2023 Chattanooga Football Preview

Chattanooga Mocs face challenges in 2023 with quarterback changes and high defensive expectations. A blend of uncertainty shapes their preseason.

Chattanooga WR Jamoi Mayes catches a pass during a game against Mercer in 2022
Source: UT Chattanooga Athletics

Team Overview

Head Coach: Rusty Wright (22-17/5th yr)

2022 Record: 7-4, 5-3 SoCon

Returning Starters: 16

Offensive Starters: 8

Defensive Starters: 7

Special Teams: 1

Players to Watch on Offense

  • RB Gino Appleberry (85 rush att, 396 yds, 3 TDs, 4.7 YPC)
  • RB Ailym Ford (232 rush att, 1,199 yds, 12 TDs, 5.2 YPC)
  • WR Sam Phillips (44 rec, 661 yds, 2 TDs, 15.0 YPR)
  • WR Jamoi Mayes (42 rec, 570 yds, 4 TDs, 13.6 YPR)
  • WR Javin Whatley (29 rec, 451 yds, 3 TDs, 15.6 YPR)
  • OL Colin Truett
  • OL Bryce Goodner
  • TE Jay Gibson (12 rec, 114 yds, 9.5 YPR)
  • OL Nick Ceremele
  • OL Malone VanGorder
  • WR Javon Burke (4 rec, 67 yards, 1 TD, 16.8 YPR)

Key Losses on Offense

  • QB Preston Hutchinson
  • OL McClendon Curtis
  • OL Lucas Lavin
  • WR Tyron Arnett

Players to Watch Defense

  • DL Ben Brewton (29 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 6 QBHs, 2 FFs, 1 FR)
  • LB/Edge Jay Person (52 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 8.0 sacks, 9 QBHs, 1 FF, 1 PBU)
  • DB Kam Brown (29 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 6 INTs, 5 PBUs, 1 TD)
  • DL Marlon Taylor (24 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 FFs, 1 FR)
  • DB Reuben Lowery III (52 tackles, 8.5 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 1 TD, 2 PBUs, 1 FR)
  • LB Alex Mitchell (16 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 PBU)
  • LB Bo Spearman (15 tackles, 1 FR), DB Josh Battle (47 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 PBUs, 1 INT)
  • DB Romeo Wykle (23 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH)
  • DB Jordan Walker (37 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 3 QBHs, 1 INT)

Key Losses on Defense

  • DL Devonnsha Maxwell
  • LB Ty Boeck
  • LB Kam Jones
  • CB Ca’Miron Smith

Key additions from the Transfer Portal

  • QB Chase Artopoeus (UCLA)
  • QB Tucker Pope (Tennessee State)
  • WR Zaire Thornton (Tennessee State)
  • OL Will Buchanan (Liberty)
  • OL Almarion Crim (Houston)
  • OL Griffin McDowell (Florida)
  • K Jude Kelley (Georgia Tech)
  • P Clayton Crile (Catawba)
  • DE Chris Victor (Mississippi Valley State)
  • LB Kameron Brown (Auburn)
  • LB Kobe Joseph (Harvard)
  • DB Jeremiah Batiste (Miami OH)
  • DB Clay Fields III (Marist)
  • DB Chayce Bishop (Ball Sate)

Preseason All-SoCon Selections (8)

  • RB Ailym Ford (1st Team)
  • OL Reid Williams (1st Team)
  • DL Ben Brewton (1st Team)
  • DL/LB Jay Person (1st Team)
  • DB Kam Brown (1st Team)
  • OL Bryce Goodner (2nd Team)
  • DL Marlon Taylor (2nd Team)
  • DB Reuben Lowery III (2nd Team)

Redshirt Sports Predicted Finish: 4th in the SoCon

Ranking in Redshirt Sports FCS Top 25: No. 23

Preseason Outlook

While Chattanooga is the fourth Southern Conference team in our preseason Top 25 poll, according to our panel, it’s a Mocs team that I actually had finishing behind Western Carolina in our preseason ballot. However, I realized that since Western Carolina is not ranked in our poll but projected fourth by me and ranked in my preseason Top 25 but not our website, I realized that I had a dilemma. I went with the team the site projects fourth in the SoCon, but I wanted to address this in case things didn’t match up. With that said, it’s a Mocs team that not many, including myself, have a good feel for heading into the upcoming season.

Chattanooga shouldn’t need much to motivate it entering the 2023 football season. After all, the Mocs have been picked to win the league each of the past two seasons, and with title hopes out of reach by the time the final week of the regular-season rolled around, the Mocs came up on the short end in each of the past two seasons.

In college football, it’s often said that November is the month that is remembered. If that’s the case, then the Mocs have probably wished to forget November in the Rusty Wright.

Chattanooga has yet to win their regular-season finale under the direction of Wright, with the past two seasons having been especially costly in losses to both The Citadel in 2021 (L, 21-24) and at Western Carolina (L, 29-32) last season. Both of those losses were huge letdowns for a Mocs team that was among the most talented 24 teams in the FCS, and yet in each of the past two campaigns, have found a way to miss out on the postseason.

As good as Chattanooga has seemingly been under Wright, they have had underwhelming performers under center, with Cole Copeland and Drayton Arnold leaving much to be desired under center. It appeared Wright and the Mocs had found their guy last season, in Preston Hutchinson, and for a while, it appeared the Mocs were going to ease their way into the postseason for the first time under Wright, and yet, even with the overall talent of Hutchinson, the Mocs would find a way to miss the postseason last fall.

The issue under center has reared its ugly once again, with Hutchinson having completed his one year eligibility and has moved on.

The Mocs now have likely the least experience they have had under center since Wright took over back in 2019. That season the Mocs had arguably their best quarterback since Wright took over as the full-time head coach, with pro-style quarterback Nick Tiano leading a Mocs team with only limited expectations to a better than expected season in Wright’s first season as the head coach of the Mocs.

This season, the Mocs will revert back to a two-quarterback system, which UTC featured back during the pandemic season of 2020-21, as well as the fall of 2021, when both Copeland and Arnold were splitting reps for the Mocs. This season, the two newcomers selected to lead the Mocs offensively under center will be both Chase Artopoeus and Luke Schomburg, who both bring different strengths and qualities to the offensive side of the ball for the Mocs. Artopoeus comes to Chattanooga from UCLA via the transfer portal.

While the two quarterbacks in line to split the reps this season have thrown a combined two passes as collegiate quarterbacks, there is reason for optimism within the ranks due to the amount of talent returning around both expected to suit up leading the Mocs offense this season.

While the offense has some experienced talent at running back and wideout, the other question that remains is the development of a relatively young offensive line, with no real star highlighting the unit, which has been the case in each of the past couple of seasons with Cole Strange (2021) and McClendon Curtis (2022) anchoring each of the past two offensive lines for the Mocs. The good news for the Mocs OL is it should be good once again, while lacking some of the star power it had in the past.

On defense, it’s as if the Mocs just recycle physical, strong units with each passing season. Despite losing guys like defensive lineman Devonnsha Maxwell along the defensive front and Ty Boeck at linebacker, there’s enough returning on defense as a whole to ensure the overall success of the unit again this season.

Since Russ Huesman’s first season as the head coach back in 2009, the Mocs have seemingly been at the top or near the top of the Southern Conference each season and the 2023 season should see that trend continue, and one peak at the preseason SoCon superlatives shows that with the Mocs returning the league’s 2022 and preseason Defensive Player of the Year, in edge rusher Jay Person.

Chattanooga has a proud football tradition, which dates back to when the Mocs joined the SoCon in the late 1970s, with the Mocs having claimed seven league titles, as well as having made four FCS playoff appearances, with the most recent of those coming back in 2016 in what was Huesman’s final season as the head coach of Chattanooga.

Wright, who played at Chattanooga back in the mid-late 1990s, knows the Chattanooga football tradition, which it has enjoyed during its membership in the Southern Conference, and was also an assistant on that Mocs staff back in ‘16 under Huesman’s direction. The Mocs most recent dominance of the league came in the latter portion of Huesman’s stint in the Scenic City, as the Mocs claimed no worse than a share of three-straight regular-season league titles from 2013-15.

It appeared to some (myself included) that the Mocs had taken the torch that had once been held by former league members App State and Georgia Southern after the Mountaineers and Eagles left to join the Sun Belt Conference following the 2013 campaign.

However, after Tom Arth’s short tenure from 2016-18, the Mocs had descended back into SoCon mediocrity, and while the Mocs have seen the program elevated back to a championship challenger under Wright, it feels a little like unfinished business for Chattanooga. We’ll see if the 2023 season yields the kind of expected return fans and media have expected to see each of the past couple of seasons. Arth posted a 9-13 mark as the Mocs head coach in two seasons at the helm of the program, while Wright enjoys a 22-17 mark at the helm heading into his fifth season as the head coach in the Scenic City.

Since Russ Huesman returned to his former employer Richmond to assume the head coaching duties following the 2016 season, the Mocs have posted a combined 31-30 record since, which includes a 25-19 record in the SoCon, without a playoff appearance or SoCon title, despite being picked to win the league each of the past two seasons.

Wright talked about the difference between how his team reacted to last season’s 32-29 loss to Western Carolina as opposed to the previous season, which seen the Mocs drop one to The Citadel, which likely kept the Mocs out of the postseason. According to Wright, that loss to Western Carolina just hit last season’s team differently. There was a lot of hurt shown by the 2022 Mocs team in the EJ Whitmire Stadium locker room following the heartbreaking three-point setback.

While that’s never the way a coach wants to see his team end a season, Wright probably took some time to reflect on his team’s reaction during the off-season, and while no one liked that feeling at the time, his team’s reaction had to give him some sense of optimism heading into the offseason and the 2023 campaign, with much of that talent back from that loss a year ago.

Previewing the Mocs Offense

Chattanooga’s offense has a lot to live up to in 2023 have a lot to live up to in 2023, as the 2022 Mocs ended the season the 10th best offense (4,505 total yds/409.5 YPG) in 115 seasons of Chattanooga football. It’s 6.1 yards-per-play average in 2022 made the Mocs even more elite in comparison to Chattanooga offenses of the past, ranking fifth in program history in that particular category.

This season, Chattanooga is short on experience and long on unknowns under center entering the season, however, I learned at SoCon media day a couple of weeks ago that Wright will employ the services of UCLA grad transfer Chase Artopoeus and freshman Luke Schomburg will both see action under center this fall for Chattanooga. He is confident in the abilities of his signal-callers, as well as the talent he has returning to surround his two primary field generals.

According to Wright, Artopoeus’ experience at UCLA and having learned such a diverse scheme under one of the game’s best offensive innovators, in Chip Kelly, will only enhance what the Mocs are able to do offensively this fall. With Artopoeus having a high football IQ, it’s something that has Wright confident about the upcoming campaign.

While Artopoeus will give the Mocs offense the ability to be potentially more versatile this season, it’s Schomburg that brings the best arm strength to the table of the two quarterbacks in position to lead the Mocs offense this fall.

Also joining the competition for the starting quarterback position when the Mocs break camp in July will be Tennessee State transfer Tucker Pope, as well as another freshman out of Maryville High School, in Matthew Clemmer. Pope is from nearby Walker Valley High School, playing in two games, however, didn’t record any stats.

While there are plenty of significant unknowns under center heading into the 2023 season for head coach Rusty Wright, he can at least in the comfort of knowing he will once again have one of the best backfields in both the SoCon as well nationally, with the return of both Ailym Ford, as well as Gino Appleberry.

Ford has established himself as one of the best running backs to ever come through the Scenic City and will enter his final season with the Mocs as a Walter Payton Award candidate. Ford is coming off his third 1,000-yard rushing season in 2022 with 1,199 rushing yards, leading the SoCon in rushing yards per game (119.9)

In his four seasons with UTC so far, the three-time All-SoCon is on pace to become the school’s all-time leading rusher, breaking former quarterback and two-time SoCon Offensive Player of the Year recipient Jacob Huesman’s rushing mark, which he set from 2012-15 as the Mocs’ quarterback.

He has rushed for 3,218 yards and 31 TDs in his career with the Mocs, needing just 609 yards rushing this fall to surpass Huesman and become the program’s all-time leading rusher. He also needs 12 more rushing TDs this fall to become the school’s all-time leader in rushing scores.

As far as the receiving corps for the Mocs is concerned, Jamoi Mayes, Sam Phillips, and Javon Burke offer a good complement of weapons at wide receiver heading into the 2023 season for the Mocs. Phillips has outstanding hands and will head into the 2023 football season as an all-conference candidate.

The offensive line loses McClendon Curtis to graduation, who anchored a Chattanooga offensive line that was once again one of the best in the Southern Conference, and also one of the biggest. The good news is all-conference selection Bryce Goodner is back, as is the experienced Colin Truett.

It was a unit that would end up helping the Mocs conclude the 2022 campaign ranking 32nd nationally in total offense (409.2 YPG), as well as one that ranked 33rd nationally in passing offense (248.9 YPG) and 50th in rushing offense (160.3 YPG).

Reid Williams, who was a second-team All-SoCon selection last fall, as well as Nick Cerimele also return along with Goodner and Truett to make the Mocs’ offensive front one of the more formidable ones in the SoCon once again in 2023.

The offense has the pieces to be good again, but it may take a little time for everyone to get on the same page.

Previewing the Mocs Defense

Chattanooga’s grit and toughness on the defensive side of the football are something that has helped the Mocs be competitive atop the league standings for a majority of the past 13 years. Chattanooga has done well to routinely procure talent on the defensive side of the ball.

The Mocs have led the SoCon in total defense in eight of the past 12 seasons, which includes each of the past three. The Mocs’ 35 sacks last fall mark the ninth-best total in league history. Six times since 2009 a Mocs player has claimed the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honor, including each of the past two seasons.

While talented 2021 SoCon Defensive Player of the Year and talented defensive lineman Devonnsha Maxwell has moved on, signing with the Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent last April, the good news is the Mocs welcome back the 2022 SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, in edge rusher/outside linebacker Jay Person. In fact, talent returns at all three levels of Lorenzo Ward’s defense in 2023.

Person, an Appalachian State transfer has turned in an outstanding career as a Moc and will look to finish out his career in strong fashion in the Scenic City, and might be Chattanooga’s most physically-gifted player on the defensive side of the ball. Person will likely find himself on several preseason All-America teams. Person turned in a solid outing against the Paladins last season, posting six stops in his 37 career games (27 starts) as a Mocs edge rusher, he has posted 177 career tackles, 40.0 tackles-for-loss, and has totaled 17.5 career sacks.

The area hit hardest by graduation on the defensive side of the football was the linebacker position, as the Mocs must replace a pair of top-tier linebackers from the heart of the defense, which includes the team’s top tackler, in Ty Boeck,who finished the 2022 campaign with 97 tackles. The other all-conference caliber player the Mocs must replace from a talented group of linebackers from a year ago is Kam Jones.

The good news is Chattanooga had plenty of talent waiting in the wings at linebacker, with Alex Mitchell and Bo Spearman both back as a part of the unit last season, with Mitchell backing up Jones, while Spearman served as Boeck’s understudy.

As good as the defensive line has been in recent seasons, it’s the defensive backfield that could rival the talent the Mocs possess in the secondary is elite. Kam Brown, who ended the season tied for the SoCon lead with six INTs last season, will enter the season as a Buck Buchanan Award candidate. Reuben Lowery II, Josh Battle and Romeo Wykle round out a talented group that should compete for postseason all-league honors this fall.

While Maxwell has graduated, the good news for the Mocs is that two of three starters return to the defensive front. Both nose tackle Marlon Taylor and Ben Brewton are dominant performers at nose tackle and

Chattanooga finished out the 2022 campaign ranking 12th nationally in total defense (322.6 YPG), while also finishing the 14th in scoring defense (20.6 PPG), fifth in team sacks (35.0 sacks/3.18 SPG), ninth in rushing defense (108.0 YPG), and 49th in passing yards allowed (214.6 YPG).

Previewing the Mocs Special Teams Unit

The Mocs must replace both punter Gabe Boring and Aaron Sears heading into the 2023 season. The punting job this fall could fall to Clayton Crile, who transferred into the Mocs program from Catawba College. Crile spent four seasons at Catawba College, and as a senior in 2022, he was a first-team All-America selection. In his 33-game career at Catawba, averaged 45.5 yards-per-punt.

The kicking duties for the Mocs figure to fall to Georgia Tech transfer place-kicker Jude Kelley. The junior spent three years in Atlanta and saw action in 15 career games with the Yellow Jackets, converting three field goals, with his longest coming from 45 yards out. He was also 11-of-12 on PATs while playing at Georgia Tech.

Overall Synopsis

Chattanooga is left us with diminishing returns each of the past couple of seasons, despite some pretty lofty expectations from the media. While our predictions at Redshirt Sports has the Mocs pegged as the fourth SoCon team in the Top 25, I am not as ready to jump on board that ship quite yet…At least until I see how the quarterback situation turns out, but I’ll say that the talent is around both Artopoeus and Schomburg to be successful and challenge for a SoCon title and FCS playoff bid. However, I am not ready to say this Mocs team is as good as the ones predicted to finish as league champs each of the past two seasons. On my own SoCon personal ballot, I actually had Chattanooga finishing fifth behind Western Carolina and my schedule projection for the Mocs below will likely reflect that.

2023 Schedule prediction

  • Sept. 2 at North Alabama (W, 21-3)
  • Sept. 9 vs. Kennesaw State (W, 28-24)
  • Sept. 16 vs. The Citadel (W, 31-21)
  • Sept. 23 at Samford (L, 24-31)
  • Sept. 30 at Wofford (W, 35-20)
  • Oct. 7 vs. Western Carolina (L, 30-31)
  • Oct. 14 at Mercer (L, 10-20)
  • Oct. 21 vs. ETSU (W, 24-22)
  • Oct. 28 at VMI (W, 33-30)
  • Nov. 4 vs. Furman (L, 10-21)
  • Nov. 18 at Alabama (L, 0-35)

Projected Final Regular-Season Record: 6-5 overall, 4-4 SoCon