On the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sideline last Saturday, during the fourth quarter of the 35-28 Southern Conference win at Appalachian State, much was happening with the UTC defense. As one linebacker after another went down with an injury, linebackers coach Rusty Wright and defensive coordinator Adam Braithwaite were scrambling to put together a group to take the field.
Head coach Russ Huesman said UTC planned to play nothing but nickel and dime defense against the pass-heavy Mountaineers. That meant a lot of time with just two linebackers on the field, which affected how the Mocs (7-2, 5-1) prepared for the game.
Once the game began, backup Sam linebacker Muhasibi Wakeel went out first with an ankle injury. Then starting Sam man Gunner Miller left the game after suffering another shoulder stinger, which forced backup Mike linebacker A.J. Hampton to play the Sam.
"A.J.'s in there and he's the Sam linebacker, and I'm yelling and screaming, saying, 'Does he not know what to do out here?'" Huesman said. "And Rusty made a great point: 'Coach, he really didn't practice much. ... He didn't practice one snap at Sam this week.'"
Late in the game, after Hampton had left with an elbow injury, backup safety C.J. Murrell took over the Sam spot. Murrell had been a backup at Will linebacker earlier in his career, but he hadn't practiced at Sam or any linebacker spot this season.
"I was talking with Adam when we had to go with C.J., and I said, 'Just get him lined up close in nickel. because we're going to be in that quite a bit. Make sure he knows what to do out there,'" Huesman said.
Linebacker Wes Dothard said he and safety D.J. Key, a pair of seniors with a firm grasp of what the Mocs were doing defensively, gave Murrell a crash course on the sideline.
"When C.J. Murrell came in, I don't know all his pass [assignments], but D.J. does," Dothard said. "So D.J. helped him out in the pass, but I know all his run fits, so I told him where to fit on every run play. We got him going pretty good."
The defense also was in a bit of chaos after App State quickly drove 49 yards and tied the game at 28 with 7:07 remaining. Coaches were yelling at each other, players were yelling at each other and it didn't look much like a unit that was prepared to get more stops.
"We were just getting kind of caught up in the moment and we missed a couple of calls [from the coaches]," defensive end Davis Tull said. "It was just a scheme thing and we had to settle down and focus, and we did that."
The next time the defense was on the field, Will linebacker Nakevion Leslie intercepted a pass and returned it 28 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. The defense stopped App State at the 9-yard line on the next drive to seal the win.
Huesman said Monday that Wakeel appeared to be the most likely to play this week against Wofford. Miller is questionable and Hampton is doubtful, he said. On offense, wideout Tommy Hudson (concussion) will be back after missing last week, and tight end Troy Dye (concussion) should be cleared by Saturday.
Running back Keon Williams (ankle) is questionable, but like Miller, Huesman said, "he hasn't been ruled out."
All of UTC's injuries -- and the Mocs are far from the only SoCon team greatly hampered by them -- do make practicing a challenge. Huesman said UTC wouldn't have much of a second-team defense to work with this week.
Contact John Frierson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6268. Follow him at twitter.com/MocsBeat.
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 ...