One of the strongest positions on the Mocs vaunted defense last season was the front four. Chattanooga constantly held teams below their rushing and total offense averages and this unit produced some of the top players in the Southern Conference.
Line talk begins with two-time SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Davis Tull. Tull is entering his senior campaign and is already the school’s all-time leader with 26.5 sacks. A two-time All-American, Tull was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award last season after posting nine sacks and 15 tackles-for-loss.
Class conflicts limit his practice time on Mondays and Wednesdays, but that opens up things for the number of younger players in this unit.
“I feel really good about that group coming back next fall,” said head coach Russ Huesman. “I am excited about that group and it starts with Davis Tull. He’s done a great job. We’re limiting him in the spring in what he does. Some of his class conflicts keep him from participating, which is fine. We’re getting some younger guys going.”
Tull wasn’t the only talent on the line, as junior Josh Freeman was a second-team All-SoCon pick by the league’s coaches and media. Freeman played as a true freshman in 2011, making the SoCon All-Freshman team. He redshirted in 2012 and came back strong with four sacks from the interior last season.
“I just want to get better as a player,” commented Freeman when asked about his goals for Spring Practice. "That’s always a key…just come out here and continue to grow. Personally, I want to improve and work on the pass rush. I got second team all-conference…that’s not where I wanted to be.”
Davis missed all of his senior year of high school with a knee injury and redshirted in 2012. Last season was his first football in nearly three years and it took some time for him to adjust. He came on strong with 14 of his 21 tackles, 4.0 TFLs and 1.5 sacks in the last five games of the season.
“Getting from high school speed to game-time speed was three times faster than what I was used to,” explained Davis. “Just getting used to that is what I struggled with. Once I got used to that I was more consistent.”
Davis may be the most improved played in the offseason. He is showing a new level of confidence and has added some bulk to his 6-4 frame.
Ring was very productive in his first season. He totaled 42 tackles from the tackle slot, including 5.0 TFLs and a pair of sacks. He forced and recovered a fumble and broke up a pair of passes.
“Daniel Ring was kind of an unknown for us,” stated Huesman. “We knew he was supposed to be really good because he was scheduled to be (Navy’s) starting nose guard when he transferred. He was a very pleasant surprise about how he played, and we expect great things from him down the road.”
UTC’s line loses two lettermen in Devin Scates and Chris Mayes. Mayes is still on the team after flipping over to the offensive line where he is a projected starter. Other returning letter winners are seniors Toyvian Brand, Derrick Lott and Zach Rayl and sophomore Vantrell McMillan.
Brand has seen significant playing time on both the end and tackle, starting 23 of 31 games in his career. Lott, Rayl and McMillan are all coming off of injuries. Lott was a preseason First Team All-SoCon pick before an elbow injury ended his season at Georgia Southern. He was given a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA and will again be one of the top players in the league once healthy.
McMillan was battling for a starting role opposite Tull when he suffered a knee injury last spring. He is still working his way back on to the field and should be ready to go by the start of preseason camp. Rayl was also looking at a starting role on the outside when he went down in fall camp. He too should be ready to get back in the mix in preseason workouts.
Prather and Reynolds are the standouts among the newcomers. Prather has been impressive so far this spring and is taking advantage of increased snaps on the end with the upperclassmen out. Reynolds is a former three-star prep prospect who could work his way into some playing time in the fall.
With this much talent on the field, competition is fierce for playing time. So far this spring, the defensive line has set the tone for the rest of the team.
“You have a bunch of playmakers in that group," Huesman continued. "There’s a lot of competition. They’re going to have to fight for playing time every day."