Chattanooga’s secondary was put through the wringer in the months, weeks and even days leading up to the season.
Safeties D.J. Key (foot) and Zach McCarter (knee), who each missed spring practice due to their respective injuries, sat out virtually all of preseason practice as well. Safety Dean Haynes, who missed the first five games of 2012, aggravated his ankle on Day 1 of fall camp and has yet to return, while freshman Will Johnson went down with a shoulder injury in mid August.
“The first game we were pretty thin as far as the secondary goes,” Johnson said of the team’s season-opening loss. “We had a lot of guys hurt and I think that was big.”
Johnson, along with Key and McCarter, had missed the game themselves, and Johnson was pondering whether to have season-ending shoulder surgery, or put it off and play through the pain.
“Long term, especially for my parents, we just wanted it to be okay,” said Johnson, who has recorded seven tackles, a break up and a deflection in two games. “After talking to the coaches a lot and some of my teammates, they just wanted me to do what was best for me. It came down to my decision, though, and I felt like I had to give it a go. ... I think coming out and playing was probably the best decision I could have made.”
Johnson, along with the two-time All-SoCon selection Key, both returned the following week for a 42-14 win at Georgia State, while McCarter made his debut in last Saturday’s 42-10 win over Austin Peay.
“That adds a lot of depth, a lot of experience and a lot of skill,” Johnson said. “Especially D.J. and Zach. Right now we feel like we have a lot of guys you can count on who aren’t starting. You can put them in the game and just say ‘hey, go do your thing.'”
That’s due, at least in part, to an impressive 2012 recruiting class, which included Johnson and defensive backs Nakevion Leslie, Dee Virgin and Cedric Nettles — all of whom redshirted in 2012 and have already made an impact this season.
The unit’s early-season misfortunes might have helped out in the long run, too, as Nettles and Virgin were both called upon to deliver in the first game of their collegiate careers. Virgin didn’t shy away from the bright lights, finishing with an interception and a fumble recovery in the 31-21 loss to UT Martin.
“My first game, man, a fumble recovery and a pick,” Virgin said. “I’m just blessed to be out there and [the coaches] put me in positions to make plays ... I just had to step in and show them I could make plays, and I think I did that.”
The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder out of Donalsonville, Ga., recorded a pair of tackles and a pass break-up the following week in Atlanta.
Nettles, who filled in for the injured Key against the Skyhawks, has totaled nine tackles this season, while Leslie, who’s working primary at nickel, recorded four stops in last week’s win over the Governors.
“I like them all,” head coach Russ Huesman said of his young DBs. “I think Dee and Will Johnson have both done really well, and I feel good about those two guys. Nakevion and Cedric have done a really good job.”
Their emergences has provided depth in the secondary for the team’s 2013 SoCon title push, which starts next Saturday at No. 14 Georgia Southern, and beyond.
“When Kadeem [Wise] and Chaz [Moore] leave you feel pretty good about Dee and Will at the corners, and you keep brining Jerkerious [Scott] along, who I think is going to be really good,” Huesman said. “I like our group. I don’t think we’ve got a ton, but we’ve got some really good younger guys.
“We’ll still rotate Dee and Will at the one corner there, and Nakevion is at nickel behind Chaz. Even though [Nettles’] time has been limited (due to Key’s return), he’s done a great job across the board.”
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.
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