With the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team's lone game scheduled for this calendar year rapidly approaching, coach Rusty Wright feels good about the Mocs' core players.
After that is where some questions exist.
"I think the first 22 are pretty good on both sides," Wright said Saturday after UTC held the first scrimmage of its 2020-21 preseason, which started Sept. 25. "I think we've got a chance with those guys to be pretty good. We've got some depth, but it's just young depth and it needs to be developed."
The Mocs are preparing not only for their Oct. 24 game at Western Kentucky but, from a more long-term perspective, the expected spring semester schedule that will include Southern Conference play as Football Championship Subdivision leagues compete to set up the playoffs.
Here are some observations from the Times Free Press based on the scrimmage and practices:
— Drayton Arnold leads the quarterback competition. He's the only returning quarterback on the roster from last season after the graduation of Nick Tiano, who started 27 games in his three-year UTC career, so it's no real surprise that Arnold is in the lead to start against the Hilltoppers. Behind him sits Cole Copeland, who is back on the team but hasn't played since 2017, and strong-armed freshman Ty Gossett.
"Cole is coming," Wright said. "He just has to keep getting reps and getting reps, and getting used to playing the game again."
— The Mocs will have a trio of running backs equally capable of handling the load: Ailym Ford, the SoCon's freshman of the year in 2019; 2018 All-SoCon selection Tyrell Price; and Western Kentucky transfer Gino Appleberry, who ripped off a 50-yard run toward the end of a recent practice.
— Wide receiver Bryce Nunnelly and tight end Chris James, both in their final college seasons, are proven assets, and Reginald Henderson and Kanore McKinnon added a combined 31 catches last season, but where is the depth when it comes to potential targets? Tyrin Summers had offseason surgery and his status is uncertain, so here is the first mention of a true freshman potentially earning time for this year's Mocs: Tyler Walker, who has been working a lot with the second unit. Western Michigan transfer Tyron Arnett and redshirt freshman Avery Williams are in the mix, and keep an eye on former Red Bank standout Lucas Brown, who made a couple of acrobatic catches of long throws in the scrimmage.
— The offensive line has talent, but with seven players returning with starting experience, the biggest questions are who will make up the first five and who will replace four-year starter Malcolm White at left tackle. At the moment, the answer to the second question is senior Harrison Moon, who started at right tackle before missing the final eight games last season because of an injury. Colin Truett started in his absence and is entrenched at the position now as a sophomore.
— Turning to defense, Devonnsha Maxwell made the All-SoCon first team last year and has one end spot locked up, but he's the lone returning starter for a defensive line that needs to develop depth. Christian Smith played in seven games at tackle before an injury cost him the final five games last season, and he appears to be the starter. As for the other end spot, junior Ben Brewton and Purdue transfer Giovanni Reviere, who prepped at McCallie, will battle. Keep an eye on freshman John Prince, who has had some quality moments at camp.
— Leading returning tackler Ty Boeck has missed a little time recently, which has provided an opportunity for freshman Justin Sanders to get some reps in at the former Soddy-Daisy standout's inside linebacker slot. Next to him is junior Kam Jones, while the starting outside spots are currently being filled by former area standouts: senior Rashun Freeman (Ooltewah) and sophomore Jay Person (Bradley Central), whose brother Romeo Wykle — a transfer from Patriot League program Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania — joined the team this offseason.
— The Mocs returned their entire secondary, but junior cornerback CaMiron Smith had offseason surgery and has been out, and redshirt freshman Jelen Lee and sophomore Kameron Brown have been in competition at the vacant slot. Freshman Rueben Lowery III has been getting second-team reps behind senior Jordan Jones, while junior Zay Brown and freshman Jordan Walker have been backing up safeties Jerrell Lawson and Brandon Dowdell, respectively. Senior D.J. Jackson will be in the mix once he returns from offseason surgery.
"I feel really good about what we have offensively, and the guys we have give us a chance defensively," Wright said. "We have some young guys that have to grow up and get better and kind of get thrown into the fire — and that's OK. I feel pretty good about this group."