As the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team prepared this week to host The Citadel in what will be the final home game for 14 seniors, Rusty Wright couldn't help but recall his first impression of the 2019 Mocs.
"The first day of fall camp, I was like, 'Oh, no.' I was sweating it," UTC's first-year head coach said with a shake of his head. "We were nowhere near being a football team."
There were days during practice under the melting Tennessee sun when the former UTC player and assistant would walk away from whatever drill was being butchered, his head down as he tried to find some reason to be optimistic or the right words to motivate his tired and sometimes confused players.
"We had a lot going on," he said. "We were throwing a lot at them and demanding a lot from them it was tough on everybody."
When UTC (5-5, 4-2 Southern Conference) takes the field at Finley Stadium for Saturday's 2 p.m. kickoff against the Bulldogs (6-4, 4-2), Wright is happy to point out the Mocs will do so as a team far ahead of where he thought it would be and still with an outside shot to tie for the conference title.
It's why, the coach already knows, this team will always stand out to him for all the right reasons.
"Just to see where those guys have come from," he said during Tuesday's media luncheon before having to regroup and start again as the emotion of the moment took over. "Just to see where those kids have come from, the adversity and things not always going our way those kids just kept fighting."
Depth has always been issue No. 1 for this season's Mocs, so Wright and his staff take particular pride in the fact the team has overcome losing numerous starters to injury. The backfield alone has lost four players for multiple games, yet the Mocs' ground attack is the strength of the team.
At least four linebackers have lost time, three starting offensive lineman have gone down and two receivers and junior safety Jerrell Lawson, a preseason All-SoCon selection, are also out. Any FCS program enduring such casualties to remain competitive is admirable.
For a team that started the season with 30 new players, it is hard to believe.
"One of the themes this year has been we've got who we've got, and if we're good enough we'll figure it out," Wright said. "One thing that has stood out is you better be ready to play because you don't know when your number is going to be called. Whoever you are, you better be ready to play and make the most of it to be productive and help us win.
"These guys have done a tremendous job of accepting that challenge."
Despite the need for bodies, the coaching staff managed to retain redshirt status for nearly everyone in its first recruiting class, with the obvious exception running back Ailym Ford. (The 1,081-yard rusher is out for at least this game after injuring his knee in last Saturday's win at Samford.)
Add in the fact that of the numerous transfers who joined the team this year only running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks is graduating, and the Mocs expect to be much deeper from the start in 2020.
Wright said one of the major keys to beating the Bulldogs is not allowing their triple-option-oriented offense to put together time-killing drives. In wins against Georgia Tech and Samford, The Citadel had the ball for more than 40 minutes of game time.
"If we let them go to work, it's going to be tough," Wright said. "There are going to be a bunch of third-and-3s and fourth-and-1s, and we have to win some of those."
"It's all under center, completely different," Wright said. "It's old school, Georgia Tech-style back in the day. That's the thing that concerns me. We've got a bunch of guys who haven't played against that stuff before. It will take us a second to get used to the speed of it."
Thanks for serving
In addition to being senior day, it will also be military appreciation day. All active military personnel and veterans plus their immediate families receive free admission to the game.