Friday, April 25, 2014 · 3:37 a.m.

UTC year in review: Defensive grades

Chattanooga linebacker Wes Dothard (25) and defensive end Davis Tull (90) take down Citadel quarterback Ben Dupree. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

Chattanooga’s historic 8-4 campaign came to a very abrupt end last month. UTC had its chances to settle things on the field, specifically the team’s Week 12 trip to Samford, but it ultimately came down to a selection committee, which decided the Mocs weren’t worthy of one of 13 at-large bids to the FCS playoffs. 

Now that we’ve had a little time to digest the season, here’s a position by position look at how Chattanooga’s defense performed on the field this year: 

Defensive line: A

Chattanooga defensive end Keionta Davis (93). (Photo: Billy Weeks)

When referring to UTC’s front four, the term overrated might have floated into some folks’ minds following Chattanooga’s 31-21 season-opening loss to UT Martin. The visiting Skyhawks scorched the Mocs’ D for a season-high 451 yards of total offense—289 of which came on the ground—as UTC’s defensive front was blown off the ball and pushed around throughout that demoralizing setback. Fortunately for Chattanooga, that early-season letdown turned out to be a fluke—the result of overconfidence and a lack of proper preparation. The next week at Georgia State, and for the 11 weeks that followed, the Mocs’ defense, especially its defensive line, was dominant. After battling through an injury in the preseason, in addition to dealing with a significant case of food poisoning, junior defensive end Davis Tull bounced back to claim his second straight Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year honor. And while the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder didn’t quite match his 2012 production, Tull’s SoCon-leading nine sacks and team-high 15 tackles for loss were still quite an accomplishment, especially considering the fact he was dealing with double- and triple-teams throughout the year. The loss of 300-pound defensive tackle Derrick Lott, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury at Georgia State, hurt, but Chattanooga was equipped with more than enough depth to weather that blow. In hindsight, now that Lott has been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and will return in 2014, his injury might have made the Mocs’ defensive front an even stronger unit by allowing more opportunities for All-SoCon selection Josh Freeman and Navy transfer Daniel Ring. Junior defensive end Toyvian Brand also struggled with various injuries throughout the season, making way for redshirt freshman Keionta Davis, who emerged as a solid option against the run and pass. Davis, a SoCon All-Freshman selection, recorded 21 tackles, four tackles for loss and 1 ½ sacks in the final five games and started the final three games at defensive end.

DL statistical leaders: 

Davis Tull: 52 tackles, 15.0 TFLs, 9 sacks

Daniel Ring: 42 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2 sacks

Josh Freeman: 41 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 4 sacks

Keionta Davis: 21 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1.5 sacks

Toyvian Brand: 20 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 sack

Derrick Lott: 17 tackles, 2.5 TFLs

Linebackers: A

Chattanooga linebacker Gunner Miller (Photo: Billy Weeks)

While injuries played a role on the defensive line, they were nothing compared to what the Mocs’ linebacking corps had to endure towards the end of the season. They found a way to make it happen, though. Senior Gunner Miller (35 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INTs, TD) battled shoulder stingers throughout the year, and missed the final three games because of them. His replacement, junior Muhasibi Wakeel, also went down with an ankle injury late in the season, forcing safety and former walk-on C.J. Murrell to finish the Appalachian State game at the Sam linebacker spot. Like Lott’s absence up front, though, the rash of injuries allowed redshirt freshman Nakevion Leslie to emerge as solid option outside. With all the injuries, though, senior Wes Dothard was as solid as ever, racking up a team-leading 81 tackles, 1 ½ sacks, two interceptions and a defensive TD to garner first-team All-SoCon honors for the third straight season. Leslie, the hero of that Appalachian State game, will probably be best remembered for his fourth-quarter interception returned for a TD against the Mountaineers, but the 5-foot-11, 210-pounder also received SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors the following week for his 14-tackle, one-sack effort against Wofford. Leslie, who was recruited as a defensive back, wound up at linebacker in 2013, but the versatile defender can play all over the field. No matter where he ends up, the Mocs found themselves a very solid building block for future defenses in Leslie.

LB statistical leaders:

Wes Dothard: 82 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 2 INTs, TD

Muhasibi Wakeel: 49 tackles, 1 TFL, 

Gunner Miller: 35 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, 2 INTs, TD

Nakevion Leslie: 31 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 INT, TD

Secondary: A

Chattanooga cornerback Kadeem Wise (Photo: Billy Weeks)

Senior safety D.J. Key and senior cornerbacks Kadeem Wise and Chaz Moore were their normal selves in 2013, helping the Mocs lead the SoCon in pass defense (151.6 ypg) and pass defense efficiency (120.6), while finishing second in interceptions (11). Key, who sat out all of spring practice and fall camp after undergoing offseason foot surgery, missed the team’s season opener against UT Martin, but returned the following week at Georgia State. The 6-foot, 200-pound strong safety finished second on the team in tackles (77), and brought home All-SoCon first-team honors for the second time in his career. Moore and Wise also enjoyed solid seasons. Wise, a four-year starter, wound up on the league’s first-team defense with 75 tackles, 15 passes defended and an interception, while Moore (70 tackles, 1 INT, 7 passes defended) snuck onto the all-conference list as a return specialist. The bad news is that all three players mentioned will be moving on, leaving UTC with just one returning full-time starter in the secondary—free safety Zach McCarter, who, despite some early injuries, managed to have himself a pretty nice season. The biggest bright spot in the defensive backfield had to be the play of redshirt freshman Dee Virgin, though, who manned one of the CB spots in the nickel. From Week 1 on, Virgin showed he could play, and play well, at this level. The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder hauled in an interception and recovered a fumble in the loss to UT Martin, and the SoCon All-Freshman selection totaled 38 tackles and two picks on the year. Virgin, along with redshirt freshman Will Johnson, who missed nearly the entire season with a shoulder injury, are the two frontrunners to replace Wise and Moore on the outside in 2014. 

DB statistical leaders: 

D.J. Key: 77 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 2 INTs

Kadeem Wise: 75 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 INT

Chaz Moore: 70 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 1 INT

Zach McCarter: 38 tackles, 1 INT

Dee Virgin: 38 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INTs

UTC Year in Review: Offensive grades

Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.

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