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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC quarterback Nick Tiano (7) hands the ball off to running back Ailym Ford (32) agaisnt Tennessee during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 in Knoxville, Tenn.

The running game was a concern for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team most of the 2018 season, when the Mocs ranked at or near the bottom of the Southern Conference in most statistical categories.

Though the UTC offense has not performed up to expectations during a 1-2 start, the ground attack has been the lone bright spot. And now the team's three-headed backfield monster has a name.

"Project Thumper" will be on display Saturday when the Mocs host FCS second-ranked James Madison (2-1). It's a moniker that, according to senior graduate transfer Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, befits the running style of the group, which also includes injured starter Tyrell Price and true freshman Ailym Ford.

"Tyrell thought of the Thumper part and I added the Project part," said a smiling Ibitokun-Hanks, better known as "Ibi" to his teammates and coaches. "It's the mentality we have as a group."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / University of Tennessee at Chattanooga running back Tyrell Price (23) carries the ball against Eastern Illinois at Finley Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

When asked to explain what it means, he just smiled again and said, "Just come watch and see for yourself."

Price, Ford and Ibitokun-Hanks are similar in size and running style. Price (6-foot, 220 pounds), Ford (5-9, 205) and Ibitokun-Hanks (5-8, 205) are punishing runners who often seek out contact and rarely get pushed backward.

A week after Ford's breakthrough 120-yard performance against Jacksonville State, Ibitokun-Hanks followed with 85 yards, including a 37-yard run that, for a moment, gave the Mocs hope in what turned out to be a 45-0 loss. UTC coach Rusty Wright said he knew in training camp the team would be fine if Price was injured.

"We could tell early on that Ibi and Ailym were going to be players," he said. "For Ibi it was tough, I'm sure, at first. He's a fifth-year guy who was playing a lot at one place, and he comes here and doesn't play much the first two games. We're thankful to have him.

"And 32 (Ford) has pretty much forced his way onto the field. He came here and we weren't planning on him playing as a freshman, but he does it. That young man is the first one at practice every day and the last one to leave. He does everything you ask of him, and that's why he is what he is."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee defensive back Theo Jackson (26) tackles UTC running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks (24) during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 in Knoxville, Tenn.

Wright also praised the offensive line, which enters this week's game having not allowed a sack. Ibitokun-Hanks, like Ford last week, said the front, which includes starters Malcolm White, McClendon Curtis, Cole Strange, Kyle Miskelley and Harrison Moon, deserves much of the credit.

"Those guys, having not given up a sack and with the way we've run the ball, it shows how much hard work they are putting in," Ibitokun-Hanks said. "As running backs and linemen, we're all in this together."

Together, though, the offense is not producing. Saturday was the first time the Mocs have been shut out since a 49-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama in 2013, and the five turnovers (four interceptions, one fumble) were the most since a 68-7 loss at East Tennessee State in 2003. The 76 passing yards Saturday were the fewest in five years.

"We have to do what we do to move the football," Wright said. "Tennessee wasn't going to let us throw the football to Bryce (Nunnelly), which gave us a little more opportunity to run the football. This week we have to be able to throw the ball and catch it. That's the biggest thing."

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

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