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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC offensive lineman Cole Strange works against Tennessee defensive lineman Kingston Harris during their teams' Sept. 14 game in Knoxville.

Offensive linemen are the Rodney Dangerfields of the football universe. The only mention they usually get is after committing a penalty or getting beat for a sack.

To a football coach, though, those guys are the foundation for everything that happens on offense, good or bad. So when University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Rusty Wright is asked about starting left guard Cole Strange, his face — even after a long practice session — lights up.

"He's having a phenomenal year," Wright said, beaming. "I tell you, if there is a better offensive lineman in the league, I haven't seen it on film. Pass blocking, run blocking — he's the best, and it's not even close."

The 6-foot-5, 290-pound junior from Knoxville has started 25 consecutive games for the Mocs and is a key cog in a unit that has helped produce 1,728 rushing yards and a robust average of 4.7 yards per carry this season. The line, which has had seven players make a start in 2019, has given up just eight sacks in nine games.

Strange, an All-Southern Conference second-team selection a year ago, has the obvious physical talents to succeed up front. That, Wright said, is only part of what has made him so dominant.

"He works hard at it, it's important to him and it's important to him to finish," Wright said. "He plays the last snap as hard as he does the first snap. Last week against Furman, on the last play of the game, he put his guy underneath the bench. A lot of guys will take that play off and get to the locker room. Not that guy."

some text Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / UTC left guard Cole Strange blocks for quarterback Nick Tiano during the Mocs' Sept. 7 game at Jacksonville State.

Strange gives the praise right back to the coaching staff, notably offensive line coach Chris Malone. A team that a year ago averaged well less than 4 yards a rush — ranking in the bottom 20 of all Football Championship Subdivision teams — is now fourth in the SoCon and 29th nationally with 192 rushing yards per game. The eight sacks allowed are seventh fewest among FCS schools.

Strange doesn't pull any punches when asked why the dramatic improvement has happened.

"To be honest, the biggest difference is coaching," he said. "Last year it was kind of easygoing, but this year if we mess up our feet are held to the fire, so to speak. The last two years that's not how it was. The coaches on that staff were OK with mediocrity.

"This year, the atmosphere is great for people who love to play football and want to do it the right way."

Strange and his linemates are also on the receiving end of unending compliments from freshman star running back Ailym Ford. The 1,000-yard rusher, who is on pace to set several program and SoCon freshman records, is up for the Jerry Rice Award, given to the country's top FCS freshman. Also among his accolades is a national player of the week honor.

"We take a lot of pride in what he's doing and the honors he's receiving," Strange said. "The more awards he gets, the better he looks and the better we look, too. With how hard he runs the ball and the attitude he brings to work every day, he deserves it."

A psychology major who will get a shot at playing in the NFL, Strange could see himself someday coaching. Before all that, though, there are three games left in his junior season and what he hopes to be a run at a SoCon title next year.

"We've had a good season, but we're not satisfied at all," he said. "We've got three games (remaining), and our goal has not changed. We want to win football games. That's why we come out here and work. If keep doing it the right way, good things are going to happen."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.

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