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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Chattanooga Mocs linebacker Jay Person (30) tackles Furman Paladins running back Dominic Roberto (8) during the football game between UTC and Furman at Finley Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

With more than half its returning defense either earning a postseason award or being named to the preseason All-Southern Conference team, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga shouldn't have to worry about that side of the ball going into this season.

And with an offense that struggled last season — and quite possibly could be a work in progress early on — the defense may be needed to lead the way for the preseason favorites. It's a task the defensive players feel quite comfortable doing, if need be.

"We definitely want it to be no drop-offs," edge rusher Jay Person said last week. "The offense is definitely getting better, but we (the defense) want to come in and get back to how we were last year and be even better than we were."

The defense was atop of the league in every major category in 2021, but the offense didn't finish better than fifth in any category last season, resulting in a 6-5 finish. The Mocs scored more than 30 points just four times, which wasn't on par with the best FCS teams.

This past offseason two new quarterbacks, three new receivers and seven new offensive linemen were brought in from the transfer portal, and with the competition level rising in each room, it could lead to better offense production. But it could also take time to mesh with so many new faces, meaning a defense — which does have some questions in its own right, specifically in the secondary — may need to anchor the team early on, according to head coach Rusty Wright.

"Defensively, I don't worry about us. We got to fill a couple of holes, which will be important, but we've got enough guys there that we should be good on defense — there's no doubt in my mind," Wright said last week during the SoCon's Media Day. "I don't care who you're playing, I think you should go play defense. I mean, it doesn't matter if we're playing Kentucky or Illinois, or Eastern Illinois, if you have an opportunity to play defense at a high level you should do that."

This defense has the pieces. Defensive end Devonnsha Maxwell is a two-time All-American and the reigning co-Defensive Player of the Year in the league. Linebacker Ty Boeck was a preseason third-team selection this year and has been an All-SoCon selection each of his three seasons on the field. Person, defensive end Ben Brewton, linebacker Kam Jones and cornerback CaMiron Smith have either been selected to an all-conference team or were a preseason pick this year.

As Wright said, holes have to be filled on both sides of the ball. But if there's a side that's more ready to lead the way, it's likely the one that did a lot of the heavy lifting a season ago.

But even that side recognizes the need for the offense to be dynamic. Games like Samford and Western Carolina — games the Mocs won by a combined 100-30 — were fun to watch for fans and enjoyable for the defense to sit back and watch. If the offense shows improvement, it could be the step needed for the Mocs to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

"Defense wins championships, but a little help is always great to have," Maxwell said last week. "It can make the season longer, happier and healthier, so it's going to be exciting to see what those guys go out and do.

"I'm pretty confident in our team, and in our coaches' confidence in the guys we brought in to help our team so I'm not too worried about refilling positions (on defense). I'm excited about getting out, playing with those guys and seeing what we can accomplish with hard work."

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

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