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With their football spring practices officially over late Tuesday afternoon, you might have expected University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior quarterback Nick Tiano and junior defensive back Jerrell Lawson to celebrate a bit. Maybe take in a movie. Hit a beer and burger joint (for the burgers only, of course). Perhaps binge watch some television series on Netflix.

"We're going to the library for a group study," Tiano said of the two players' Tuesday night plans. "We've got a project due. It's going to be a late night."

And you thought being a college athlete was all fun and games.

"We're actually planning a business seminar," Tiano explained. "It's not real, but if it were our plans were to have famous coaches such as Nick Saban (Alabama football) and John Calipari (Kentucky basketball) come and speak."

It all sounds good enough for Lawson and Tiano to earn A's for the project management course. But as the Mocs earn a well-deserved 40-day break before reconvening for summer workouts on May 26, first-year head coach Rusty Wright sent them away with a note of caution.

"Enjoy your time off," he said. "Don't enjoy it too much."

He also told them, "You've got a couple of days left to see your professors (before finals). Please make sure you do that. Make sure they know you care about your schoolwork."

The roster count could have Wright, who played for the Mocs and twice was an assistant with the program, seeing trouble. Only 68 players participated in spring drills, and many of them are on the younger side.

"These young guys, you've got to teach them what to do," he said as he addressed the entire squad a final time at UTC's intramural field next to Engel Stadium. "You're going to have to physically show them how things have to be."

Improved physicality was Job One, Two, Three and Four for Wright and his staff when spring practice began.

"It was a shock to their system at first," Wright recalled. "They'd say, 'Coach, we didn't tackle that much. We didn't go live that much.'"

Said Lawson of the change: "The style they've brought in is hard-nosed, physical football. It's good to get back to basic fundamentals."

Added Tiano: "Our team and the new staff have really meshed together well. It's old-school football, and I like it."

Wright normally likes the break between spring ball and summer. A lifelong assistant before replacing Tom Arth in December after Arth left for the Akron job, he often used this break to recruit and play golf.

"I'll still get around to recruiting some," he said, "but I'm also working on summer school, checking their grades, seeing what's happening in the transfer world. That's all stuff I've never done before."

Tiano and Lawson know how they intend at least some of their 40 days away from football.

"I'm probably going to play golf and take my dog to the dog park," Tiano said of his 75-pound, 1 1/2-year-old Goldendoodle Hank.

A dog is in Lawson's immediate plans, too.

"I'll be chilling with my Rotweiller pup," he said. "Diamond's 4 months old. I got her over Christmas break."

Lawson also plans to get in a few pickup basketball games when he heads home to Troy, Alabama, to catch up with family and friends.

If all this sounds pretty tame by college standards, it actually gets worse, or, if you're their parents or coaches, even better.

Asked what guilty pleasure they might allow themselves over the next week or two, Tiano said, "Eat some pizza, maybe fried chicken."

Said Lawson, who'll actually graduate this spring with a business degree while having two years of eligibility left: "I'm going to eat a big bowl of Blue Bell ice cream. Then I might stay up late and play Call of Duty."

If nothing else, those plans should make Wright feel good that at least two of his players are heeding his instructions not to enjoy their time off too much.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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