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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC football coach Rusty Wright, shown during the Mocs' Aug. 4 practice at Scrappy Moore Field, has been through a week of preseason work with his 2021 team.

It may not be 2016, but it's certainly heading that way for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team — not necessarily from the perspective of wins and losses, but more in terms of the stiff competition to get on the field.

That 2016 team had current Houston Texans linebacker Tae Davis playing on special teams, as well as Isaiah Mack coming off the bench at defensive tackle two years before he was named the Southern Conference defensive player of the year. The Mocs of five years ago also included defensive lineman Keionta Davis, offensive lineman Corey Levin and receiver C.J. Board — all of whom have spent time in the NFL, just like Davis and Mack.

This team isn't quite that yet, but it is coming to a point where a missed practice for whatever reason could knock a player down in the rotation. Even as all 22 starters return from last season, the level of practice competition hasn't slowed as second-string players are being pushed by third-stringers and starters are trying to hold on to their positions ahead of the Sept. 2 opener against Austin Peay at Finley Stadium.

After a week of practice, including a situational scrimmage Thursday, here are a few observations about the 2021 Mocs.

 

1. QB competition: UTC has five quarterbacks on the roster, with three — senior Drayton Arnold and juniors Cole Copeland and Robert Riddle — separating themselves from the others. Arnold and Copeland took most of the snaps in Thursday's scrimmage, with freshman Ty Gossett playing some with the third-string group. Mocs coach Rusty Wright is in no rush to name a starter; Arnold, Copeland and Riddle all have starting experience, so it will depend on who best fits Wright's vision and coordinator Joe Pizzo's offense.

"We're just looking for a guy that's going to make good decisions and give us an opportunity to win," Wright said last week. "That's the biggest thing. You don't have to necessarily win a game; we've got good people around him, but the guy has to take care of the football and give us an opportunity to win, and after that we'll be fine.

"Aaron Rodgers doesn't have to show up back there. We just have to have a guy who makes good decisions, doesn't turn the ball over and gives us an opportunity to manage that offense and go win."

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC junior Robert Riddle fires a pass during an Aug. 4 practice at Scrappy Moore Field. Riddle is one of the leading candidates to start at quarterback when the season opens Sept. 2.

2. RB by committee: Ailym Ford was the 2019 SoCon freshman of the year and a Freshman All-American. Tyrell Price has earned All-SoCon honors during his career. Gino Appleberry scored multiple touchdowns in a game for Western Kentucky in 2019, and Lance Jackson rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a game against Mercer last season, so depth shouldn't be a concern for the Mocs at that position entering the season. The three main choices — Ford, Price and Appleberry — each had opportunities during the scrimmage to run, and all four could get carries this fall.

"Those bodies, they wear and tear and they get worn down a little bit," running backs coach Ricky Spradling said. "In 2019 we got down to our fifth- and sixth-string running backs because we had no one else left, so you've got to have a bunch of guys and everyone has to be ready to go. I hope we're fortunate enough where we don't have those type of injuries this year, but it's a talented group and I think each one of them could start for other teams across the country.

"We're fortunate to have them here, but the best thing is that they pull for each other and they support each other, so that's the best part about this group."

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC's Ailym Ford catches a pass during an Aug. 4 practice at Scrappy Moore Field. Ford is part of a deep group of running backs for the Mocs entering the season.

3. Battle on the line? There have been a couple of players missing practice for different reasons (personal, injury, etc.), but there appears to be one clear position battle where both players are mostly healthy, and that's at center. The Mocs do return Kyle Miskelley, whose knee injury this past spring played a big role in numerous players opting out and ending the spring campaign four games early, but they also brought in transfer Blake Mitchell, who was an All-Ohio Valley Conference lineman at Austin Peay. They've been splitting reps at center, but Mitchell has been moving around on the second unit and playing multiple positions on the line, which has given the staff a chance to see where he's best suited to help a group that returns 12 guys who have at least one college start.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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