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UTC safety D.J. Key keeps his eye on the ball during a recent practice.

Take one look at D.J. Key's eyes when he's on the football field and you see that he is someone who takes what he does seriously.

Day in and day out, Key not only is one of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's best players on defense, he's "one of the best on this football team, bar none," head coach Russ Huesman said recently.

Huesman, who also coaches the safeties, has lavished similar praise on the redshirt sophomore safety from Centerville, Tenn., for more than a year. Key started just three games in 2010 -- two at safety, one at linebacker -- yet played plenty and was second on the team with 57 tackles.

The bottom line is that when he plays, he makes an impact -- and not just because the 6-foot, 195-pounder might be the hardest hitter on the team.

"I talked to his mom one time last spring and I said, 'Man, how is he so tough?'" Huesman said. "And she said he's been like that ever since he was a little kid, that he was killing people back in those days."

When asked to explain how he seems to be in on every tackle, Key said it comes down to experience.

"I guess playing football for so long, it's just like a habit," he said. "You just know where the ball's at and know how to be in the right spot at the right time."

Key entered preseason camp as the third of UTC's top three safeties, behind seniors Chris Lewis-Harris and Jordan Tippit. Lewis-Harris was a preseason All-Southern Conference pick and Tippit was All-SoCon as a sophomore, so moving ahead of either player would be tough for anyone.

After cornerback Chaz Moore was injured on the first day of practice, UTC moved Lewis-Harris back to corner, where he played his first two seasons, and that gave Key a place in the starting lineup.

Moore is healthy now, but Key still will start Saturday's opener at No. 10 Nebraska and Lewis-Harris will stay at corner. Moore will play a great deal as UTC's third corner and Lewis-Harris will rotate at times back to safety.

"We don't want to take him off the field," defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said of Key. "He's that good."

That means those intense eyes will be locked on opposing offenses a lot this season. Key said that look is essentially on his face all day long.

"I guess that's just how my demeanor is or my facial expressions are -- I'm just usually always in the moment," he said. "If things aren't going right, I want them to be right. If things are going right, I want them to be better."

Extra Points

The Mocs are looking for the program's third win ever against a bowl subdivision team since the NCAA split Division I into two levels in 1977. UTC beat Louisiana-Lafayette two years in a row, in 1983-84. ... This will be Nebraska's first game as a member of the Big Ten and UTC's first game against a Big Ten school.