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UTC running back Richardre Bagley breaks around VMI defensive back Matthew Nicholson during the Mocs' home football game against the VMI Keydets at Finely Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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Football Mocs still have talent but holes to fill, especially up front

There are a lot of unknowns going into 2017 for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team.

Three players who received All-America honors — offensive lineman Corey Levin, defensive lineman Keionta Davis and linebacker Nakevion Leslie — are done as college players. So is Derrick Craine, who had two of the top seven single-season rushing totals (school-record 1,251 in 2015, 1,083 in 2016) in program history. And so are two other offensive-line starters and some defensive mainstays of the past two seasons.

Still, new UTC head coach Tom Arth feels good about what he's inherited, which after a second consecutive 9-4 season and 41-36 second-round Football Championship Subdivision loss to top-ranked Sam Houston State, still has a lot of talent, although a good portion of it is unproven.

"I'm excited," Arth said in an exclusive interview last Tuesday with the Times Free Press. "I look forward to really taking the time and watching film. I haven't had much of a chance to do that up to this point, but the people I talk to that know this league and know this team are very optimistic and feel this is a great roster.

"We're just excited to get to know them, get to know what they do well and put together a great plan so they can go out there and be successful."

Today, the Times Free Press gives you a position-by-position look at the prospective 2017 roster:

QUARTERBACK

Alejandro Bennifield had an up-and-down junior season, his first as a starter. But the second-team All-Southern Conference quarterback ended well, with a season-high 295 yards passing and 85 rushing against Sam Houston State. He finished with 2,622 yards passing and 26 touchdowns while running for 377 yards and six scores.

It gets very interesting after that. Redshirt freshman Zack Weatherly looked really good in practice and has been described as a "mix of Bennifield and Roberson," referring to former backup Tyler Roberson, who won't return for his senior season. The team is set to bring in two quarterbacks, Mississippi State transfer Nick Tiano from Baylor School and Bradley Central senior Cole Copeland, who is committed but not yet signed.

RUNNING BACKS

Senior-to-be Richardre Bagley had 315 yards and four rushing touchdowns in a two-week span when Craine was out with an ankle injury. Alex Trotter is the most experienced back behind him, having played in 10 games with 24 carries for 104 yards, but there is a hole after that.

Kyle Nalls has a ton of potential, but that hasn't translated for the big, physical junior as of yet. The only other running back on the roster is walk-on Chris Miller, who had 89 yards and a score in the season opener against Division II Shorter University.

WIDE RECEIVERS

The Mocs lose two of the most productive wideouts in school history, as C.J. Board leaves in the top 10 in both receptions and yards while Xavier Borishade's 16 career touchdowns rank sixth. There remains a lot of talent in this position group, with Alphonso Stewart and James Stovall — who played the same position last season — having combined for 55 catches and 670 yards, with four scores.

Bingo Morton has considerable potential, as do fellow juniors Dejuan McQuarters and Wil Young. Two receivers are committed for the 2017 signing class: Colton Dowell from Wilson Central and Bryce Nunnelly from Walker Valley.

TIGHT ENDS

New offensive coordinator Justin Rascati used an H-back instead of a tight end in his offense at Tennessee Tech, his previous stop, but some of that was the result of an injury to Temple transfer Kip Patton, who had 306 receiving yards in seven games. And the Mocs haven't used tight ends much in the passing game the past two seasons, with only nine catches combined.

They are projected to have five on the roster — senior Malcolm Colvin, junior and East Hamilton graduate Bailey Lenoir, sophomore Bryce Miller, redshirt freshman and Boyd-Buchanan product Jack Keebler and incoming freshman Parker Mallett — with Keebler and Mallett looking like the best receiving threats should the position remain.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Depth is a big question on the line for new OL coach Nick Hennessey. The Mocs knew they were losing Levin, a three-time All-American. But the group took a blow when redshirt junior center Jacob Revis and junior tackle Hunter Townson announced they would not use their final seasons of eligibility. In addition, backup center Alex Hooper from Walker Valley also is graduating and won't play in 2017.

Senior Josh Cardiello, once the No. 5 center prospect in the country who started his career at Georgia, has played guard the past two seasons and could move over to center. Malcolm White and Kennington Cadwell could become behemoth bookend tackles, with each measuring 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, and Brian Marshall started against Furman after Townson was injured. After that, there are questions. Branden Parker and Tyler Martin are names to watch, and UTC currently has three committed for next season — Jack Doherty, Clayton McConnell and John Robinson — although Doherty announced Friday on Twitter that he was going to "re-evaluate his commitment to UTC" due to the staff changes.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Like on the offensive line, depth will be a concern for the first season of Arth and DL coach Brian Cochran. The Mocs lose Davis and fellow first-team All-SoCon selection Vantrel McMillan plus starting defensive tackle Justin King. The tackle spots are in good shape with senior Taylor Reynolds and juniors Isaiah Mack and Derek Mahaffey returning. Mack was third on the team with 7.5 sacks, while Reynolds is a two-year starter who became disruptive as the 2016 season went on and Mahaffey had a strong second half of the season.

Defensive end is a different story. D.J. Prather is the most experienced returner, and senior Joshua Phillips and sophomore Khayyan Edwards have shown promise. A few names to watch for as things shake out are sophomore Telvin Jones; freshman Jonathan Decker, who had to redshirt this season; and Hawk Schrider, who sat out this season after transferring from Richmond.

LINEBACKERS

It will be interesting to see what new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley deems the best way to attack with this defense. He has no problem adjusting to fit his personnel, having run a 4-3, a 3-4 and a 4-2-5 in his three seasons as John Carroll's DC. Leslie, a three-year starter who played both outside and middle linebacker in UTC's 4-2-5 scheme, finished eighth all-time in school history with 305 tackles. Dale Warren was a second-team All-SoCon selection in his first season as a starter. T.J. Jenkins was Leslie's backup the past two seasons, while Michael Bean has shown much potential in his time.

The depth isn't great, so depending on what scheme Staley chooses to run, there could be some moving of pieces, which means players such as Schrider — who played 13 games as a true freshman linebacker at Richmond — could move. The mix also could include incoming freshman Zach Feaster.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This is the defensive position in the best shape for the Mocs. First-team All-SoCon safety Lucas Webb returns for his final season, while cornerbacks Trevor Wright and C.J. Fritz also will be back along with Montrell Pardue. Senior Tae Davis, a special teams standout in 2016, is in line to replace two-time first-team All-SoCon selection Cedric Nettles at strong safety, where the two split time late in the season. The Mocs have depth at corner with sophomores D.J. Williams and Jordan Jones and at safety with K.J. Roper.

In addition, players such as redshirt freshman Rashun Freeman from Ooltewah and incoming freshmen Jordan Ferguson and Jeffrey Wood could make impacts.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Henrique Ribeiro made a school-record 48 field goals during his UTC career. The former Baylor School standout will be replaced by another Baylor alumnus, Victor Ulmo. Punter Colin Brewer, who made the SoCon all-freshman team last season, is another Baylor graduate.

The return teams have questions. Bagley and Wright are the only players on the roster with experience returning kicks, and that was just on kickoff returns. Board and Borishade were the two punt returners, so that position needs replacements.

SCHEDULE

Arth's first UTC schedule will include two open dates, but the first three games will be difficult. First will be a game against nonconference rival Jacksonville State on Aug. 26 in the National Kickoff Classic on ESPN in Montgomery, Ala. The Mocs next will visit LSU on Sept. 9 and then play their home opener a week later against UT-Martin.

In league play, UTC will host East Tennessee State, Furman, The Citadel and Western Carolina and travel to Mercer, Samford, Virginia Military Institute and Wofford.

"It's exciting," Arth said of the schedule. "One thing I've always believed in is that it's all about us. Since I've been a head coach, we've never once talked about an opponent. It's all about being the best we can be and control the things we can control. We will know our opponent, know the plan of how to attack and how to stop the opponent, but we'll never make it about them. It's all about us, because at the end of the day that's the standard you set.

"It doesn't matter who you're playing against, if you're true to that standard — whether you're playing so-and-so or the No. 1 team in the country — you're going out there to give it everything you have and be the best you can be. That's all we've ever concerned ourselves with."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.

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