Editor's note: This is the second part of a five-day series. UTC beat writer Gene Henley is tackling topics in countdown order prior to the Mocs' first practice on Aug. 3.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program ascended to a new level of success last season when it reached the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals. With the number of younger players who have gained invaluable experience, the expectations have remained high, and there have been whispers of the word "Frisco" around the community in reference to the 2015 Mocs.
Frisco, Texas, is the site of the FCS national championship game.
To get there, the Mocs must wade through a schedule that, while difficult in some stretches, is manageable. And they must have contributions from key players all over the field.
Today, the Times Free Press looks at four players or position groups that are going to be the most important to the program's success, not counting quarterback Jacob Huesman and defensive end Keionta Davis.facebook
* Josh Freeman, defensive tackle. How good is Freeman? Derrick Lott, who is now in the NFL, didn't start a game while backing up the 6-foot, 285-pounder. No current player has started as many games in a UTC uniform as Freeman's 36, and as one of two fifth-year senior linemen on the roster (Toyvian Brand being the other), at no time has his leadership — and his voice — been needed more as the Mocs replace four defensive linemen. He was a leader in the spring workouts despite nursing a minor injury that limited his on-field work, and that won't change going into training camp.
* Henrique Ribeiro, kicker. Ribeiro was on a record pace to start the 2014 season, converting his first 12 field-goal tries. Then heading into the Wofford game, he admitted this spring that he started believing the hype and missed four of his final eight, including all three attempts against Indiana State in the first-round playoff game. With the possibility of close games late that require a clutch kick, he's going to have to be ready to convert when called upon. He led the Mocs in scoring last season and Wednesday was named to the watch list for the Fred Mitchell Award, which is given to the top kicker out of the FCS, Division II, Division III, NAIA and NJCAA. He converted 60 of 62 extra-point tries, which set a school record. He has a current streak of 43 extra points made, which is six shy of the school record, and is fourth all-time in school history with a field-goal percentage of .704.
* Offensive linemen. In this case, we're going to look at this as a group. Maybe their most important job will be the safe transportation of quarterback Huesman from class to class, to lunches, to practice, wherever. But that's what linemen do — they protect their quarterback at all times. Four starters — tackles Brandon Morgan and Hunter Townson, guard Corey Levin and center Jacob Revis — return. Guard Synjen Herren, a two-time preseason All-Southern Conference pick, is back after tearing his ACL in preseason camp last season, and the program gained Georgia transfer Josh Cardiello, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining.
* Running backs. We'll look at this as a collection as well, because little is known about the group heading into camp. What made the Mocs' rushing attack so dangerous in 2014 was Huesman's ability to either hand the ball off to Keon Williams — who finished with 1,112 yards and 14 touchdowns in his final season — in the read option or keep it himself. Who is next in line? Well, junior Derrick Craine finished the spring as the leader in the clubhouse, and he's backed up by Richardre Bagley, an All-SoCon Freshman team selection. There's been a buzz since signing day about incoming freshmen Kyle Nalls and Alex Trotter (the latter from McCallie), and they've have their chances to compete as well. But to duplicate last season's success on the ground, it would seem that one of the quartet would need to step up to develop a level of familiarity with Huesman, the offensive line and the receivers blocking for him.
UTC Night at AT&T
The Mocs Club will have its Night at the Lookouts this evening at AT&T Field. Coach Russ Huesman will throw out the first pitch for the 7:15 game against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
There will be a picnic under the Warren and Griffin Picnic Pavilion down the first-base line, starting at 6. All fans are invited to join the UTC coaches and staff for the event.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.