In just six days, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team can officially turn the page from last season. No longer will the Mocs have to answer questions about the heartbreak of narrowly missing out on the playoffs last year or the off-the-field hype heading into this season.
As the Mocs finished Thursday evening’s practice, players admitted they are eager for the fresh start of next Thursday’s season opener and the chance to prove they are worthy of the preseason build-up.
None are more amped-up than senior defensive end Zach Rayl, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
“It’s not cliché to say I’ll be a like a kid at Christmas this time next week,” Rayl said. “That’s exactly what it is. Especially if I make a play, it’ll be just like opening a present for the first time. I’ll be so excited. I can’t wait. It’s going to mean the world to me.
“That’s what I practice for. It’s been two years since I was on the field playing. Last season I practiced and it didn’t pay off because I never got to play. This season, it’s happening — I’m playing — so it’s a dream come true. It’s almost game week. The walk from the locker room to the field will be unbelievable.”
The Mocs have spent this week going over what to expect from Central Michigan, while also working to fine-tune areas where either injury or youth have left questions lingering.
Because of junior left guard Synjen Herren’s recent injury, which resulted in a game of musical chairs on the offensive line — Brandon Morgan moving from right tackle to Herren’s old position and redshirt freshman Hunter Towson promoted to a starting spot at right tackle — that is still an area in progress.
With a week to jell as a unit, only two offensive linemen have game experience, and only one of those, sophomore left tackle Corey Levin, has played the position where he will start at CMU.
“I definitely feel a lot of responsibility,” Levin said. “We still have a lot of work to do. Camp was about getting our body in shape; now we’re getting our minds in shape for the game.
“We’re a week away. It still doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to get here. I mean, we’re definitely all excited for next Thursday, and we can’t wait to get out there and show everyone what Chattanooga football is about. We wouldn’t be ranked all that high if people didn’t think we could do it, and I believe we have the team to definitely prove them right.”
Aside from the inexperience in the offensive line, the Mocs could play as many as five or six true freshmen next week, mostly at receiver, running back, defensive back and on special teams. One of those who has been consistently impressive since arriving earlier this summer is receiver Wil Young, who admitted the biggest adjustment for him and his classmates who do play will be the speed of the game from what they were used to in high school.
“I think some people realize the sense of urgency, but we’ve got to get everybody to realize it, from the 91st kid to our best player,” Mocs coach Russ Huesman said. “We’re a week away, but I don’t know that we’re there yet. And it’s not about being young. Richardre Bagley is a young guy, and that kid goes 800 miles per hour every snap. There’s other kids — [Derrick] Craine is a young kid who goes 100 miles an hour all the time. But until we get 15 on offense and 15 on defense buying into that, we won’t get there as quickly as we should.
“We’ll be out on that field two hours before the game and I’ll still be nervous about whether we covered this and did we get this done? You never feel like you’ve done enough. But eventually the game comes and you have to play it. I always said this would be a great job, for me, if you didn’t have to play games. But for the kids, their reward is to get there on game night and play the game. We’re just a week away now, and I guarantee they’re excited about that.”
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 ...