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Previewing Alabama vs. UT-Chattanooga: The Moc defense

Let’s face it: Alabama will punch through the Moc D like a stiletto through cellophane. But will there anything to be learned this weekend?

NCAA Football: Chattanooga at Florida State
Russ Huesman has turned the UTC Mocs into perennial FCS contenders, largely because of a stingy defense.
Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who thinks that there is half a chance that the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Mocs will do anything to substantially slow the crimson juggernaut just hasn’t been paying much attention to this football season (or any football season, for that matter).

Sure, the Mocs are in the upper echelon of the Southern Conference of FCS repute. Moc defensive coordinator Adam Braithwaite does a great job in the ‘Noog, as he’s assembled a defense that is consistently ranked among the elite in FCS play. The UTC defense has been the best in the Southern Conference for the last three years, and they are as shut-down a unit as one can find in the championship subdivision.

But let’s break out the real talk: there are quality…elite, even…FBS defenses that have proven themselves impotent when it comes to stopping the multi-headed hydra of an offensive attack that Lane Kiffin has assembled on the banks of the Black Warrior River. There’s no mistaking what the Mocs are coming to Bryant Denny to do: they are coming to collect a paycheck (politely, no less), and they are going to take a little live-action fire during what amounts to a proxy bye week for Alabama before the Tide meets its final test of the regular season in the Iron Bowl.

Given this colossal mismatch, there’s no need to mince words here. The Tide offensive starters will do whatever they want to do for a quarter or two, then they’ll give way to wave after wave of second- and third-string Tide talent that rarely sees the field with any consistency. These types of games can demonstrate roster depth, and shore up some areas where maybe the experience level isn’t quite up to par. When all is said and done, there’s little question which team will rule the scoreboard and the stat book, so there’s no reason to pretend there will be any real contest to speak of.

We can, however, give a glimpse of what the Mocs will bring to the table in their moment in the sun, and we can discuss what kinds of things the Tide can do against them to get better and prepare for future opponents. In that line of though, let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

One of the most startling differences between FCS and FBC football in the past was the sheer size disparity between teams from respective leagues. That distinguishing difference still holds true to a large extent, as the Mocs have a single 300-pounder on their defensive two-deep, which marks quite the departure from Alabama’s barrage of 300-pound athletes that stack their defensive front three-deep.

That said, despite the size differential, the Mocs do have some relative talent on their front, starting with 2015 Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year Keionta Davis (6-4, 270 pounds). Davis is the anchor of the defensive line, though technically he plays at the end position in the Mocs’ 4-2-5 base alignment. A pre-season All-Southern Conference selection at end, Davis (a senior) is having himself quite the year, accounting for 35 tackles, nine tackles for loss, eight sacks, four passes broken up, and six quarterback hurries. At the other end position is another explosive defender in senior Vantrel McMilan (6-2, 250 pounds). McMilan is physically a linebacker by SEC standards, but he is an athletic, disruptive edge rusher for the Mocs who has recorded 51 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, and eight quarterback hurries. Seasoned depth beyond Davis and McMilan is rather limited, as the Mocs have a lot of new faces at end this season. But their starting two are solid, aggressive defenders who do what they’re asked to do quite well.

The depth is a little better at tackle, where senior Justin King (6-2, 275 pounds) and junior Taylor Reynolds (6-3, 275 pounds) hold down the interior as starters. Reynolds has been a pocket disruptor and run-stuffer, as he has 31 tackles, five tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks this season, while King has collected 26 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Behind the starting duo, the Mocs have promising reserves in sophomore Isaiah Mack (6-2, 280 pounds) and junior Derek Mehaffey (6-2, 305 pounds). Mack, a Southern Conference All-Freshman performer last season, has 25 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and four quarterback hurries on the year. Mehaffey, the only 300+ pounder in the defensive front seven, has had a decent year as well, recording 17 tackles and a tfl in 2016.

Because the Mocs spend a great deal of time in their nickel formation, they generally only have two linebackers on the field at any given time, a Mike and a Sam. At Mike, the Mocs field the able and talented senior Nakevion Leslie (5-11, 225 pounds), who leads the team in tackles with 88, including 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, seven passes broken up, three quarterback hurries, and three forced fumbles. Leslie could easily play D1 football, as he is technically solid and versatile in the position. At Sam, junior Dale Warren is the starter (6-1, 225 pounds). Warren has accounted for 77 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, five sacks, one interception, and three quarterback hurries. Providing some depth is steady junior T.J. Jenkins (6-2, 230 pounds), who has 11 tackles on the year.

In the style of 4-2-5 nickel that Braithwaite runs at UTC, the Mocs put a premium on defensive backs (particularly safeties). The assortment of packages they use in their brand of nickel changes somewhat, but in a league that is dominated by running offenses, they thrive with heavy safeties and an oddly-named “Dime” position that is more of a robber-rover type role with some dedicated run support roles. At the Dime position, the Mocs have the dynamic Trevor Wright (6-1, 180 pounds), as he is an important part of the Moc defensive game plan. He is something like a safety rover in that he has coverage responsibilities, but he is also required to support the run defense, play a “robber” role against the short passing game, stick in the box to seal gaps and read the ball, and make receivers pay when they come across the middle. Wright has 21 tackles, two interceptions, and four passes broken up.

At safety, the Mocs have a sturdy rotation of players who get the job done against the run and pass. Senior starting strong safety Cedric Nettles (6-1, 205 pounds) is a heavy-hitter who sticks his nose in against the run, but is also adequate in coverage when called upon. Nettles has 55 tackles on the year, with three passes broken up, a quarterback hurry, and a forced fumble. Nettles routinely rotates with “back-up” (in name only) Montrel Pardue (6-1, 205 pounds), a sophomore who has 58 tackles, two tackles for loss, an interception, eight passes broken up, and a fumble recovery.

The starting free safety for the Mocs is junior Lucas Webb (6-1, 205 pounds), who has 43 tackles on the season, along with four passes broken up, one fumble recovery, and a forced fumble. Behind Webb is junior Tae Davis (6-3, 215 pounds), who has 18 tackles on the season.

The corners are smallish by SEC standards, and there’s no doubt they’ll have their hands full against the Alabama receivers. As if they weren’t already dealing with a size advantage when going up against the Tide receiving corps, the corners for the Mocs are also extremely young, with a sophomore and two true freshman in the top three spots in the rotation. At the boundary corner position, sophomore C.J. Fritz is the starter, and in that role he has accounted for 31 tackles, two tackles for loss, four passes broken up, and a forced fumble. The starting field corner is freshman D.J. Williams (5-10, 175 pounds), who has recorded only seven tackles on the season. Spelling Fritz and Williams is freshman Adrian King (5-10, 190 pounds), who has eight tackles on the season.

What the Moc defense will do to attack the Alabama offense

It’s pretty simple really…there’s not much the Mocs can do to be more than a speed bump against Alabama’s super-talented offense. At least that will be true in the early going, when Bama’s first-string is still in the game. As the game wears on and the Tide empties the bench, there will be slightly more competitive match-ups on the field. This isn’t a knock against UTC, of course, as they are one of the elite teams in the Southern Conference with an excellent defensive unit that is consistently ranked in the top-25 defensively in FCS. But it’s a tall task to ask them to stop Alabama’s freight train of an offense, plain and simple.

What will they try to do, then? Given Braithwaite’s general mode of attack (which is typically used against FCS opponents that heavily skew towards the run), he will do something similar to what other Tide opponents that run five-defensive back schemes have attempted to do. Specifically, they’ll try to flood the box with athletic defensive backs and try to make Bama go to the air. Where FBS opponents may have had a modicum of success early in games with that tactic, that is likely not in the cards for the Mocs. They lack size, which in and of itself may not be a deal breaker against a zone-read option offense. But they don’t have the athleticism required to stop the scheme against athletes of Alabama’s caliber. Alabama will slash and grind with the inside zone or press the edge with the running game at will, and if the Mocs commit to the box, Hurts will be able to pass at will.

Schematically, expect the four-man front to try to hold ground against the Tide’s momentum-gaining O line. If they can at least battle to a stalemate up front (which is not likely given the tonnage advantage ceded to the Tide), then they’ll count on their linebackers and a trio of safeties (or more accurately, two safeties and a Dime) to crash the gaps, clog the line of scrimmage with bodies, and thus limit the running game.

That’s the best the Mocs can hope for against the Bama running game. The thing is that other teams with bigger, faster, stronger athletes (like Ole Miss and Tennessee) have tried to do that…and they failed. What chance do the Mocs have of stopping the Bama phalanx? Not much of one.

If the Tide first-string wants to be methodical, or when they spell in Cooper Bateman and the second-string offense as the game wears on, the ground game may be the weapon of choice. But in the early going, expect Alabama to pitch the ball around a little bit to further hone Jalen Hurts’ passing skills and timing with receivers. When the Tide pivots to the pass, the Mocs will likely fall into some variation of Cover-2 or quarters coverage in hopes of providing help to their inexperienced, small defensive backs as they battle the Tide’s incredible skill position talent at receiver. There won’t be much Man coverage played by the Mocs (at least one wouldn’t imagine Braithwaite would pair his sub-6-foot underclassman corners against Bama’s big, physical receivers), which will provide Alabama with a bit more room to work in the passing game.

This is probably the biggest benefit that can come from the workout against UTC this weekend. The Moc secondary poses little threat to Hurts and the passing game, but they will provide an opportunity for the progressing quarterback to take some live-fire action against a competitor in preparation for Auburn. Auburn’s run defense is decent, but the pass defense remains a work in progress. Alabama will prosper in the Iron Bowl if they can take advantage of the Tigers’ weakness, and the Mocs will give one last real-time chance to fine-tune the air attack. Since the major issues with Hurts’ passing game thus far have resulted from timing and touch, live reps against a competitive defense will provide him with his best opportunity to fine-tune those facets for the stretch run.

The Result

The result?...well, it’s a foregone conclusion. As much as Nick Saban would be disgusted by this reality, there’s really no reason for anyone on the Alabama sideline to fear the team from Chattanooga. There is a talent gulf between the two teams, and while the Mocs may represent the class of the Southern Conference, the Tide is the class of the Southeastern Conference…those are two completely different levels of excellence.

UTC will play hard, and they’ll try to make a game out of it. But it won’t matter so much what they do, as whatever they do will play into the hands of the Tide. If they put up a fight? All the better, steel sharpens steel, and Alabama can use the practice to stay sharp. If the Mocs accept their fate and simply float the current, then Alabama will get a live-action scrimmage opportunity heading into the final game of the regular season.

There’s literally no small battle that the Mocs will have any business winning against Alabama. The Tide is the number one team in FBS for a reason, and even Alabama’s reserves would be starters if they flipped rosters and the Tide players became Mocs. Saban is an old-school sportsman, and he won’t run up the score against UTC. But even still, there’s no reason to believe that the Tide won’t do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, against Chattanooga. If the Tide wants to work the running game, then they’ll work the running game, rest the starting backs, and get the back-ups some quality carries. If Kiffin wants to polish the passing game, then Hurts (then Bateman…and Cornwell) will toss the ball around and get in some solid reps.

It’s that simple…no need to insult anyone’s intelligence with a detailed analysis of scheme or match-ups. Alabama will execute and win big in a tune-up game of little consequence. Scheme won’t be an issue, because the talent levels are so different.