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University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs safety Zach McCarter (47) gets ready for a play during practice at Scrappy Moore Field.

After a very good football career at Hixson High School, Zach McCarter got a couple of scholarship offers from some small colleges -- to play baseball.

"Other than that, nobody knocked on my door," he said.

If McCarter was going to pursue his dream of playing college football, he would have to do it on his own, the hard way. And he has. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound McCarter, a redshirt junior and former walk-on, is in his second season as a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga starting safety.

"My coach [Houston White] said, 'Come in with a chip on your shoulder,'" said McCarter, who has nine career starts and 60 career tackles.

McCarter and the Mocs host The Citadel in a Southern Conference game Saturday at Finley Stadium. UTC (5-2, 3-1) has won three straight games, while the Bulldogs (2-5, 2-3) have lost three of their last four.

As a junior at Hixson in 2009, McCarter was a Tennessee Class 4A all-state defensive back alongside Red Bank Keith Mayes. McCarter and Mayes made the Times Free Press's Best of Preps City Defense together as seniors.

"Nobody knows that about me," McCarter said with a laugh.

Mayes signed with the Mocs, while McCarter had to pay his own way and earn a spot on the roster. Now Mayes has left the program and McCarter is starting on the No. 1 defense in the SoCon.

"You never know how things are going to work out," McCarter said.

He came in and worked, and hard work partnered with ability got him noticed. As Mocs coach Russ Huesman pointed out, UTC has had some very good, very productive walk-ons in the past few years.

Defensive end Davis Tull walked on the same season at McCarter, redshirted in 2010 and is now the program's all-time sack leader (24), as well as the reigning SoCon defensive player of the year.

Before Tull, linebacker Ryan Consiglio walked on and became one of the best defensive players ever at UTC. He was All-SoCon as a junior and a senior, led the league with 120 tackles during his final season in 2011 and finished with 321 tackles, including 27.0 for loss.

"Zach's a great success story, and we've had a few of those guys," Huesman said.

McCarter's 2013 season got off to a rough start. After knee surgery in November, he was on schedule to return for the opener. But then he had "a hiccup" with the knee during preseason practice, which forced him to miss the first two games.

He returned against Austin Peay and there was a tentative period that he had to work through. McCarter struggled at times in the loss to Georgia Southern, looking a little slow as he tried to make open-field tackles, but he's played better each week since. He had an interception against Furman two weeks ago and made a career-high nine tackles in last Saturday's 20-9 win at Elon.

"I'd say the Georgia Southern game was a wake-up call, really," McCarter said. "Since then I've been building up and getting better and better each week, and the past two games, I think, have been two of my better ones."

It's seldom easy for players returning from major knee injuries, Huesman said.

"I'm sure the confidence in the knee's the big thing," he said. "Zach had a pretty good year for us last year; he was really effective and did a nice job, but that knee, you've got to feel good about it. And I think he does now. He's doing a nice job."

Contact John Frierson at or 423-757-6268. Follow him at