Nobody saw Josh Beard's remarkable 2009 football season coming. He tied a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga record with 12 sacks and was voted the Southern Conference defensive player of the year.
A transfer, Beard hadn't played much (and had a single sack) as a junior. Enter Mocs coach Russ Huesman, then-defensive coordinator Adam Fuller and their 4-3 scheme, and Beard flourished. He also began a run of standout defensive end play for the Mocs that appears to be just getting started.
"This defense, it's formulated to let those defensive ends play," Huesman said following Monday's practice, the Mocs' ninth of the spring.
And play they have. While Beard was tearing things up as a senior in 2009, Josh Williams was launching a career that would end in 2012 with a school-record 23.5 sacks. In his only season with the Mocs, Chris Donald had 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2010.
Then there's Davis Tull, the current leader of the pack. He's two seasons into a Mocs career that's on track to be one of the best in school history. The 2012 SoCon defensive player of the year, Tull reset UTC's sack record with 12.5 last season. He's already second all-time at UTC with 17.5, after just two seasons.
In his second season as a starter, he led the league in sacks and tackles for loss (19). Tull is, in the words of defensive line coach Marcus West, "the man." He's the latest in an impressive line of Mocs defensive ends, which has West wondering who's next.
"It's not to the point of playing average, it's about putting the best playmakers on the field," West said, "Our ends show up, they're productive and their stats show it."
The Mocs know what Tull can do, so he isn't doing much this spring. That leaves rising redshirt junior Zack Rayl, rising junior Toyvian Brand and freshmen Vantrell McMillan and Keionta Davis getting more playing time.
"And another guy that's not even here yet is D.J. Prather," Huesman said, referring to the signee from Gordon Central High School, "and we think he can be really special, too."
A starter at defensive tackle since midway through his true freshman season, Brand has dropped from 285 pounds to 250 this offseason, he said.
"I played it in high school and I always wanted to play it when I got here," Brand said of defensive end.
Huesman said UTC had planned to use Brand at tackle and end last season, but he wound up staying at tackle. What the Mocs do with him this season remains to be seen -- UTC could play him at either spot or Brand could redshirt since the Mocs are pretty well loaded throughout the defensive line.
"That decision's not going to be made until we get to the season," Huesman said.
Playing behind Williams and Tull the past two seasons, Rayl, a former McMinn Central quarterback, has had to wait his turn. He has three career sacks and is the only end with collegiate game experience at the position other than Tull.
"It has been something of a wait, kind of a rite of passage on the line, and it's my turn now and I'm looking forward to it, to stepping up in that role," Rayl said last week.
Rayl also knows that he and the other ends are going to play at a high level to get on the field next season.
"It's very competitive and I think we all have a chance to play," he said. "I think we're all very talented."