University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coaches feel really good about starting quarterback Alejandro Bennifield.
They feel good about the guys behind him on the depth chart, too.
The Mocs lost three quarterbacks during the offseason, but they filled those vacancies with two transfers — redshirt sophomore Nick Tiano from Mississippi State and redshirt freshman Dominic Caldwell from Florida International — and freshman Cole Copeland from Bradley Central. Based on the reps given to each the first two weeks of practice, coaches have been impressed enough to feel good about the position for at least the next four seasons.
"That goes back to Coach Rascati," Bennifield said of offensive coordinator Justin Rascati. "He's an excellent teacher of the game, and I feel that any quarterback under him will be great. With his talent, in the film room he's teaching so much and they're learning at such a fast rate, they can go out and execute like a starter would."
It all starts with Bennifield, though. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior passed for 2,622 yards and 26 touchdowns and was a second-team All-Southern Conference selection in 2016, and first-year coach Tom Arth believes he's even better this year.
"He's taken on more of a leadership role vocally," Arth said Thursday. "He's always been a leader by example — and that's important — but we've seen him not be afraid to step up and be vocal, which is great.
"We've also seen him, with more reps and more experience in our system, his timing, decision-making, accuracy, everything is improving and he's playing at a faster pace."
After Bennifield, there isn't a lot of college experience — Tiano completed one pass for 5 yards while appearing in five games at Mississippi State last season — but there are a lot of arms with potential and plenty of reason to suspect the position is in good hands for quite some time under this coaching staff.
Arth spent three seasons as a quarterback in the Indianapolis Colts organization and had the chance to learn from Peyton Manning after a solid career at Division III's John Carroll University, where he came back to work as an assistant (2010-12) and head coach (2013-16). Rascati was the quarterback at James Madison, leading the Dukes to the 2004 Football Championship Subdivision title after starting his career at Louisville. Receivers coach Ryan Aplin was a two-time Sun Belt offensive player of the year at Arkansas State, and offensive quality control coach Patrick Kramer — who works alongside Rascati with the quarterbacks — was a quarterback at John Carroll under Arth.
They believe the quarterbacks they're working with now have tremendous upside.
Tiano (6-5, 240) was a three-star prospect at Baylor School and rated by recruiting services as the No. 1 quarterback in Tennessee coming out of high school. Copeland (6-4, 200) was a two-star prospect despite not going to any major quarterbacking camps or combines, while Caldwell (6-3, 180) was his team's offensive MVP as a senior, and both of them were prep basketball standouts, too.
"We've got a lot of talent, some real competitors in that room," Rascati said. "We feel good, really good about that position going forward."
Sources at UTC have told the Times Free Press that Mocs linebacker Dale Warren is facing an NCAA-mandated suspension. Sources also said the university has appealed the suspension, but it's not known when a final decision could be made.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the information has not been officially released.
Warren is a 6-foot, 225-pound senior and a STATS FCS preseason third-team All-American. He had 91 tackles — 19 for loss — and six sacks during the 2016 season, earning first-team All-SoCon honors as selected by the coaches.
With a possible absence looming for Warren, a number of players have been among those getting additional reps at inside linebacker alongside the other starter, senior Tae Davis. That group includes sophomore Matthew Draper — who transferred from Cincinnati — and junior Tavon Lawson.
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