Wiedmer: Will little things ultimately make big difference in UTC's season?

Wiedmer: Will little things ultimately make big difference in UTC's season?

September 20th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC head coach Tom Arth encourages his players as they come off the field. The Mocs met the Jacksonville State Gamecocks in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff at the Carmton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., on Aug. 26, 2017.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

In four seasons as the head football coach of his alma mater, NCAA Division III member John Carroll, Tom Arth never lost more than two games in a given year.

Now 0-3 in his first season at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, one might expect Arth to be defensive, shocked, filled with excuses.

And he certainly has excuses aplenty at his disposal. Fifth-year senior quarterback Alejandro Bennifield, an All-America candidate, has yet to play a snap due to a NCAA-mandated four-game suspension. The NCAA also slapped all-star linebacker Dale Warren with a six-game suspension.

Then there's the schedule, which has seen the Mocs fall to two FCS teams ranked in the latest Stats.com poll — Jacksonville State (5) and UT-Martin (24) — as well as Southeastern Conference power LSU, which stands No. 25 in the latest Associated Press poll.

Yet Arth never mentioned Bennifield or Warren during Tuesday's media luncheon to preview Saturday's trip to VMI. He barely brought up the ridiculously tough early schedule other than to say, "We've played three outstanding teams and we've gotten it handed to us in a lot of ways."

He did say, "Right now, we're not playing as consistently as we need to. We're good in moments but we're not consistent."

He also said, as if reading directly from Nick Saban's earliest seasons at Alabama: "It's a process. We're learning and improving as we go through this."

Yet it's what UTC's players said Tuesday that most bears repeating.

Asked what's different about this coaching staff from the Russ Huesman staff that came before it, wide receiver Bingo Morton said, "They focus on the little things more. Like making sure I bend my knees to come out of my stance faster. Little things can make a big difference."

Let's be clear. No one's made a bigger difference in UTC football over the last 30 years than Huesman, who somehow turned a 1-11 team the year before he arrived into a 6-5 unit his first season (2009) with at least a little help from former McCallie School quarterback and Tennessee transfer B.J. Coleman. Huesman's last three seasons produced teams that won one postseason game in each of those years. No team anywhere enjoys that measure of sustained success without doing little things well.

But this team isn't those teams. It began the year with major holes to fill on offense, especially after Bennifield's suspension. It's also trying to learn a different defense — the 3-4 — and attempting all these changes against the worst three-game stretch to start a season since 2011, when UTC opened at Nebraska, hosted Jax State and visited Eastern Kentucky.

To Huesman's credit, the Mocs started out 2-1 that year, but they finished 5-6. If UTC can grab a win at winless VMI this weekend, expect these Mocs to finish better than those Mocs, though their margin for error is now as thin as President Trump's skin.

But let's return to how they might win them because of Arth and his staff.

Much as Morton discussed the intricacies of route running, junior defensive lineman Isaiah Mack focused on tackling technique.

"We are way more prepared about tackling," Mack said. "(Coach Huesman's) staff worked hard on that, too. But these guys work more on technique. They've improved my stance. They've improved how I'm seeing the field."

When someone brought up how well No. 1 Alabama tackles, Mack nodded and said, "They have perfect technique, and to beat them you have to have perfect technique. That's why it's so important. And I feel like we're getting there. We're getting back to the old Chattanooga of Jacob Huesman and Keionta Davis, teams that could play with anybody."

Maybe these Mocs can play with anybody once everybody's back and maybe not. We don't yet know. We only know that without Bennifield and Warren it's been something of a struggle on both sides of the ball, especially on offense, against that brutal early schedule.

Yet to listen to both Mack and Morton on Tuesday was to believe that all that attention to detail will pay big dividends before this season ends.

"Everything we want is still out there," said Mack, knowing that whichever team wins the Southern Conference is guaranteed a playoff spot. "I know our best football is still ahead of us."

Added Morton: "When December comes, I hope we're playing someone in the playoffs."

If they are, that would certainly be no little thing to celebrate.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.