It's been less than a calendar year since the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's offensive line was in a very bad spot.
The Mocs had just lost preseason All-Southern Conference first-team selection Synjen Herren to a torn ACL, and they had two true freshmen and a converted defensive lineman on the offensive line as the team began a schedule that featured games against FBS opponent Central Michigan and FCS No. 9-ranked Jacksonville State.
A season later, what was initially considered a weakness could be looked upon as a strength.
With experience gained, four starters return from an offensive line that helped the Mocs average 210.8 rushing yards and 411.1 yards of total offense per game last season. The group has only been strengthened by the addition of Georgia transfer Josh Cardiello and the return of Herren.
Although the Mocs have only had three official preseason practices, Cardiello has made a claim to take the right guard position vacated by 2014 senior Chris Mayes, who moved there from the defensive line and started all 14 games last season after Herren's injury. Corey Levin, awarded a Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the Southern Conference's best lineman last season, started three games at left tackle before moving to guard. With Herren's return, Levin, a third-team All-American and All-SoCon first-teamer, can move back to tackle.
Sophomore center Jacob Revis, one of the freshman starters a year ago, called the early portion of last year's schedule "kind of a whirlwind," but he joined Levin as one of two linemen to earn a spot on the All-SoCon team after the season, Chris Malone's second as the Mocs' offensive line coach.
"Having a season under the belt helps now," said Revis, an All-SoCon second-teamer. "Coach Malone helps a lot, and it gets easier when you play more with people, because you can build chemistry. I think we have good chemistry on the offensive line, and we'll be much more cohesive than we were 12 months ago."
Hunter Towson was the other freshman starter on the line, splitting time at guard and tackle, and like Revis he started all 14 games. The biggest problem for the line now is gaining additional depth.facebook
"It was a scary proposition, but they got better and grew up as the year went on," head coach Russ Huesman said of last season.
In addition to having almost all of his starters back, Malone said he has "seven or eight guys I feel good about.
"I'd like 11, but I'd like 16," he continued. "I guess I'm greedy, but Rome wasn't built in a day. Just because you have numbers doesn't mean you have answers; it just means you have options. It's up to (players) to create the competition part of it. They're a year older and a year wiser, and we ultimately want to create a competitive environment. I guess it's a good problem to have."
In the first two games of 2014, the Mocs had 179 yards on 70 carries — a 2.6 average. That might have been expected with a young line that had players shuffling around, but after that, the offense averaged 231 rushing yards per game, with three games of more than 300.
Levin wants more than that this season.
"We have a bunch of interchangeable parts. If something doesn't look good one day, we can switch a guy there and see how it works out," he said. "We can still get more advanced on stuff we do, so it's harder for defenses to pick up on, but we have a good amount of experience under our belt to be able to handle. Once we do that, we can hide certain things we may do and we should be rolling."
Mocs are eighth
UTC received its highest-ever preseason ranking Wednesday when it was No. 8 in the Football Championship Subdivision coaches' poll, the first of two rankings — the soon-to-be-released SportsNetwork.com poll is the other — recognized by the NCAA.
UTC ended last season with the same ranking, but Huesman had previously voted his Mocs No. 7, with Alabama's Jacksonville State a spot ahead of them based on the Gamecocks' head-to-head win in Chattanooga last season.
The Mocs host Jacksonville State, which is ranked ninth, at 6 p.m. on Sept. 5 at Finley Stadium. It will be the season opener for both teams.
"Regardless of the rankings, we know they are a really good football team and that game should be a lot of fun," Huesman said. "We hope to get a big crowd."
The game is the only one in the regular season that features two outright conference champions from a year ago. The Gamecocks won the Ohio Valley Conference title last season.
The game will also be the first time two top-10 teams have played at Finley Stadium in the regular season.
SoCon opponents Western Carolina, Furman and Samford received votes in the poll.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.