a really good player who is going to make the play 10 times out of 10 when his number gets called," Gibson said. "The staff just has confidence in us that whoever's number in that room gets called will step up and make a play when they need to."
Gibson is in his sixth college season and fifth with the Mocs after starting his career at Western Kentucky, and he has become a leader in a position group full of young, talented players with notable potential. That includes Overton, a 6-3, 230-pound sophomore who has four touchdowns on 10 career catches.
Gibson was in a similar position when he arrived in 2019, and that has led to his desire to offer leadership to the group.
"I've just been trying to go out every day and give it my best," Gibson said. "Leading by example, in my opinion, is the best way to lead, and so I try to go out there every day, get my own practice, make sure I'm attentive, pay attention to meetings, taking notes, watching extra film, kind of just doing that little bit extra to be as good as you can on Saturday."
Tight ends coach Zeb Speir, in his first season at UTC, has found Gibson to be not only a good player but a reliable resource for teammates.
"Jay is a great kid, and he's like a coach out there on the field," Speir said. "He's seen a lot of ball here — there's not a defensive front coverage that he hadn't seen. He doesn't mess up a lot, and if he does, it gets corrected right away because he understands what happened on the play, so he's great in that sense, you feel very comfortable with him out there, he does a great job. He teaches those young guys just the day to day out there how to operate, how to prepare, how to have the right mindset and come out to practice, and he kind of keeps them in check when they're acting up — I hear him do it.
"They're the next generation of tight ends here, and he's doing a good job of modeling what that should look like."
Gibson missed the 2021 season with a lower-body injury, and although he appeared in nine games last year, he is just now starting to look like the three-star prospect he was coming out of high school. He has never been a featured part of UTC's passing attack and may never be, but performances like the one he put together last Saturday at Samford showed he's capable of making a play when asked.
"He's practiced well and he's gotten ready," Wright said. "I think there's a guy getting him the ball now that maybe couldn't get him the ball earlier. I'm not knocking those guys before, but Chase is just different because we've got a guy that can see the field, and if he's open, he's going to get the ball. If he's not open, he's not going to get the ball.
"But Jay is healthy for the most part after spending a year away from it, and that's the thing: I think he's in a good frame of mind, I think he's in a good place mentally, and he wants to go play well."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org.