The one-time anemic UT-Chattanooga football program has taken a dramatic turn in recent years, so much so that the expectations of winning the Southern Conference no longer satiates their voracious appetite—visions of sugar plums in Texas dance in their heads.
Chattanooga has won the last three Southern Conference football titles and is favored to win a fourth according to preseason football publications, but the football Mocs have much more prestigious thoughts flirting with their collective minds.
The hope of playing in a national football championship rather than hosting one—which Chattanooga did at one time—is a vivid and perhaps realistic goal in 2016 despite losing three-time SoCon Offensive Player of the Year and All-America quarterback Jacob Huesman. For those with short memories, Chattanooga hosted the Football Championship Subdivision for 13 years, or until it moved to Texas in 2010. Those hopes of advancing to Texas for the championship game are built on a lot of experience, 46 lettermen in all, two of those preseason first-team All-Americans, another a second-team All-American, in addition to a record-setting running back.
Offensive lineman Corey Levin, a 6-5, 305-pound guard/tackle, and defensive end Keionta (pronounced key-aun-tay) Davis (6-4, 260) have been tabbed in several pre-season magazines as first team FCS All-Americans and defensive back Lucas Webb (6-1, 195) was a second teamer.
“Those three guys at their positions are as good as anybody,” UTC head coach Russ Huesman says. “We lost some really good players last year, but we do have some good ones back and we’ve got a lot of lettermen back.”
In fact, UTC has six of the top 11 players in the Southern Conference according to an article on the SouthernPigskin.com website that listed the top 25 players in the league. In addition to Levin, Davis and Webb, the Mocs return with the best running back in the SoCon in Derrick Craine (5-11, 205), an all-league linebacker in Nakevion Leslie (5-11, 225) and an all-conference defensive back in Cedric Nettles (6-0, 205). Levin and Davis, both seniors, are also projected as having potential professional talent. Though Levin had an exceptional season in 2015, he seeks improvement this year.
“If we didn’t average 200 yards a game rushing, I was kind of upset, but this year I’d like to go for 250,” Levin says. “My expectations are to win every game and compete against Alabama the best we can.” Davis, a Chattanoogan who prepped at Red Bank, is excited about the Mocs’ chances.
“This is my last go-around and I’m going to give it all I’ve got,” he says. “Being from here, I’ve seen the school come a long way.”
Davis remembers the years before Russ Huesman arrived. UTC had just two winning seasons in a 15-year stretch before Huesman arrived in 2009. In the six seasons he has coached, the Mocs are 50-34.
Alabama is easily the best team the Mocs will face this year and the only FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) school on the UTC schedule. UTC opens with Shorter, an NCAA Division II team, on September 1, a Thursday night, followed by another home game, Presbyterian, on Sept. 10. Presbyterian won only one game last year, while Shorter was just 2-8.
“I admit that our schedule looks pretty weak at the outset,” Coach Huesman says. “But we played Mars Hill last year and they weren’t supposed to be that good and they almost beat us. You just can’t take anybody for granted.” Chattanooga prevailed in that game, 44-34, but the game was tied at the half, 21-21 and UTC led by only three points with seven minutes to play.
With Shorter’s record and it being NCAA Division II, that would seem to bode well for UTC winning its opening game for the first time since 2009 when the Mocs beat Glenville State, also an NCAA Division II school. It would seem that the Mocs would be prohibitive favorites in at least their first three games and perhaps their first five. UTC beat Furman 31-3 last season and the Purple Paladins won just four games on the year. Samford has to play at Finley as well as East Tennessee State and the Buccaneers were just 2-9 last year in their first football season since 2003.
“Nobody is taking Furman lightly,” Coach Huesman points out. “They were plagued with injuries the last couple of years. If they are healthy, they are as good as anybody in this league. In fact, I think the league is very strong this year.”
There seems to be no doubt getting to Texas is on the mind of many of the players, but Webb sounds a warning to his teammates. “It doesn’t matter who we play, we have to play up to our potential,” he says. “We didn’t do that a few times last year.”
Mercer was one of those times and the Bears stunned the Mocs in Macon 17-14. The upset was UTC’s only conference loss in six games. UTC finished 9-4 on the season, won the Southern Conference for the third consecutive time and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the second straight year.
Although Jacob Huesman is no longer at the helm of the Mocs, UTC seems to be very comfortable with his replacement, 6-2, 220-pound junior Alejandro Bennifield. The Lovejoy, Georgia native backed up Huesman last season.
“I feel Jacob paved the way for me,” Bennifield remarks. “Since nobody knows me, I think I have the upper hand. I have a lot of confidence, that if you work hard you gain that confidence. I think this season we’ve got a bunch of guys who are willing to work hard.” Bennifield, who his teammates call Dro for short, compares well to Huesman. Both are 4.5 40 speedsters and are close in size, but the Georgia native seems to have the better arm and he has a bevy of solid receivers.
“No doubt we will miss Jacob,” says Lucas, “But I don’t think there will be much of a drop-off with Dro. He will surprise some people who don’t know him.”
C.J. Board, Xavier Borishade, James Stovall and Richardre Bagley combined for 130 catches last season and Craine added 13. Of course Craine’s legs were his crème de la creme. He rushed for a UTC record 1,251 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Craine ran for 100 or more yards in six games.
UTC also returns its leading scorer for the past two years. Henrique Ribeiro prepped at Baylor School and the Sao Paulo, Brazil, native’s kicking expertise has accounted for 206 points in two years. He led the Mocs in scoring during the 2014 season with 108 points and last year with 98. Ribeiro also was one of the leading punters in the conference, averaging 43.4 yards a kick.
No doubt UTC has superb talent, unparalleled depth and keen leadership, essential qualities that could and perhaps should lead to a great season and maybe, just maybe, a trip to the Alamo state.
Story by Sam Woolwine
Photography courtesy of UTC Athletics