Coming off a 6-5 season that started full of promise but ended without a Southern Conference title or a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will begin practice Friday morning in preparation for its 2022 schedule.
This season's roster will have an extremely different look from the previous one — which was one of the country's oldest — due to the loss of 14 players who had at least six years of college experience and nine others who had at least five. Some of those players had been on the roster as far back as when head coach Rusty Wright was the program's linebackers coach in 2016, some were married by the end of their college football careers and a lot of them had already moved onto their next steps in life.
This group is different, which should present a different challenge for the fourth-year head coach with a 15-13 record. since taking over at his alma mater.
"I'm growing with this team to a certain degree," Wright said last week. "I mean, I have to as a head coach. I don't have all the answers, but I think we have an opportunity to be really good. I've got to get them there; I've got to bring them there first, get them and develop them, and I think they bought into what we're trying to do a little more. I don't think there's as much drama with this group as there has been in the last two years, so I think in that regard, maybe what we're doing makes sense in the long run.
"Is it always right? No. Is it always wrong? No, but it's what I know and what I trust and believe in, and that's what we have to go do to keep building a program."
For that to happen, questions will have to be answered about the roster and the team, which opens its 11-game schedule with a SoCon matchup against Wofford on Sept. 3 at Finley Stadium.
Here are five storylines for the season.
It always ends up being about the quarterback, right? There's been a lot of excitement about the addition of Eastern Michigan graduate transfer Preston Hutchinson, who averaged more than 300 offensive yards per game (277 passing) in 2020, but he's going to have to unseat senior Cole Copeland, who was 6-3 as a starter in 2021. Copeland, who didn't play from 2018-20, has struggled at times with his decision making (21 career interceptions to 14 touchdowns), but he's also been clutch in some key moments. This is a two-player race for the starting job and the most important position battle as of now.
Forming the O-line
Four guys with multiple years of starting experience are gone from last season, highlighted by first-round NFL draft pick Cole Strange. The staff has done a good job on the recruiting trail in past seasons, but for this year they really hit the transfer portal hard for additions, bringing in seven new players, including two with Division I experience. There are two starting spots pretty much locked up: McClendon Curtis and Colin Truett, the holdovers from last season's starting unit. The staff also feels good about center Reid Williams, but outside of those few, it feels like this could be another tough competition to get on the field.
The young receivers
There's not a lot of experience returning for this group, but man, there's plenty of speed and potential. Like the offensive line, there aren't many guarantees about who will be the starting three at the position, but sophomore Jamoi Mayes always seems to be the first name that comes up in conversations. Senior Tyron Arnett is the most experienced receiver, while fifth-year junior Andrew Manning has two starts in his UTC career and Tyler Walker, Tyler Smith and Javon Burke have experienced game action. The group will have to develop some, but it has a chance to be a strength in 2022.
Depth is expected to be a strength; experience is not. The Mocs lost four starters, with senior CaMiron Smith the only one back. The program has brought in eight transfers in the past two years for this position group, and the Mocs feel good about the players still on the roster. Kameron Brown and Reuben Lowery III played a ton last season, and a lot of good things have been said about Jordan Walker, who while redshirting last season worked plenty with standout Jerrell Lawson in the All-SoCon selection's final season.
Taking the next step
The program has flirted with the playoffs in two of Wright's three seasons, but now there is some pressure to take the next step. The Mocs were again picked as favorites to win the SoCon title, and their four preseason All-America selections lead the conference. The past two seasons finished unceremoniously: The 2020 schedule was played mostly in spring 2021 before UTC elected to end it prematurely, and last year's fall schedule closed with back-to-back losses when wins would have set up a possible playoff run. Potential is a double-edged sword that sounds good when you have it but becomes an indictment when you don't take advantage of it, and UTC has been flirting with the potential of being a good program again for quite a while now. It's time to cash in.