Before the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team's spring workouts, Times Free Press reporter Stephen Hargis posed five questions that coaches hoped to answer by the conclusion of their allotted 15 practices.
With last Friday's annual Blue/Gold game wrapping up spring practice, we look at how many of those questions were answered and what remains to be determined once preseason camp begins.
1. Which one of the redshirt freshman quarterbacks will claim the backup job?
Clearly last season's Southern Conference offensive player of the year, Jacob Huesman, has a firm hold on the starting spot, but neither Alejandro Bennifield nor Tyler Roberson has ever played in a college game. Bennifield has the stronger arm of the two, while Roberson is the better runner, and both showed playmaking ability at times. Bennifield seemed to be a step ahead in the competition and was working with the second team by the final week of spring, then showed plenty of zip and a nice touch on a 60-yard bomb to finish with 205 passing yards in the Blue/Gold game. But there were also enough misreads and mistakes by the two understudies to keep the competition unsettled, leaving Mocs coach Russ Huesman to say he would not make a decision on the pecking order until the fall.
2. Who will step in at linebacker?
Linebacker is easily UTC's thinnest position. Graduation took two-time All-American Wes Dothard as well as Gunner Miller and C.J. Murrell, and two others left the team during the offseason. That leaves just three players with significant experience at the position, led by senior Muhasibi Wakeel, who has played in 34 games and is thought to have all-conference talent but did not participate in spring practice after minor knee surgery in the offseason. A.J. Hampton also stayed away from spring drills after elbow surgery. T.J. Jenkins was praised for his toughness after fighting through a pulled hamstring to stay on the field throughout spring, and Nakevion Leslie had two of the biggest hits all spring in the first two scrimmages. If that group returns healthy for the fall, there will be talent, but with the depth deficiency, incoming freshmen could work their way onto the field.
3. How good can this defensive line be?
Contrasting the linebacker spot, this is easily the Mocs' deepest group of talent. Even with All-America Davis Tull missing parts of spring because of a class conflict, it was clear that there is little drop-off in the rotation. Keionta Davis, who's looking to nail down the starting job on the opposite end from Tull, looks to be a star in the making, capping an impressive spring by earning defensive MVP honors with two sacks and a tackle for loss in the Blue/Gold game. But he'll be pushed once Zach Rayl and Vantrell McMillan return from knee injuries that cost them all of last season as well as spring workouts. Josh Freeman and Daniel Ring look to have the tackle spots in hand, but if Derrick Lott gets inspired, he could be in the starting mix, and backups Toyvian Brand and D.J. Prather make the Mocs' defensive line arguably the deepest talent rotation in the Football Championship Subdivision.
4. Will Nick Pollard continue handling all kicking duties?
The rising senior did a nice job last season, averaging 41 yards per punt and setting a school single-game record with a 54.7-yard average. His punts pinned The Citadel inside its own 6-yard line four consecutive times and later pinned Appalachian State inside its 20 three times, and he also connected on 43 point-after attempts but was 5-of-9 on field goals. He proved again why he could be a defensive weapon at the spring game with two punts that went for 54 and 56 yards, one of which was downed at the 7 and the other at the 16. Former Baylor star Henrique Ribeiro, who redshirted last season, has the stronger leg, which could put him in line to handle place-kicking and kickoff duties. However, he was inconsistent during spring practice but finished strong in the final week, missing only from 52 yards. Coaches would prefer those two to split kicking chores, but field-goal consistency remained a point of concern heading into the summer offseason.
5. Where will incoming freshmen need to step in?
The good news for the Mocs is that the program has stockpiled enough talent that true freshmen are now rarely depended on to become instant contributors. There are exceptions, especially with such a highly rated group coming in. One of those positions where a true freshman or two likely will play some is at linebacker. Being thin will likely open the door for playing time for one or both of the Mocs' signees at this position: Dale Warren and Tim Whatley. Warren was a three-start prospect who had FBS offers and is a freakish athlete. Whatley is highly intelligent and should have a firm grasp on his defensive responsibilities once he's on campus. Another position where a true freshman is almost certain to get early playing time is running back. That says more about the ability of Richardre Bagley than anything. Keon Williams is the starter and Derrick Craine and Marquis Green return from last season, each bringing different attributes. Craine carries the ball like a runaway locomotive and Green's speed make him a big play waiting to happen on any snap. But Bagley's senior highlights show a rare blend of power and speed, and he is already built like a college athlete, evidenced when he visited one practice. Coaches routinely use the word "special" when describing his talent.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...