The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program has the luxury of returning nine offensive starters heading into the 2020 season. Another luxury: One of the offensive position groups that lost a starter, the line, has six players who started games in 2019.
The other departure, by quarterback Nick Tiano, leaves a void that is more concerning in the grand scheme of things.
UTC will enter the season with three quarterbacks on scholarship: senior Drayton Arnold, junior Cole Copeland and freshman Ty Gossett. Arnold is the only one of the three who completed a pass in a college game in 2019, connecting on five of 10 throws for 36 yards in the Mocs' 45-0 loss at Tennessee on Sept. 14.
Tiano started 27 games (including the final 23) in his three seasons at UTC and ended his career in the program's top 10 in every major statistical category for a quarterback, so it's understandable why Arnold received few reps and appeared in just three games last year.
Copeland was a Southern Conference all-freshman selection in 2017 but hasn't played since then for academic reasons. The former Bradley Central standout was suspended for the 2018 season, which his UTC bio lists as a redshirt year, and wasn't with the Mocs last season, getting reinstated to the program this past winter.
Gossett enrolled early, but the football benefits of him being a UTC student-athlete since January have been limited for reasons beyond his control.
Mocs coach Rusty Wright and his staff planned to use the spring to help the quarterbacks start building some chemistry with the offense, but the coronavirus pandemic shut that down, which has hampered an offensive unit with so many pieces returning but not a sure answer about who is going to lead it.
"You can't put it into terms," Wright said regarding how much the shutdown hampered development. "Not just that position, but especially that one because somebody's going to take a snap that hasn't played in a couple of years (Copeland), hadn't played a whole bunch (Arnold) or hadn't played at all at our level (Gossett).
"It hurts you in a lot of different ways; it hurts growth in those guys because you can teach a guy how to reach block and you can teach a guy how to defend a down block, but the quarterback is back there and he has to see a picture, as many pictures as he can see, to be as good as he can be. Yeah, that's a concern."
Arnold, who was rated a three-star prospect by 247Sports.com coming out of high school, started his collegiate career at Football Bowl Subdivision program Old Dominion, where he redshirted as a freshman in 2016 and graduated in three years. However, counting this past season, he has played in just five college games.
He had looked forward to this spring as a chance to build a rapport with the receivers, but instead he found himself back in his hometown of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
"I worked out quite a bit, two or three times a day. I threw as much as I could," Arnold said. "I don't think I'm behind at all. I feel good about where I'm at now and pretty excited about getting things going."
For health and safety reasons as the pandemic continues, the Mocs are currently going through workouts in two groups: skill positions in one session and linemen in the other.
Heading into a season with so much uncertainty, the fact that the Mocs return so many players on both sides of the ball could be even more of an advantage.
"We don't have to come back and hopefully teach effort and how to do things and all that stuff," Wright said. "They understand that there's a standard and that's how it's going to be."
Mocs add Wilson
With preseason practices expected to begin in the next couple of weeks, the Mocs have added graduate transfer Tez Wilson from the University of Rhode Island to their defensive line.
In his first three college seasons, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Wilson made 27 starts at either linebacker or defensive end. He missed the 2018 season due to an injury and played in only four games in 2019 before an injury ended his season.
He has career stats of 162 tackles, eight sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss, with 12.5 of those as a junior in 2017. He also has two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown in 2015.