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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / UTC's Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks outruns Western Carolina's John Brannon III for a touchdown during the Mocs' 60-36 win Sept. 28 at Finley Stadium. Ibitokun-Hanks was injured during the victory and missed the next four games but returned last Saturday at Samford, where he rushed for 139 yards and scored three touchdowns.

Updated with "Academic honors" item at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 14, 2019.

When the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sent out a call for help in the first few minutes of last Saturday's game at Samford, special agent Ibi was quickly on the scene to restore order on the football field.

After star freshman running back Ailym Ford went out early with a knee injury, Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks ("Ibi" to his teammates) returned from his own leg injury after missing four games to rush for 139 yards and two touchdowns and catch a touchdown pass in the Mocs' 35-27 victory.

It's the kind of positive result the graduate transfer from Newark, New Jersey, who is studying criminal justice, hopes to provide in his future career.

"I want to be an FBI agent," the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Ibitokun-Hanks said after practice Thursday. "I've always had interest since I was a kid in the criminal justice field. It's always been exciting for me to watch those types of shows growing up. It always seemed so interesting and challenging."

If determination is any indicator of future professional success, Ibitokun-Hanks has already proven he doesn't give up easily. When he injured a hamstring during a 73-yard touchdown run in the Mocs' 60-36 win against Western Carolina on Sept. 28, instead of going down or heading out of bounds, Ibi chose to keep moving downfield.

"I was running the ball and felt two pops, but I wanted to keep running," he said. "I thought if you're going to be injured anyway, you might as well score. I didn't think I would be out that long, though."

In his absence, Ford took off, reaching the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season and running for more than 100 yards in each of the games Ibitokun-Hanks missed. An injury to such a player could completely alter a team's game plan, but the Mocs never wavered.

"Last week, after not playing for three or four weeks, he comes in and goes for nearly 150 yards," UTC senior quarterback Nick Tiano said. "He's tough and he's faster than some people might give him credit for.

"He's a smart dude, too. In pass protecting he's great at picking that linebacker up. He knows the game plan and he's a leader. He's a super strong, athletic guy, and he has the brain to go with it. We were never worried that our ground game would suffer."

The moment Ibitokun-Hanks arrived on campus, he immediately became the team's most experienced — and successful — running back. In three seasons at Albany (New York), he ran for 2,840 yards, including a 1,401-yard season in 2016 in which he earned Football Championship Subdivision All-America and first-team All-Colonial Athletic Conference honors.

"He's a fifth-year guy who has played a lot of football and ran for a lot of yards where he was at before," UTC coach Rusty Wright said. "He just came in here and did what he was supposed to do, and now the opportunity has presented itself for him and he's taking advantage of it.

"You know, it's easy for a transfer to come in and get injured like he did and say to heck with this, I'm good. He hasn't. He fought his way back — and thankfully for us he did because he's giving us a chance to remain productive back there."

With the Mocs (5-5, 4-2 Southern Conference) ruling Ford out for their home finale against The Citadel (6-4, 4-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday and his status questionable for their season finale Nov. 23 at Virginia Military Institute, Ibitokun-Hanks is ready to end his collegiate career on a high note, though he hates that his running mate's season might be over.

"When one brother goes down, the older brother has to come in and set the tone and make sure we don't lose a beat," he said. "I wanted to make sure that I showed everybody that just because Ailym was down didn't mean we had to be.

"This isn't my first rodeo, though I haven't gotten 30 carries in a while, but I'm ready to do anything to help us get another win."

 

Academic honors

UTC junior receiver Bryce Nunnelly repeated on the CoSIDA academic all-district team for Division I football, joined this year by safety Jerrell Lawson, a business management graduate now working on a master's degree in business administration. Nunnelly is a mechanical engineering major with a 3.81 GPA.

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

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