published Sunday, August 31st, 2014

On the road with the football Mocs

UTC players Tommy Hudson, Jacob Huesman and Hunter Townson celebrate a touchdown against Central Michigan.
UTC players Tommy Hudson, Jacob Huesman and Hunter Townson celebrate a touchdown against Central Michigan.

Stephen Hargis of the Times Free Press was granted exclusive access with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team as the Mocs traveled for this past Thursday's season opener at Central Michigan. From the flight and team meetings to pregame and postgame experiences, here is a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation that goes into a college football game:

Wednesday

1:20 p.m.: Three buses are lined up outside the UTC Arena with players and coaches on the first two and support staff on the third. Three players mistakenly get on bus 3 and Scott Brincks, the director of athletic performance, steps on board with a disapproving look on his face. "Can you guys count? There's three buses and you're on the wrong one," Brincks says in faux disgust. "This isn't a good start to the trip, guys." The three players rise from their seats, duck their heads and make the walk of shame off the bus.

There's a sign hanging from the driver's mirror that reads, "Get in, sit down, shut up and hold on."

1:28: The buses pull out with a police escort leading them through downtown to the airport. With sirens blaring, the cops stop traffic at every intersection so the buses can roll unimpeded to the airport.

2:01: Everyone unloads from the buses and walks toward the charter jet. Team managers hand out sandwiches and chips from Jimmy John's as well as bottles of PowerAde and water. The name painted on the nose of the Boeing 737 says "Billie."

There are three seats in each row of the plane, and each seat has a white cloth with a gold power "C" attached to the headrest. There are 130 of us making the trip with the boosters seated at the front, coaches and support staff in the middle and players in the back of the plane. It becomes clear quickly that whoever designed the seating inside planes did so without considering large-bodied football players.

Boarding early ensures I have a window seat. Receivers coach Will Healy and offensive coordinator Jeff Durden also are on my row. Healy takes out a laptop and the two coaches begin going over the play chart. Suddenly Healy notices his computer has only 7-percent battery life remaining and he grumbles to Alex Schnitzer, the man of many hats for the Mocs, that he forgot to charge the laptop.

2:35: The pilot announces it will be a two-plus-hour flight. Coach Healy pulls out a pack of Chiclets mini gum. I don't think I've seen those since the late 1980s. I guess the store was out of Pop Rocks.

2:36: The Chiclets gum already has lost its flavor.

2:42: We begin to taxi down the runway, and as the plane picks up speed and lifts into the air, there are a few nervous laughs from the players in the back. Several will tell me later that they had never flown before and were very nervous.

4:40: As the plane descends through the clouds, we're clearly not in the Tennessee Valley anymore. The terrain is nothing but flat, green fields and farmland as far they eye can see. Tractors, silos, cornfields and what looks to be long stretches of two-lane roads are below us, and I'm beginning to wonder if there's an actual air strip. We land in Saginaw, Mich., and then load onto three buses again and make the two-hour ride to our hotel in Lansing.

6:42: When we arrive at the Radisson Hotel, just blocks from the State Capitol building, we're met by hotel staff who take our bags and show us to tables in the lobby that has everyone's room key next to a placard with our names.

Players will eat at the Golden Corral, but I decide instead to accompany the smaller group that includes chancellor Steve Angle, athletic director David Blackburn, associate AD Jay Blackman, senior associate AD Andrew Horton and other athletic department officials and boosters to the trendy Troppo restaurant just down the street from our hotel. After the meal, Blackburn thanks the boosters for their support and praises the job Coach Russ Huesman and his staff have done not only on the field, but in how the players conduct themselves on road trips.

Thursday (game day)

10 a.m.: Players meet in the hotel restaurant for breakfast and afterward will go to the second floor for team meetings.

The players are in black jump suits with the gold power "C" logo, and as they make their way from the elevators to the meeting rooms, some are stopped by other hotel guests and asked what team they play for.

"We're from Chattanooga, Tennessee," sophomore linebacker Nikolay Timoshchuk replies to one older man. "We're here to play Central Michigan tonight."

"Good luck, guys," replies the older gentleman.

10:30: Splitting up into separate conference rooms -- offense in one, defense in an adjoining room -- coordinators begin fine-tuning the game plan. There are large projection screens at the front of each room with video highlights for coaches to show examples of what to expect during the game. Coaches rewind plays several times, using laser pointers to remind each player what his responsibility is. For the most part the players' only acknowledgement when asked if they understand their job is to say, "Yes, sir" or "I gotcha, Coach."

Offensive coordinator Durden talks about the "Sweet 16" -- the first 16 plays the Mocs will run. UTC scripts the first 16 plays of every game but can alter those depending on a variety of situations.

Coaches know how physical a team Central Michigan will be and want to make sure the players recognize this also. Offensive line coach Chris Malone says, "There's going to be collisions. Don't be afraid of it."

Adds Durden as he rewinds one play, "This is a violent play. It should look like Bangladesh. I want bodies down on the ground here!"

Durden then adds, "We're not throwing the ball for a 3-yard gain. Make a big play."

During the course of the 20-minute meeting some of the coaches, sensing the players might be overly nervous going into the first game, occasionally lighten the mood. After Durden instructs receivers not to take unnecessary steps on routes, Healy chimes in, "It's like that Deana Carter song says," in reference to the country singer's hit "How do I get there?" with the lyrics referring to the shortest distance between two points being a straight line.

"Do ya'll know who Deana Carter is?" Healy asks. "You should. She's hot."

A few players chuckle.

Coaches continue to clean up small details -- foot placement, how wide a gap linemen need to take, for example. Durden playfully calls out senior tight end Faysal Shafaat.

"Faysal, I don't have this on slow motion," Durden says. "That's how fast you ran on this play. You've got to get out of there and move faster!"

After going over the plays they like on third-and-long situations, before players on special teams are excused to an adjoining room for another meeting, Durden reminds them, "How we're going to win is by being more disciplined and out-executing them. Now go be special."

11 a.m.: Special-teams coaching is a group effort among several assistants as well as head coach Huesman. Cornerbacks coach B.J. Hogan begins by reminding the players not to have any "stupid" penalties. "Take pride in special teams, guys. It's where games are won and lost every week. We'll win games because of the guys in this room."

Coach Huesman quizzes Taharin Tyson, Dale Warren and Sema'je Kendall about their assignments on certain punt-coverage formations. Each player quickly gives the correct response, and it's clear they've taken their jobs seriously throughout the last few weeks of preparation.

Hogan ends the meeting with a reminder: "Special teams is about great effort. Don't assume a teammate will make a play. Get to the football and make it yourself."

Players leave the room, and several move their headphones from around their necks back over their ears and begin bobbing their heads, lost in the beat of their music.

2:15 p.m.: Defensive coordinator Adam Braithwaite is finishing a walk-through with starters and reserves expected to play some.

"Be decisive," Braithwaite tells the players. "I know your emotions will be sky-high, but your focus has to be equally sky-high."

2:30: Players gather in a large meeting room that is dimly lit. As Coach Huesman walks to the front of the room, he begins to remind the players of what's expected as everyone shifts their thoughts solely to game mode.

"Hats off, eyes forward," Huesman says. "From this point on, I want no cell phones out. I don't want to hear any cell phones ringing or anyone looking at their phones. Our focus is completely on winning the football game.

Huesman then introduces Mocs wrestling coach Heath Eslinger, who will give the pregame speech. Eslinger, who looks like he could still pin almost anybody who challenges him, is a bundle of energy pacing back and forth as he begins to speak loudly.

"Most people live life trapped in potential," Eslinger says, holding up a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola. "All that's in this bottle of Coke is potential energy. Through workouts, two-a-days and all those practices, y'all have been shaking the bottle. All that's left to do now is to take the lid off the bottle. You didn't come to Michigan just to play a game -- you came to win. Let's take all that energy that's been building in Chattanooga and let it out all over Central Michigan."

Players clap and nod their heads excitedly. After a short highlight video they leave the room for their pregame meal, then load their buses, most staring blankly ahead with headphones on and barely acknowledging anyone around them.

It's an hour's ride to Mount Pleasant, and as the buses pull onto campus, there are several people who take time from their tailgating to inspect the Mocs as they exit the bus and head to the visitors' locker room.

5 p.m.: Players are on the field in T-shirts and their football pants to begin stretching and warming up. They will return to the locker room to put on their full pads before coming back out to the field, break into position groups and continue warming up.

7:04: The Mocs, in all-white uniforms, take the field for the first time this season against a much larger FBS team with a deeper roster. After taking an early 16-0 lead, UTC is outscored 20-0 over the final two-plus quarters as the stupid penalties coaches warned them to stay away from and turnovers lead to a frustrating 20-16 loss. The Mocs have opportunities to rally, taking possession of the ball twice in the final five minutes, including once inside CMU territory, but the offense can't find a rhythm.

10:40: After throwing a career-worst four interceptions, junior quarterback Jacob Huesman, his voice choking back tears, answers questions from the media and places the blame squarely on his own shoulders. But since two of the Chippewas touchdowns came after UTC defensive penalties kept drives alive, and three of his interceptions were off deflected passes, there are plenty of other reasons that led to the loss. Huesman, the Southern Conference's offensive player of the year last season, threw for 150 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 46 yards in the game, having to avoid a menacing rush most of the night. Offensive lineman Synjen Herren, who made the trip despite having just suffered a season-ending knee injury, sits next to Huesman outside the locker room to console and encourage him.

11:05: The team has exited the locker room and loaded back onto buses for the hour-plus trip to the airport. There are few places quieter than in the locker room, bus or plane of an athletic team that has suffered a disappointing defeat. Players and coaches alike replay the game in their heads, and for each it's impossible not to play the "what if" mental game.

Friday

12:47 a.m.: With the postgame snack of Firehouse Subs and PowerAde in hand, everyone is back on the plane. Each person is physically and emotionally drained from the two-day trip and the game that just ended.

12:57: The plane takes off, and mercifully the pilot informs us that it will take less than two hours to arrive back home.

While almost everyone else tries to sleep or simply get comfortable, Braithwaite and linebackers coach Rusty Wright are watching game video on their laptop and electronic pad. For the duration of the flight, those two coaches stare down at the screen to dissect what went right and where they need to work to improve.

2:19: We land safely back in Chattanooga. After a 20-minute bus ride from the airport to the Roundhouse, we all gather our luggage and make our way back home.

The coaches will have meetings later in the day to begin going over the video of the game that was just played and looking ahead to game-plan for sixth-ranked Jacksonville State, which visits Finley Stadium this coming Saturday. There is little time to spend reflecting as the process begins all over.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.

about Stephen Hargis...

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 ...

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