Updated at 12:09 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018.
Sack Mack bagged another big honor.
Led by defensive player of the year Isaiah Mack, nine University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football players were named All-Southern Conference for 2018 on Tuesday.
The fifth-year senior defensive lineman from Northwest Whitfield High School was the top defensive honoree for both the coaches and the SoCon Sports Media Association, and both groups voted him, senior defensive back Kareem Orr from Notre Dame and sophomore wide receiver Bryce Nunnelly from Walker Valley on their first teams.
Sophomore defensive back Brandon Dowdell made the coaches' first team and the media's second team, which also included senior defensive lineman Derek Mahaffey, junior linebacker Marshall Cooper from Hixson and junior running back Tyrell Price. Mahaffey, Cooper and sophomore offensive linemen Noah Ramsey from Southeast Whitfield and Cole Strange were coaches' second-team selections along with Wofford defensive back JoJo Tillery from East Ridge.
Another UTC defensive lineman, Devonnsha Maxwell, was on the all-freshman team along with East Tennessee State running back Jacob Saylors from Marion County and Mercer quarterback Robert Riddle from McCallie.
Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges was the offensive player of the year in both ballotings, as were ETSU running back Quay Holmes for freshman of the year and ETSU's Randy Sanders for coach of the year.
The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Mack, named Monday a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award for the top defensive player in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision, had 11.5 tackles for lost yardage, two forced fumbles and 8.5 sacks this season. He had three of the sacks and nine tackles in a 34-27 win over Virginia Military Institute on Oct. 27, and he totaled 21 sacks as a Moc — fourth most in program history.
Two of those ahead of him in career sacks, Davis Tull (37, 2011-14) and Keionta Davis (31, 2013-16), were in the program when Mack arrived, and he got to watch them be SoCon defenders of the year — Tull for the third time.
"I got a rude awakening early," Mack said with a grin, recalling a redshirt first season with those two and other all-conference-caliber defensive stalwarts ahead of him on the depth chart.
"But I'm also thankful I played behind those guys, because I took something from all of them and added it to my game."
He also built from his mother's hard-work example of raising three children while elevating her employment "from McDonald's to Shaw (Industries) to becoming a nurse practitioner," along with the night classes that entailed. And he remained motivated by "a slip of paper" his UTC recruiter gave him with a list of the Mocs' previous defensive players of the year and a spot asking "Will you be next?"
He's now the sixth of those, and he hopes also to follow Tull and Davis with NFL opportunities, although he said Tuesday that his immediate priority is completing requirements for his Dec. 15 graduation.
UTC coach Tom Arth, a former NFL quarterback, said he believes Mack "belongs at the NFL level — a big guy who's athletic, who's strong and who runs to the football on every play."
Already "playing at a very high level," in Arth's words, Mack kicked his intensity up another notch midway through this season — after a post-practice conversation with great friend Mahaffey and Orr the day before the Western Carolina game.
"They told me I needed to step up, that I had more in me," Mack said. "I took that to heart, because I couldn't let my boys down."
Contact Ron Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6291.