Corey Levin's first glimpse of a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team coached by Russ Huesman came on a recruiting visit. An unofficial one.
To Appalachian State, on Sept. 12, 2011.
"UTC probably should have won that game," Levin said recently. And he's probably right, as the Mocs defense held the Mountaineers without a touchdown, only to see the home team score on a fumble recovery and an interception return and win 14-12.
It wasn't until about a month later that UTC began recruiting the 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive lineman from Dacula, Ga. The Mocs coaches eventually were able to sway him away from Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, the two former Southern Conference powers that have moved up to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Levin was the second player to send in his signed UTC letter of intent in 2012. Defensive end Vantrel McMillan was the first. An hour and a half later came Keionta Davis's paperwork, followed by defensive back Cedric Nettles, receiver C.J. Board and defensive back Nakevion Leslie.
Also that year came kicker Henrique Ribeiro.
What do they all have in common? They're still at UTC. When their time is over, they will go down as one of — if not the — single most impactful class to come to the school.
The Mocs went 6-5 during their redshirt year and have posted 8-4, 10-4 and 9-4 seasons in the three ensuing seasons, the last two resulting in the first playoff appearances since 1984.
Interestingly, the 2012 signing class was the only one in Huesman's time at UTC that wasn't ranked in the FCS top 10. Yet he felt good about the group then, and others around the campus have echoed his thoughts in recent time.
Huesman said recently that Lisa Tarr, the academic coordinator for the football team, told him last year that "the fourth-year juniors are a special group."
The players knew early on that they had a special group. Levin started 11 games as a freshman, while Board started 10. Leslie was SoCon freshman of the week after a 14-tackle performance against Wofford, and Davis had 1.5 sacks against The Citadel and 2.5 tackles for loss against Appalachian State.
"A lot of our guys were playing important roles early, so I knew for a long time that this was the group that's helping build this legacy we're building now," Davis said. "And ever since then, we've been rolling."facebook
The last three seasons have ended in SoCon championships. The Mocs are favored to win a fourth, and Leslie said there's no reason they can't accomplish that feat.
"We want that and a playoff seed," Leslie said. "I just want to do what I can do my last year to help the team get to the national championship like I know we can. Rings? Those are pretty nice to have, and I'm really working to help the team get that."
Davis said helping the team maintain its focus week in and week out will be key to its success this season. In five of UTC's last six defeats — not counting the losses to Power Five schools Tennessee in 2014 and Florida State in 2015 — the Mocs either were tied or led in the second half. Two of those losses came in overtime on runs by Jacksonville State quarterback Eli Jenkins.
"The sky's the limit with this team," Davis said. "We can do so much; I think we're our biggest opponent. We can beat ourselves sometimes in games, and we really have to stay mentally focused in game. We accomplish that, there's no telling what we can do. There's a lot of potential and expectations, and I think this team can reach every bit of it."
Dylan Scott to perform
The UTC athletic department announced Monday that rising country music star Dylan Scott will perform a free concert at the Mocs Block tailgate on Sept. 1 at 5 p.m., two hours before the season opener against Shorter University.
"We are excited to have Dylan Scott come and play for our fans before the Shorter game," UTC athletic director and vice chancellor David Blackburn said in a press release. "He will help us draw a crowd to our new student-driven tailgating section on the Chestnut Street side of the stadium.
"This is a free event, so come enjoy some great music and stay for the beginning of an exciting year of Mocs football."
The Mocs Block is a new pregame tailgate party that will be on the east side of Finley Stadium and will be open to fans of all ages and will feature a UTC student tailgate. Different artists have been lined up to play before each home contest in 2016.
For a limited time, a special $5 general admission ticket will be available for the home opener only by using the promo code DylanScott. Tickets can be printed at home and available online for a limited time.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.