When asked, Rusty Wright always made clear how he viewed the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's 2021 spring football season.
Still, maybe some didn't believe that when the Mocs' second-year head coach said his primary focus was going to be developing players for the fall, he meant it.
A couple of weeks ago, those plans were laid bare on Finley Stadium's field when 21 regular starters sat as the Mocs — who had risen to a No. 9 national ranking in the Football Championship Subdivision and were contending for the Southern Conference title — lost 35-28 to Mercer. The loss probably would have gone over better if there had been more regular starters mixed in with younger players, but Wright made a decision he felt was in the best interest of the players.
"The only way I can protect them is by not playing them," Wright stated on March 25.
Two days later, some two dozen players had chosen to opt out of the remainder of the season — a provision granted by the NCAA amid the COVID-19 pandemic — including the majority of a position group, leaving the Mocs with too few players to compete per SoCon regulations. On that Monday, UTC's 2020-21 football season was officially over at 3-1 in league play and 3-2 overall, with the nonconference loss having occurred at Western Kentucky in October.
What did we learn from UTC's five-game season? Let's look back at five things:
Defense is legit: In the four games in which the Mocs counted on their first-stringers, the team had a top-10 defense in the FCS. Even as the offense had some second-half struggles that allowed games to get close, the defense made play after play after play, allowing the offense a chance to figure things out. And there was talent on all three levels of that defense, with few weaknesses. Even the reserves showed promise: Christian Snyder had 20 tackles in the loss against Mercer. If the entire unit returns this fall, the Mocs could pick up right where they left off on that side of the ball.
Deep on offense: Outside of quarterback, I wasn't sure what to expect from the offense. What I found out is the Mocs are talented at every position on that side of the ball, and it goes beyond running back Ailym Ford, receiver Bryce Nunnelly and tight end Chris James, three stars from the 2019 season who didn't play this spring. Three running backs not named Ford scored touchdowns during the SoCon schedule, and two tight ends not named James also scored. Nunnelly is off to Western Michigan as a graduate transfer, and Reginald Henderson, Kanore McKinnon and some talented freshmen made up for the production lost. And that's before you get to the deep offensive line, where the starters are really good and the all-freshman group that played against Mercer helped freshman Lance Jackson rush for 135 yards and two scores.
QB play acceptable but not good: Both Drayton Arnold and Cole Copeland have interesting stories and had moments, but neither took control of the position and made it his own. It's possible coaches will look for another option to join the two leading candidates to start behind center in the fall, because this team is pretty stacked at every other position on both sides of the ball.
Special teams is meh: Arkansas State transfer Aaron Sears, the team's expected starter at kicker, wasn't available this spring due to injury. The primary punter, Gabe Boring, missed the last couple of games. Still, seeing the Mocs feel forced to go for it on fourth downs in an opponent's territory because they didn't always trust walk-on freshman kicker Skyler Wilson — who played well enough to make four of six field-goal attempts, including a 42-yarder for the win at Furman — was concerning, because not being able to rely on the kicker can cost you games and it nearly cost UTC in two of them. Throw in multiple muffed punts against Mercer, and you have things that have to be corrected before the fall.
Fall could be special: The Mocs have put a target on themselves for the fall. Not everybody in the administration was on board with the approach taken against Mercer, and the decision to opt out probably wasn't a consensus one, although it was allowed per SoCon guidelines. And that's before you get to opposing fans who believe the Mocs just quit, an opinion shared by some UTC fans who disagreed with the decision about the Mercer game. So a lot of of eyes will be on the Mocs' results this fall to see if the developmental focus pays off. This team has very few flaws, though, and if it can fix those small problems, it will be at or near the top of the league standings again. And in the end, winning cures all.