UTC football coach Russ Huesman started his first weekly press conference of the 2013 season with three simple words.
“Well, it’s here,” said Huesman, who is 23-21 entering his fifth season with the Mocs.
The 24th-ranked Mocs will host UT-Martin at Finley Stadium on Thursday night – the game will be televised by CSS – to kick off the school’s 106th season. Game time is 7:37 p.m.
“Most everybody probably thought it took the football season forever to get here,” Huesman said. “As coaches and players, it feels like it was just yesterday that we finished up (2012).
“We’ve had a good camp, the guys have had a good summer and I think they’re ready and excited to play.”
The Skyhawks, who compete in the Ohio Valley Conference, are coming off an 8-3 season that included a 23-20 win over Memphis in the opening game.
UTC went 6-5 last year, its third winning season in the past four years. The Mocs failed, however, to reach one of their top goals – the postseason.
The Mocs, members of the Southern Conference, are 3-0 against UTM with all three games played from 1991-93 when Chamberlain Field, a campus landmark for decades, hosted the first two meetings in the short series.
UTC is 72-30-3 in home openers – 10-5 at Finley Stadium – while the Skyhawks, embarking on their 84th campaign, are 37-45-1 in season openers.
“UT-Martin is really good,” Huesman said. “They have some great skilled athletes and we’ll have our work cut out for us. We’ll have to play well to win. The opening game is always scary. They’re in the same boat we’re in. They’re playing guys that probably haven’t played much. We’ll play some guys and until they’re out there you just never know how they’ll react.”
Huesman admitted to getting nervous when the season opener approaches, and this year is no different. He started getting “that feeling” about a week ago.
“I could be bringing the Green Bay Packers out there and I’d be nervous,” he said. “Most of the nerves are about the unknown. We (this staff and players) have not played UT-Martin before. There’s nothing out there I can compare. We’ve got a different football team this year and they’ve got a different football team. So the unknown is tough.”
Senior defensive back Kadeem Wise, a third-team preseason All-America pick, isn’t bothered by pregame jitters like his coach.
“Not at all,” he said.
Well, there was his first college game at Appalachian State.
“It was kind of hard preparing for that first time out there,” Wise said. “But after three or four series, the nerves were gone.”
When it comes to the teams being different from 2012, as Huesman said, the Mocs are less different than the Skyhawks, who return 12 offensive and defensive starters, headed by preseason All-Americans Ben Johnson, D.J. Roberts, Thad Williams, Jeremy Butler and James Satterfield.
Johnson led the OVC with 131 tackles in 2012, registering at least eight stops in all 11 games, a collective performance that led to first-team All-OVC honors for the 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound linebacker.
The Mocs return 21 starters – 10 on offense, 10 on defense and one on special teams. Not many college teams can boast of so many returning veterans.
The only lost returning offensive starter is J.J. Jackson. The only two not back on a rock-ribbed defensive unit are defensive end Josh Williams and linebacker Shane Heatherly. The Mocs have 37 combined starters returning.
One expected starter this year – junior defensive lineman Zach Rayl, who played prep ball at McMinn Central High School in Englewood, Tenn. – will miss the season. Rayl, who played in all 11 games as a sophomore, due to a knee injury.
Still, all the returning players for 2013 means one thing – experience. So much so that Huesman has decided to turn the team over to the seniors and five captains – Wise, senior linebacker Gunner Miller, senior defensive back Chaz Moore, offensive lineman Kevin Revis and sophomore quarterback Jacob Huesman, the coach’s son.
Russ Huesman said any of 12 seniors could have been named captains and he wouldn’t have thought twice about any name that popped up.
“I spoke with the captains a week ago and I’m going to let them and the seniors run this team,” Huesman said. “You come up with team rules and how you police this team. You don’t even need to come back and tell me this will happen or that will happen. It’s your team. I think those guys earned the right to say it’s their team.
“As coaches, we’re going to put them in the best available positions to play and be good. It’s up to them to be great. It’s up to them to make sure this team is going in the right direction.”
The new role of the seniors, Huesman said, doesn’t mean the coaching won’t be in the discipline business during the season. They will.
“My last year at Richmond, those seniors and captains controlled what happened in the locker room,” Huesman said. “I want our guys to take care of what they see that we (coaches) don’t see.”
Wise, a 5-10, 180-pounder from Lawrenceville, Ga., is more than ready to take on the role of a team leader.
“It’s an honor and you’ve got to do the right thing all the time,” he said. “You’ve got to be the guy that brings everybody together. And we have to be fair with everyone no matter the situation.”
Mocs ranked in two polls: UTC is ranked No. 14 in the preseason Sports Network’s FCS top 25 poll and 25th in the coaches poll. The Skyhawks received 29 votes in the Sports Network poll, with Coastal Carolina getting 489.
Moving on up: The Mocs are predicted to finish third in the Southern Conference this season by the coaches, their highest ranking since 1991. They finished tied for fifth with a 5-3 league record in 2012.
Georgia Southern was picked to finish first and Appalachian State second in one poll and third in the other – those two teams are playing their final season in the SoCon.
Connections: Skyhawks coach Jason Simpson was UTC’s offensive coordinator from 2003-05. Simpson is 45-34 entering his eighth season at UTM.
Skyhawk offensive coordinator Carmen Felus was the assistant head coach at UTC from 2006-08.
UTC assistants Alex Atkins and Brandon Cooper are both UTM graduates and both played for Simpson on the school’s 2006 OVC championship team.
UTM’s co-offensive coordinator in 2012, Mac Bryan, is now the head coach at Ooltewah High.
Moving on in: UTM has four FBS transfers this season – Kevin Anderson (Arizona State), Kyle Kerrick (Michigan State), Abou Toure (Utah State) and Malik Generett (Connecticut).
New digs: Immediately after the season concludes, a $5.5 million renovation will give Hardy M. Graham Stadium a new face.
The entire west side of the stadium will be replaced with new bleacher seating and a four-story building featuring a club level, academic support level and press box that will cover about 21,000 square feet, stretching from 25 (yard line) to the other 25.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)