Two southern football legends have, in a way, combined forces in an attempt to resurrect a Chattanooga football program that has earned just one spot in the NCAA Division I-AA Playoffs and has had but one winning season in the last 11 years.
Athletics Director Steve Sloan was brought on board in April of 2002. A former All-America quarterback at Alabama who was a backup to Joe Namath and was backed up by Ken Stabler, Sloan went on to a successful coaching career in the college ranks. One of his prize recruits at Texas Tech was Rodney Allison. Allison was a Heisman Trophy candidate and the Southwest Conference Most Valuable Player in 1976 as the Red Raiders’ quarterback.
Most recently, Allison was the defensive ends coach at Clemson for the last four years.
Mocs boosters and followers hope the Sloan-Allison relationship pays quick dividends again. Sloan hired Allison Dec. 6, 2002, to reconstruct the UTC program. In his eyes, there was no better choice for the position of head football coach.
“Rodney was what they called a sudden player in Texas,” Sloan said of his former quarterback. “When he had the ball, his team was suddenly ahead. He helped me look good as a coach. He is every bit as good a coach as he was a player.”
Now in his first head coaching job, Allison was attracted to the UTC position for several reasons, the utmost one being Sloan.
“I have been an assistant coach for a long time,” Allison said. “There is a certain mystique out there about why this program hasn’t been successful. I am still trying to figure that one out. It should be a job where you can compete year in and year out. What made the job most attractive is Steve Sloan as the athletics director. I feel very strongly about his philosophy, and I know we share a common goal.”
Allison admits the job he is undertaking will be challenging. The Mocs lost nine straight games last year to open the season before winning two of the last three and finish 2-10.
While the squad will be without the services of All-America linebacker Josh Cain and quarterback Ryan McCann, Allison does have some talent with which to work. Senior receiver Jason Jones led the Southern Conference in touchdown catches in 2002 with 10 and was a Second-Team All-SoCon selection.
Jones joined center Chris Cook and place kicker Patrick Shutters on an All-Southeast Region Team. Utility player Jeremy Grier led the league in all-purpose yardage and was fourth in the SoCon in receptions.
The quarterback position will be a question mark this season. McCann was a kind of one-hit wonder for the Mocs. He transferred to UTC from UCLA for his senior season and won the starting job at quarterback. In the old regime’s Air Raid offense, McCann stood second in the conference in passing yards and ranked 30th nationally with 210 yards per game.
When McCann went down with a shoulder injury early in the season, Justin Barnes took over the controls. Barnes, a senior, has seen various degrees of action over the last two seasons. Last season, Barnes completed 53.2 percent of his pass attempts (50-for-93), with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Unfortunately, the sure incumbent at signal caller will serve as a student assistant this season because an injury has pulled him from the field.
Sophomore Kurtis Koester and freshman Matthew Lopez, both of whom redshirted last season, will battle for the first-string quarterback job. Lopez was named the starter following spring drills.
“We are OK right now at quarterback,” Allison said. “I feel that we have two or three players who can be effective in our offense. We will be as good on offense as what our quarterbacks are capable of doing.”
After three years of the Air Raid produced 10 victories, Allison and his staff plan on installing a more basic offensive system.
“Our offense will be very multiple,” he said. “I’ve been on the defensive side of the ball for the last four years. I have learned a lot of things by being a defensive coach. We will not be successful here at UTC until we can run the ball. We are going to mix it up somewhat. We will run some option, and we will pass it a little bit.”
With the offense now centered more on the running game, the running back position will be more of a premium. That spot, however, took a blow when last year’s leading ground-gainer, Jason Ball, and promising sophomore Patrick Flanagan, decided not to return to the squad this season. In 2002, Ball, who was coming off a serious knee injury from the previous year, ran for 516 yards and three touchdowns on 150 carries.
The focus now falls on junior college transfer Mario Hain, who averaged 4.3 yards per carry with 373 yards on 87 rushes as a junior last year. Flanagan, who received his share of action in the backfield as a true freshman last year and was the team’s third-leading rusher, decided to leave the team to concentrate on a future in medical school.
The aforementioned Jones was switched from receiver to running back this spring to shore up that position.
Allison, who said he needs a playmaker in the backfield, hopes Jones can translate his pass-catching success into touchdowns of the running variety. Jones, who played running back as a freshman, has 58 career carries for 196 yards.
Jessie Chesterfield, a senior with limited experience, should also be in the rotation. The Mocs may also have to rely on several newcomers for depth at running back.
The offensive line will be under the microscope because of the increased emphasis on the running game. The line took some hits with the graduation of all-conference guard Heath Adams and giant tackle Aaron Deal.
The returnees, however, form a sturdy line anchored by senior center Chris Cook, who, the staff feels, is the top center in the conference. Cook, a block-like 6-foot-1, 298 pounds, owns the squad’s best squat and bench press statistics.
A question mark surrounds senior tackle James Clark (6-3, 256). A Preseason All-America honoree in 2002, Clark missed the final six games because of a rare internal illness. Although his weight and strength have dropped off a bit, he has been cleared to play and should be solid at his old tackle spot.
Sophomore Josh Shinpaugh (6-5, 280), one of the best freshmen in the league last year, will line up opposite Clark at the other tackle.
Senior Zach Davis (6-2, 284) is slated to start at a guard position for the second straight year. Stepping in for Adams will be either sophomore Josh Goodin (6-2, 282), sophomore Josh Morris (6-4, 276) or senior Theo Harris (6-4, 319), a converted defensive lineman.
“Depth-wise, I am not sure about our line,” Allison said. “Our first five or six are good enough to win. We have had to spend a lot of time on the running game with them. By the time the season begins, I would like to have two solid lines.”
The Mocs signed six offensive linemen this winter, and each one tips the scales at 290 pounds or more.
UTC has produced seven All-SoCon receivers in the last nine years, beginning with Terrell Owens in 1995.
The top two pass-catchers from last year’s squad return. Senior Jason Jones and junior Jeremy Grier ranked third and fourth respectively in the SoCon in catches with 57 and 46 respectively and ranked fourth and eighth respectively in receiving yards per game (67.9 and 52.1). Jones, who, as stated earlier, was moved to running back in the spring, led the league in touchdown catches with 10.
With the move, Grier is now the leader of the young receiver corps. Junior Ebrahim Tehrani returns after a surprising sophomore season with the Mocs. Tehrani ranked sixth on the team, with 13 catches and 168 yards and showed tremendous speed on a 63-yard scoring play at Western Carolina.
Sure-handed redshirt freshman Matt Hale will compete for playing time, and sophomore Kwento Ikwuezunma returns after missing a year with a severe ankle injury. Ikwuezunma was one of the top freshmen in the conference in 2001 before suffering an ankle injury so terrible it kept him from playing last season. He caught 22 passes for 222 yards as a freshman and scored a touchdown on a punt return.
Recent signee Alonzo Nix, a junior college transfer, enrolled at UTC in January and has been competing in spring drills. He was one of the nation’s top junior college receivers last year at Jones Junior College in Mississippi and will likely vie for immediate playing time.
Allison says his offense will include the tight end in passing situations. But his tight ends must excel at run blocking. Junior Barrett Brightwell has the talent and the body to be one of the best at his position in the league. He caught 18 passes for 186 yards in a reserve role last season. Still, Allison sees room for improvement.
“Barrett Brightwell has to learn how to run block,” Allison said. “He has to work hard and show us that he has improved in that area. He is a big target and has good hands. He will get some throws this year.”
Sophomore Brian Arnold will also compete for time at the tight end position. Redshirt freshman Michael Saporito, a converted quarterback, has also been working with the tight ends.
Defensively, UTC will employ a 4-2-5 scheme with a third linebacker dropping off on the edges or wings. The line will move around and give multiple looks, and the secondary will disguise coverages while playing zone or man-to-man.
The defense will miss the nation’s leading tackler from 2002, linebacker Josh Cain. Cain registered 192 total stops on the season, 120 more than his nearest teammate.
Senior linebacker Blake Kirkland is the Mocs’ top returning tackler. He finished third on the team with 64 total hits and recorded seven tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Kirkland heads a linebacking crew, which includes part-time starters Jason Jackson and Bernard Snowden, both seniors. Jackson collected 51 tackles last season, and Snowden had 49.
Allison likes his senior linebacker trio and feels that the threesome’s performance will be the key to the success of the defense
“They are all down-hill players and have pretty sound linebacker-type bodies,” he said. “These three stand out. We need them to be around the ball on every play.”
The defensive line has a mixture of experience and youth. Leonard Mays, a senior, has seen the most extensive action and has played tackle and end through the years. He made 16 stops last year and had three pass deflections from his end position.
Junior Tim Powers made five starts at nose last year before missing the rest of the year with an injury. In his limited action, he had 19 stops with five for negative yardage.
Troy Blackwell turned into a force as a redshirt freshman last year. The 6-7 end notched 22 tackles with 14 solos and two for negative yardage. Using his remarkable wingspan, Blackwell also blocked two kick attempts.
Junior Chivas Newell and sophomore Renaldo Jackson have the potential to make a splash this season at tackle. Newell sat out last season after transferring from Georgia Military College. Jackson, who started slowly after a car accident the previous summer, finished with 17 tackles.
“I am pleased with the line, but they are not big enough,” Allison said. “We have four or five good ones out there. They have been told they are under pressure to produce. They have been inconsistent. Troy Blackwell is a very imposing presence on the edge. He has a chance to help us. Tim Powers is a fighter. He is undersized, but he just gets the job done on the line. He has the right attitude to play on the line. Renaldo Jackson has really grown up and has a chance to be a really good player.”
The secondary was a trouble spot last season. While all defensive passing problems cannot be blamed on this area, the Mocs did give up 23 touchdowns through the air in 2002, one more than their own Air Raid offense scored.
The Mocs are not without experience in the backfield. Senior Greg Knight appealed and was granted an extra year of eligibility after missing his freshman year because of academic issues. The versatile Knight has played both corner and safety spots. He led the squad with two interceptions last season and ranked seventh with 50 tackles.
Junior Quentin Harris is the second-leading returning tackler after collecting 61 stops with three pass deflections in 2002.
“Greg Knight has played here for some time, and Quentin Harris has experience at safety,” Allison said. “You can tell which ones have been here. They have played in games, and they have maturity and leadership.”
Redshirt freshman Tyrone Baisden has also caught Allison’s eye in the secondary. Ryan Andrews, a sophomore who was injured during spring drills, made 18 stops with one breakup during his first year.
Junior college transfer Randy Craft, who enrolled at UTC in January, has been impressive in spring drills and should nail down a starting job.
Freshman William High, redshirt freshman Stephen Allison and sophomore James Hawkins could also line up in the defensive backfield.
The strongest part of special teams is kicker Patrick Shutters. The senior, an All-Southeast Region performer last season, made his first six field goal attempts last year and finished 8-for-10. He missed only one extra point try. Shutters will also handle kickoffs.
Last year’s punter, senior Travis Grubb, finished with the third-best career punting average at UTC. Allison’s staff beat out some major college programs for the services of prep punting star Jonathan Wright. Allison says the job is likely Wright’s to lose with Shutters serving as the backup, if needed.
Replacements will be needed at long snapper and holder. Aaron Deal, who snapped for the last two years, has a chance to play professionally at that position. Several speedy candidates will audition for punt and kickoff returns.
Sloan’s theory on scheduling is to try to redevelop some regional and intrastate rivalries. The Mocs have Samford back on the schedule and open up with the Bulldogs Aug. 28 on a Thursday night.
Trips to Vanderbilt and Gardner-Webb sandwich a home date with neighboring Tennessee Tech.
The SoCon schedule brings Wofford, Western Carolina, The Citadel and Furman to Finley Stadium, while the Mocs must visit Georgia Southern, new-member Elon, Appalachian State and East Tennessee State.
“I have a lot of respect for the Southern Conference,” Allison said. “I have never coached in it, but I am looking forward to it. Our league is almost like a little version of the ACC or the SEC. It is a high-caliber conference.
“Our non-conference schedule is good for us. Coach Sloan is doing the right things with our schedule. He is trying to create some rivalries, and it is going to be good for both schools involved.”
As Chattanooga’s fifth head coach in the last 12 seasons, Allison realizes the task of turning around the Mocs program is not an easy one. While he sees the need for immediate patience, he also has an agenda for he and his staff to work as hard as possible to take the program to a championship level.