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Front Page - Friday, May 12, 2017

Jenkins column: Bridges long, winding route to become a Moc




Bridges

Now the truth can be told:  Darrell Bridges never stopped wanting to be a Chattanooga Moc.

Even after being left at the altar, as it were, due to the recruiting limitations, and even though as one of the Chattanooga area’s all-time great running backs he could not get the time of day from schools that could easily have used him, and even though he was the best thing on a bad team for the last two seasons, it somehow worked out.

Darrell Bridges will be a member of the Mocs for the 2017 season.

Nothing becomes official until Bridges receives his diploma from Presbyterian on May 13. Only then does the fairly recent NCAA edict that allows a graduate to transfer in order to satisfy post-graduate credits officially come into play, and only then could new UTC head coach Tom Arth comment on having a polished running back fall into his lap.

But Bridges spoke for himself to the Chattanooga Times Free Press’ Gene Henley this past week.

“Most importantly, I need to support my (newborn) daughter and her mother,” he said. “But Chatt’s program is also one of the top-tier programs in the nation, and in order to be the best player I could be for my final year, I would need to surround myself with great players, and their program has repeatedly shown that they have the talent to win.”                                                                                            

For the last two seasons, Bridges was the best offensive weapon on a bad football team.

The Blue Hose had only four wins over his final two Presbyterian seasons after a six-win freshman campaign. His redshirt junior year – 2016 – was a train wreck, one that included a 34-0 loss to Chattanooga on a day that was publicized as Bridges’ return home. He had 89 yards rushing in that game. His team totaled 86.

Their dysfunctional offense scored 10 or fewer points in seven of their 11 games, and 3 points or less in five of them.

He rushed for 721 yards last season; the rest of the team gained less than 400. He scored two of Presbyterian’s four rushing touchdowns. He carried the football 204 times; his teammates just 176. His two touchdowns tied him for second among the team’s top scorers.

A better reflection on his worth to a functional offense can be gleaned from his sophomore season, when he was first team All-Big South with 1,065 rushing yards and eight touchdowns to become the first-ever Presbyterian back to post a 1,000-yard season during the team’s Division I era. He also set a DI record for the school with 224 carries.

He topped the 100-yard mark six times in 11 games.

That was the Darrell Bridges that Chattanooga prep football fans remember.

In his two seasons with the Ridgeland (Georgia) Panthers, one of a controversial class of talented Tennessee players who transferred en masse across the state line to the Panthers’ program, Bridges (who came from a playoff Red Bank team) rose to the pinnacle of Chattanooga’s all-time elite backs.

Bridges’ big break came as a junior after 10 of his teammates were dismissed from the squad. He was moved to the starting fullback slot in the Panthers’ Wing T offense and gained more than 1,400 yards in just seven games.

As senior, he was a total workhorse, gaining a dazzling 2,301 yards and 39 touchdowns as Ridgeland reached the state championship game. Bridges’ yardage stood as the third-best total in the state of Georgia.

The scholarship offers from the big boys simply did not come. Late-comers in the recruiting blender included Memphis and Eastern Kentucky, but offers were primarily coming from lesser programs like Shorter, Carson-Newman and Presbyterian. Chattanooga, where Bridges badly wanted to go, was supposedly in the mix.

“The biggest recruiting mystery in my 28 years of coaching,” said Mark Mariakis, Ridgeland head coach at the time, “is why college scouts haven’t been all over this kid. He’s got the size, strength and speed. His grades are good, he’s academically qualified and he’s a great kid.

“There was some question about his speed because he ran a 4.6 (40-yard dash) in some camps, but the thing about him is that he doesn’t lose a step in pads,” Mariakis added. “A coach from Ohio State said he has faster game speed than track speed. That’s accurate.”

But the Ohio State coach was there to snatch up Bridges’ close friend and teammate, Vonn Bell (now in the NFL). No major offers were forthcoming, and a bitter disappointment ensued when Chattanooga passed over him for another Georgia prep running back, Derrick Craine out of McDonough.

There almost seemed to be a message for Bridges when Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman announced the Mocs’ signing class that year. Craine, comparable in many ways, ran for 2,997 yards and 31 touchdowns for his career, with 2,105 yards and 26 touchdowns coming his senior year despite a midseason injury.

“Derrick was in our camp, and we really like him,” Huesman said in his announcement. “We really like the toughness he brings to the position. … I just love his mental outlook, his toughness. He’s football 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s kind of what we were looking for in that position. We were taking only one (running back) there this year, and we identified him early on, liked him, and made the decision. Thank goodness Derrick decided to come here.”

That readiness is what separated the two prep seniors.

“I didn’t come to (college) in top shape and tore a hamstring muscle the first day of practice,” Bridges recalls. “I ended up redshirting. I learned the hard way that I was not physically prepared for college football.

“I discovered winning  at the college level takes more than just running with the ball, but it’s year-round dedication to the sport and spending a good deal of time studying film of the opposition. At this level, you cannot just rely on speed and talent to win as we did in high school.”

The irony, of course, is that Craine’s own graduation is opening up the opportunity for Bridges. A highly decorated member of the Mocs for his career, Craine wound up with 2,997 yards rushing and 35 total touchdowns for the Mocs, including back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

The wild card is that the Mocs will be running an entirely new offense under the guidance of Arth and a new staff of assistants. It’s just a matter of time before we find out if this shotgun marriage will get off the ground.

Are Mocs Ready to Bolt?

Athletic director David Blackburn, now assured of calling Chattanooga home for the foreseeable future, will be making the most important decision for Moc athletics since the school opted to become a state-sponsored school in 1970: where might they call home in the future?

A series of articles over the weekend indicated that the declining attendance in football especially, but overall, has reached alarming levels. The problem has been correctly pinpointed: the withering, nearly decrepit Southern Conference.

Since Georgia Southern and Appalachian State bolted for the Sun Belt Conference, Chattanooga has been forced to compete largely against SoCon teams that produce little buzz locally and smaller crowds with every advancing season. Bringing that fact into sharp focus was departing coach Russ Huesman, who noted upon his arrival at Richmond that the football team’s average attendance had been declining every year since Huesman’s first year heading the program, eight years previous.

The three options are clear and distinctive:

-- Follow the lead of Georgia Southern and Appalachian, move up to the Sun Belt and play with the big boys

-- Ditch the Southern Conference and snuggle up to the geographically friendly Ohio Valley Conference (which includes what passes as Chattanooga’s biggest rival these days, Jacksonville State)

-- Do nothing and continue the inevitable journey into financial hardship and mediocracy.

History has proven that the SoCon has been a big stepping stone for successful 1-AA level programs. Long before Appalachian and Georgia Southern bolted, Marshall moved up, up and away. College of Charleston, which didn’t even field football, was able to move onward and upward merely from its success on the basketball court.

But there are no illusions that Chattanooga will ever double its crowds or its gate, even with a “big boy” schedule. Does anyone actually think that Chattanooga will get a bump at the turnstiles facing the likes of current Sun Belt members Troy, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State and South Alabama on a regular basis?

It’s fun to think of Chattanooga being bowl eligible in a few years, but the reality is the program is still trying to find its way in the playoff division. The answer might lie in the history of the Mocs at Finley Stadium.

Of the top 10 football crowds all-time at Finley, none of the first eight were against any current member of the Southern Conference. Tops among them – and they would fill up Finley, again and again, were they to come, are the Tennessee State Tigers, who drew an astounding 22,642 fans in 1997.

Second and fifth were meetings with Georgia Southern in 2010 and 2000, while Nos. 3 and 6 are Jacksonville State in 2015 and 2014, respectively. Ranked fourth and eighth were meetings with Appalachian in 2010 and 2012. In every case, a good turnout by the visiting teams’ fans made a big difference.

Considering concerns with travel costs, the OVC offers geographically friendly opponents in Tennessee Tech, TSU, Austin Peay and basketball stalwart Belmont. There are still three Kentucky schools – Eastern, Morehead and Murray – and there’s Jacksonville State to the south.

Much as is the case in the Southern League, Chattanooga would be very much the hub city in the league, and a great choice to host postseason play on a regular basis.

Each option has its plusses and minuses, but a move to the OVC would be, for lack of a better option, the most fun. If you can make money while having fun, isn’t that close to a no-brainer?