published Monday, August 19th, 2013

Aiming high: Chattanooga Mocs fans, players ready for breakthrough football season

UTC defensive lineman Josh Freeman, right, gives a high five to Mocs fan Kaleab Belk at Saturday’s Meet the Mocs event at the First Tennessee Pavilion. Expectations are high heading into theo 2013 season.
UTC defensive lineman Josh Freeman, right, gives a high five to Mocs fan Kaleab Belk at Saturday’s Meet the Mocs event at the First Tennessee Pavilion. Expectations are high heading into theo 2013 season.
Photo by Maura Friedman /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    UTC quarterback Jacob Huesman signs autographs for fans at Saturday’s Meet the Mocs event at the First Tennessee Pavilion. Expectations are high heading into theo 2013 season.
    Photo by Maura Friedman /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Brian Millican crossed his arms, looked around at the large crowd at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga “Meet the Mocs” fan gathering Saturday and spoke with great confidence.

“I’m extremely optimistic and very excited about this season,” said Millican, a 1991 UTC graduate who has attended several preseason practices. “I’m one of those long-suffering Mocs fans. The last time they were in the playoffs was two years before I started school here.”

UTC’s lone playoff appearance came in 1984, but there’s reason to think 2013 is the year the Mocs return. The playoff field has expanded to 24 teams, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are ineligible and, most important, UTC should field its best all-around team in several decades.

Nine Mocs were voted either first- or second-team preseason All-Southern Conference by the league’s coaches.

“This might be a breakout year, and I don’t think that’s too bad a word for us because it’s been 29 years since we’ve been to the playoffs,” first-year athletic director David Blackburn said Saturday while surrounded by more than 1,200 fans at the First Tennessee Pavilion. “It’s time we break through that barrier, and it looks like Russ and those guys are about to do that.”

After averaging more than 10,000 fans a game at Finley Stadium in Huesman’s first three seasons, UTC averaged 9,521 in 2012. More than 2,100 season tickets have been sold for this season, and Blackburn said he expected that number to keep “popping” leading up to the Aug. 29 season opener against UT-Martin.

One problem UTC always has faced as far as selling season tickets is that it plays at Finley Stadium, which seats 20,668, so fans know they can walk up the day of the game.

“We’re going to have that issue until we can prove that we can consistently be good,” Blackburn said.

Even though UTC is 23-21 for Huesman’s four seasons, with three winning seasons in the past four — the program’s best run since 1984 to ‘87 — the Mocs have underachieved, All-America junior defensive end Davis Tull said during the SoCon media day last month.

“I think it’s the right word,” said the 2012 SoCon defensive player of the year. “If you look at it, maybe from where the program was [five years ago] things are a lot better, but ever since we’ve been here the program hasn’t been [in the SoCon cellar]. I wasn’t here when the culture was like that. I’ve heard about it.”

The players don’t seem interested in the program’s low point. The Mocs won a total of three games in the two seasons prior to Huesman’s arrival, and overall the program is 494-503-35 in 105 seasons.

Doug Dyer, president of the Chattanooga Quarterback Club, graduated from UTC in 1981. The Mocs were among the best in the SoCon in the late 1970s and early ’80s, but the next few decades were a struggle.

With so many veterans returning, especially on a defense that could be among the best in the Football Championship Subdiv ision, Dyer believes the Mocs are poised to do something special this season. It’s also time for something special after knocking on the door persistently the past few seasons, which have included multiple nail-biter losses to the SoCon’s top teams.

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” he said. “I think expectations are really high and deservedly so. It’s the fifth year, it’s all of our current staff’s players — I’ve had more people come up to me that have never gone to a game and said this year they’re going to go. That’s a good sign.”

The Mocs resume practice Tuesday after taking Sunday and today off following a grueling preseason camp. Fall semester classes begin today.

Contact John Frierson at jfrierson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6268. Follow him at twitter.com/MocsBeat.

about John Frierson...

John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...

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