One of Chattanooga’s main areas of concern heading into fall camp centered around the Mocs’ highly-regarded defense. Not what you’d expect when said defense returns nine starters from a season ago — five of whom garnered preseason All-SoCon selections.
Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll notice the problem.
It’s the unit’s depth, and at no spot is that more apparent than at linebacker. Led by a pair of fifth-year seniors in Wes Dothard and Gunner Miller, there's plenty of firepower returning to the position, but not a whole lot beyond those two.
“We’re constantly trying to evolve it,” UTC linebackers coach Rusty Wright said. “At this level, if you have a pair, you need a spare.”
Camp has come and gone, though, and UTC head coach Russ Huesman feels a whole lot more comfortable now than he did at the conclusion of an underwhelming spring from the position’s younger players.
“I like the two we’ve got behind them,” Huesman said. “Muhasibi [Wakeel] and A.J. [Hampton], they’re both really good players. They’ve both played some football for us, and I feel good about those two guys for this year, obviously, and for the future, too. I think they’re both really good players.”
Wakeel, a redshirt junior, was the logical choice to step in and fill the vacant spot left by Shane Heatherly’s graduation, and he might have finally done that. The 5-11, 220-pounder appeared in 11 games last season — mostly on special teams — recording 13 tackles, including a season-high four stops at Western Carolina on Nov. 3.
Hampton’s emergence has been a bit more surprising, though, and it can be credited to the 6-foot-1, 240-pound redshirt sophomore’s commitment this offseason.
“He came back in shape,” Huesman said. “He made a commitment to be in shape, and it looks like he’s running around really well. I’ve been pleased with A.J.”
Added Wright: “He’s done much better than in the spring. He just need to continue learning. He can run, he can be physical and do all those things, but he has to keep learning the little things that are going to make him a much better football player.”
Redshirt freshman Nakevion Leslie, who switched from safety to linebacker in the spring, brings a little more speed and athleticism to the position, but he’s been splitting his time between linebacker and nickel this fall.
“Nakevion is kind of a linebacker in a DB’s body,” Wright said. “It’s all about matchups now. As sophisticated as offenses get, and the spacing they use to spread the field, you’ve got to have guys out there that can run and do things. We just have to keep developing him, but it’s more or less a hybrid spot, than it is your typical in-the-box linebacker.”
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.
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