When you look at the 2013 football seasons for UTC and Tennessee, it’s rather easy to view Chattanooga head coach Russ Huesman and UT head coach Butch Jones as architects. Both Huesman and Jones are involved in a master building process that includes many stages in the development of their respective teams. As coach Huesman starts his fifth season at Chattanooga, many believe he has a team that can make a run to secure the Mocs’ first Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth since 1984. Meanwhile, in Knoxville for his first season at the helm, coach Jones has started the brick-by-brick work of establishing the type of foundation that can return the Volunteers to their traditional place as a winner in the Southeastern Conference and as one of the elite programs in college football.
Mocs and Vols Up Close
By Greg Thompson
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Coming off a 6-5 finish for the third time in the last four years, coach Huesman’s 2013 Mocs team returns 10 starters on both offense and defense. The Mocs’ roster features a total of 34 players who are either juniors or seniors, and the rebuilding process that Huesman and his staff began in 2009 is poised to take the next step.
“When you get in your fourth and fifth years and you start getting your players in and you redshirt people, you are going to get it where you are playing with fifth-year seniors and fourth-year juniors. That’s where we have gotten to right now—where we have seven or eight fifth-year seniors and we have a lot of fourth-year juniors,” explains Huesman, who entered this season with a 23-21 overall record at Chattanooga, his alma mater. “You feel good about the experience and you feel good about how much playing time that they have gotten in their careers here. This is where you want to get the program.”
With five players selected to the preseason FCS All-American Team, Chattanooga is viewed as a program on the rise. The Mocs’ defense continues to be the bedrock of the team, following a 2012 season that saw Chattanooga ranked 10th in the nation in overall defense.Junior defensive end Davis Tull, who collected 12.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last year, was chosen as the No. 1 defensive end in Phil Steele’s FCS preseason rankings. Tull joined Chattanooga senior linebacker Wes Dothard as players named to the “watch list” for the prestigious Buck Buchanan Award as the nation’s best defensive player.
Expectations for the Mocs’ offense have been bright as well—especially when considering the play of last year’s freshmen and sophomore classes. In 2012, the Mocs’ freshmen and sophomores accounted for 90% of the team’s 3,800-plus total yards and 33 of the team’s 36 total touchdowns. As a unit, the Mocs’ offense limited its turnovers to six, an astounding number for the entire 2012 season.
Jacob Huesman, the Baylor School graduate who finished third in the voting for the Jerry Rice Award last season (given to the nation’s top freshman in the FCS), returns as quarterback. Junior Terrell Robinson, the multi-dimensional South Pittsburg graduate is expected to be a standout wide receiver. Under new offensive coordinator Jeff Durden, Chattanooga will be looking to spread the ball around and ease the running load on QB Huesman, who carried the ball 195 times last season.
“We have to put it all together and there are so many variables in whether you win or lose a game, whether you are in the playoffs, whether you are Southern Conference champions or national champions,” explains coach Huesman. “We have to have great team chemistry. We have great leadership, and that plays into it, too.”
With postseason aspirations in the team’s sights, coach Huesman opened fall practice by including a small—yet powerful—reminder for the team. “I read our goals out. I read our policy manual out and (at the end) all I said was ‘Play Big,’” says the Chattanooga head coach. “‘Play Big’ means, for one, play to your ability and maybe beyond. I think we have a lot of good players. Now it’s time to ‘Play Big.’”
Since becoming Tennessee’s 24th head coach last December, coach Butch Jones has worked diligently to meet the challenge of rebuilding a Volunteer program with a storied history that had fallen on tough times in the SEC, a conference that has produced the last seven national champions. Jones—whose coaching resume includes four conference championships during his six seasons leading Central Michigan and Cincinnati—
hit the ground running at UT. His efforts on the recruiting trail have placed Tennessee atop the rankings from Rivals.com, and coach Jones has continued to stress the importance of re-establishing a championship culture.
“We are looking for every opportunity to teach our players our style of play, and why we are doing it. We are building our own identity and it’s a process. It just doesn’t happen overnight. But we have done this before. We know how to do it and we are going to do it the right way,” says coach Jones, who is very mindful of Tennessee’s history as a football power. “We’re not building a tradition. We are building upon a tradition. That’s why our former players have been critical. They are the ones who laid the foundation.”
Picked in the preseason media poll to finish fifth in the SEC’s Eastern Division, the Vols entered the season with junior Justin Worley at quarterback. The offensive line is expected to be strong as offensive linemen Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James, Zach Fulton, and James Stone all earned preseason all-SEC honors. Meanwhile, the defense will be led by Ooltewah grad Jacques Smith and preseason SEC honorees A.J. Johnson (linebacker) and Daniel McCullers (defensive lineman).
“It’s the best football conference in America. There is a plan in place. I think the big thing is just teaching your players, and they have done a great job to date. They have been very eager and very willing,” says coach Jones, who is aware of the expectations from the Big Orange Nation. “Our fans are going to see progress. We are working to make them extremely proud. We need them to embrace the process, and it’s a matter of time. Our program has great momentum right now. But, obviously, there isn’t anyone who is more impatient than me. I expect to win immediately. That’s been our mindset. We are building the foundation. We are building it brick by brick. Our fan base understands that we are working to win each and every day. Everyone wants a football team that matches the hard-working people of this state.”