EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first story in a series counting down the top five University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football players of the past decade.
One thing about former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga defensive lineman Isaiah Mack: He knows how to finish on a high.
It's part of his job on the football field. Sacks aren't registered unless you get to the quarterback before he gets rid of the ball — and quarterback hurries aren't celebrated in the same fashion as sacks.
Mack's time with the Mocs didn't start off fast, though, as he entered college as a talented prospect from nearby Northwest Whitfield High School who wouldn't always listen. His first three years at UTC were spent on a line with the likes of Keionta Davis and Davis Tull — each a Southern Conference defensive player of the year — as well as Vantrell McMillan, who was an All-SoCon selection as a senior and spent time in an NFL rookie camp with the Seattle Seahawks before most recently landing with the XFL's Houston Roughnecks.
In addition, more experienced players at Mack's position, such as Josh Freeman and Taylor Reynolds, had at least a year on him at that spot.
Yet time and time again, Mack produced when he played. He began his Mocs career as a tackle in the 4-2-5 scheme being used under Russ Huesman, the Mocs' head coach at the time, and started the final eight games of his redshirt freshman season in 2015, accumulating nine tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as he earned SoCon all-freshman honors.
"Isaiah is a guy that, during recruiting, we thought he had the chance to be a pretty special player," Adam Braithwaite, UTC's defensive coordinator at the time, said after a win over Samford in 2015. "It's nice to see him get his feet wet; he's starting to make plays. We have high hopes and expectations for him; we think it's important to him. He has real talent and is a good worker.
"I think he has a real big upside, and the sky's the limit for him."
Added Mack that day: It's amazing to finally have my defensive line trust me. I've wanted to show them what I can do. I've wanted to show people I used my redshirt year to get better. Last year was hard, but at the same time it was needed. I improved my pass rush; it was what was needed, and I got to show today that it's been working."
As a sophomore, he again came on strong at the end, racking up four of his 7.5 sacks in the Mocs' two playoff games. He entered his junior year with a change in leadership as Huesman left for Richmond after the 2016 season and was replaced by Tom Arth, which also meant a change in defensive scheme as Arth employed a 3-4 front that moved Mack to end.
Despite starting over to some degree, he played well enough to earn All-SoCon second-team honors as a junior before again flourishing after having time to adjust.
As a senior, all but one of his 8.5 sacks came in the final five games of the season, and he joined Davis and Tull as another Moc selected as the league's defensive player of the year. He was a first-team All-American and finished 17th in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the best defensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision.
"I feel like it's been nothing more than the coaches giving me good preparation, keeping me ready for the game and making sure I know who I'm going against, so I can use whatever move I need to make," Mack said in 2018 after a career-high three sacks in a 34-27 win over Virginia Military Institute. "But at the end it's effort. All it is is effort."
Mack finished his UTC career third in program history in tackles for loss with 41 — behind Tull and Davis — and fourth in sacks with 21, behind Tull, Davis and Josh Williams. Although Mack was not selected in the 2019 NFL draft, he soon after signed as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans, stuck around and as a rookie had eight tackles and 1.5 sacks for the team that made a surprising run to the AFC championship game before coming up short against the Kansas City Chiefs, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
But if Mack's past is any indicator, the best is yet to come.
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