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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The Mocs take the field against Mercer at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga on Saturday, March 27, 2021.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program chose education over football in the spring of 2021.

The Mocs turned their back on the sanctity of playing football, in a spring season that has already been largely forgotten by most, to ensure not only the health and safety of its players but to watch no fewer than 11 players graduate in May and for the program to collectively post a 3.107 grade-point average, its third consecutive semester of having at least a 3.0 — a school record.

Some UTC fans understood when the Mocs — who were 3-0 in Southern Conference play and ranked ninth in the country — sat 21 of 22 starters and played inexperienced players, including an all-freshman offensive line, in what turned into a 35-28 loss to Mercer. A lot didn't, and expressed that frustration. Opposing fanbases coined the phrase "Chattaquitta" two days later when the team opted out of the remaining four conference games against Samford, Western Carolina, East Tennessee State and Virginia Military Institute — a game that had previously been postponed due to COVID within the UTC program.

Yet, the product they showed in wins over Wofford, The Citadel and Furman was enough for both the SoCon coaches and media to rank the Mocs first in the preseason polls, with practice starting Aug. 4 at Scrappy Moore Field.

Is there more pressure to win now? After all, this is the season that was always the focus of head coach Rusty Wright, who never bought into the spring football concept.

But pressure to win football? In the South? Na.

"These guys understand what we're trying to do and how we're trying to do it," Wright said Monday. "I think they're hungry to go do things and go see things and experience some things we hadn't experienced here for the last four or five years."

But that's just the head coach, right? The players have to be feeling somethingright?

"I mean, there's going to be a target on our back regardless because we are Chattanooga, but as far as the preseason polls, I don't think so," preseason first-team all-SoCon defensive end Devonnsha Maxwell said Monday. "I'm pretty sure people feel they should be ranked higher than they are, but at the same time there's not much weight to it. Once the thing gets rolling you start playing games and people win, people lose, people overperform or underperform."

There was a time in the not-so-distant past that the Mocs being first in the polls was expected. It's where they lived from 2014-16, winning regular-season titles in 2014 and 2015. That was two coaches ago, though, so seeing what Wright's built, with nine all-SoCon first and second-team preseason selections, only shows that there's a level of respect being paid to the program again.

And as long as they win this fall, all the negativity spewed towards the program in the spring will be forgotten.

"I guess it is a surprise that we got picked first," senior offensive lineman Cole Strange, one of four first-team selections, said. "I feel like it hadn't been that way the past couple of years, but I guess it's nice to see the recognition for us doing better."

In addition to Maxwell and Strange — who won the Jacobs Blocking Award given to the best offensive lineman in the league — running back Ailym Ford and safety Brandon Dowdell were named first team. Offensive linemen Harrison Moon and McClendon Curtis, receiver Reginald Henderson, outside linebacker Jay Person and safety Jerrell Lawson were second-team picks.

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

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