When the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga played its lone football game of 2020 at Western Kentucky in October, quarterback Drayton Arnold looked like he hadn't started a game in five years of college — three at Old Dominion and two at UTC.
That was true. He hadn't.
And with four months lapsing from his first start to his second, wondering whether he would be the answer for the Mocs behind center wasn't unfair. Arnold used that time to work on facets of his game in an effort to get better, but it appears what he needed all along was just some reps of live action.
In leading the Mocs to a 24-13 victory over 11th-ranked Wofford on Saturday at Finley Stadium, Arnold set career highs in completions (15) and passing yards (223) while throwing his first collegiate touchdown, a short pass to tight end Jay Gibson that tied the game at 7 in the first quarter.
Arnold appeared in control throughout his team's Southern Conference opener, making all the right reads as well as the right throws as the Mocs struggled some in what was expected to be their offense's bread and butter: the running game. UTC technically finished with 78 rushing yards on 39 carries, although one of those was a 23-yard loss credited to punter Gabe Boring after a bad snap late in the game.
"It was night and day," Arnold said of the difference between Saturday and the 13-10 loss at Western Kentucky, when he ran for a 10-yard touchdown but was 9-of-23 passing for 90 yards. "The game was slower for me today; I was (identifying) coverages and doing everything. I was having fun, so it felt good to be out there."
Arnold's growth was the most noticeable development in the return to competition for the Mocs (1-1, 1-0), whose next game is at 1 p.m. Saturday at The Citadel (0-5, 0-1). Here are a few more observations on UTC after watching the Wofford game again.
Depth on offense is fine: Some fans expressed frustration recently when they found out running back Ailym Ford and tight end Chris James would not play against the Terriers, because it led them to believe UTC wasn't taking the game seriously. But I believed that as long as the inactive list didn't include starting offensive linemen, the Mocs would be fine. It's easy to forget with the emergence of Ford as a standout freshman in 2019 that he didn't start that season as UTC's starting running back — that was senior Tyrell Price, a 2018 All-SoCon selection who scored 10 times that year. Price got the majority of the carries Saturday, with 18 for 47 yards, and Gino Appleberry added 46 yards on 14 rushes. Tight end depth? That seems OK, thanks to Gibson — like Appleberry, he is a Western Kentucky transfer — hauling in a pair of passes.
Overall depth tested less than expected: I thought the Mocs would use more players Saturday, but it appears they didn't go far into the depth chart. The only reserve offensive lineman who played was freshman Cam Perry, and that was only because of an injury to right guard McClendon Curtis with 7:48 to go. I saw seven receivers and two tight ends make appearances, but other than that it was starters and second-string players. I'm pretty sure cornerback Jordan Jones and safeties Brandon Dowdell and Jerrell Lawson were on the field for every play by UTC's defense. Travel party restrictions make it more likely for extra players to be used at home as opposed to away games, but at some point UTC will go deeper.
A dominant second half: I don't think I realized how much in control of the game UTC was in the second half, which started with the score 14-10. In the final 30 minutes, the Mocs held the ball nearly twice as long as the Terriers (19:53 to 10:07) and had 173 yards of total offense to the visitors' 76. That included an eight-minute UTC possession to start the second half that ended with a missed field-goal attempt.
One final note: Two players who really stood out were redshirt freshmen defenders: tackle Marlon Taylor and outside linebacker Tre'Von Stanford. Taylor was able to take advantage of the extra reps provided due to starter Christian Smith being out (Tavi McLean started in Smith's place). Taylor was credited with just one tackle, but he was consistently able to get a push in the middle of the line. Stanford, who made five tackles, got some extra time due to Jay Person being in and out of the lineup due to what appeared to be a lower body injury.