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Front Page - Friday, July 21, 2017

Jenkins Perspective: Arth puts optimistic spin on NFL’s thievery

No one told Tom Arth that the biggest obstacle he’d face in building a new coaching staff at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga would be the NFL.

The pros claimed two of his hires (Brandon Staley to the Bears and Demarcus Covington to the Patriots) before they could even move to town, but the Mocs’ first-year head coach has a full complement of assistants on hand as they eagerly await the start of the 2017 season.

Arth, hired away from his alma mater, Division III power John Carroll, says the transition has otherwise been surprisingly smooth, even though he had to replace all of his predecessor’s assistants. As a result, the veterans among the 105 players who hit the practice field next week will be in a big hurry to learn an entirely new system.

And the calendar will be relentless.

The Mocs will be facing their biggest antagonist of the Russ Huesman Era, Jacksonville State, in a special ESPN broadcast on Thursday night, August 26. The upside to the early start is an early start on the practice field. As a result, Arth and the Mocs will be on Scrappy Moore Field getting down to business on Monday.

Arth says that the biggest difference in preparing the Mocs as opposed to preparing the Blue Streaks of John Carroll isn’t the level of play. It is all about getting acquainted.

“We have a great system, a great plan,” Arth said this week. “But we’re putting a new program in place. It’s a new group of coaches and a different group of players. Everything we’re doing, we’re doing for the first time, really starting from scratch.”

While losing two newly named assistants to NFL jobs was an inconvenience, the former Indianapolis Colts quarterback was also able to turn it into a teaching moment.

“I’ve been happy for those guys, having an opportunity to live their dream,” Arth explained. “And that’s what we tell our players – you surround yourselves with great people, do all the right things, work hard, that’s the kind of opportunity that happens.

“That’s what we hope for everyone associated with our football program.”

Recruiting was a frenzied but successful endeavor, with Arth able to keep most of outgoing coach Russ Huesman’s commitments while bringing in some highly touted talent himself. Several figure to play, but one freshman who can almost count on being in the mix straightaway is 5-8 slot receiver Jeffery Wood II, who was thought by some to be the fastest recruit in Tennessee.

“He has really been burning it up,” Arth said with a big smile. “We can’t wait to see what he can do with a football in his hands. He’s going to be a slot receiver for us, but he will be lined up all over the field. Defenses will have to locate him on every play.”

But known quantities (and qualities) can get a fan base buzzing quickly, and that happened several times in the off-season as the Mocs had former local prep stars like Nick Tiano (from Baylor via Mississippi State) and Darrell Bridges (from Ridgeland via Presbyterian) getting particular notice. But each of them will be fighting for playing time against incumbents at quarterback and running back, respectively.

But if Tiano, Bridges and former Baylor tight end Gage Upshaw earned buzz with their homecoming, then former Notre Dame prep star Kareem Orr’s surprising arrival led to a roar of welcome from Mocs fans.

Orr initially went West to find fortune and fame, doing so with a breakout freshman season at Arizona State. He led the Pac-12 with six interceptions – the first freshman to do so since Kenny Easley way back in 1977. Easley, you might recall, was named to the NFL Hall of Fame this past fall.

Family issues, not academics or legal problems, brought Orr home.

“I can tell you he has been just a fantastic addition,” Arth said of the 5-11, 195 safety.

“He has been tremendous in the weight room, and I’ve already seen him take on a leadership role in our program. The other players know that he brings great experience and great ability to our team.”

Among other transfers already in house include linebackers Matthew Draper (Cincinnati) and Zach Lesko (Syracuse), wideout Cody Swabek (Louisville) and a former three-star offensive lineman from mighty Buford (Georgia) High and the University of Georgia, Josh Cardiello.

But the Mocs will soar or sink on how well returning starting quarterback Alejandro Bennifield handles the Mocs’ new offense. Arth has no complaints so far.

“Alejandro has been great, and I’ve been so encouraged to see him, a guy who had so much success at this level, embrace the new offense,” Arth said of the 6-3 senior lefty from Lovejoy (Georgia) High School. “He’s been thriving in it in a lot of ways.”

Bennifield passed for more than 2,600 yards and 26 touchdowns while completing better than 64 percent of his passes while replacing three-year starter Russ Huesman.

While the system will be new, the targets will largely be familiar as James Stovall and Alphonso Stewart will be fellow seniors at the wideout and Richardre Bagley was a familiar target out of the secondary.

One thing Arth isn’t worried about is a void in leadership.

“You can tell there were a handful of guys who assumed that role from the moment we got here,” the coach pointed out, “and we’ve asked that of them and they’ve lived up to that. But we’ve seen more guys become comfortable in those roles.

“With so many great seniors graduating from last year, I’ve been very encouraged by that.”

Players will vote on permanent captains before the season opens, Arth says.

Meanwhile, coaches are already working ridiculous hours in preparation for a season that has everybody feeling a sense of anticipation.

“Right now, we’re having a lot of meetings,” the coach says. “Staff meetings are at 8 a.m., critical areas of team importance are discussed. From there, we break up to work on special teams, then offensive and defensive units.

Our staff is already breaking down film,” Arth added. “It’s right around the corner, just over 30 days, and we’re excited about it.”

Money ball

The Mocs’ televised opener against Jacksonville State will be followed by a big-payout road trip to LSU on Sep. 9 (time still TBA).

The home opener follows on Sept. 16 against UT-Martin at 6 p.m.

Other home games include Western Carolina (Sept. 30, 6 p.m.), Furman (Oct. 7, 4 p.m.), The Citadel (Oct. 21, 2 p.m.) and the regular season finale against ETSU on Nov. 18 (2 p.m.).

Road games this season include conference trips to VMI on Sept. 23, Mercer or Oct. 14, Samford on Oct. 28 and Wofford one week later.

“We’ve gotten just about (all of the coaches) moved in and everyone’s kids are getting to know one another,” Arth said. “The wives love the city and the children are having a blast. “

His coaching staff includes Justin Rascali (offensive coordinator), Tom Kaufman (defensive coordinator), Ryan Aplin (receivers), Brian Cochran (defensive line), Chris Cook (offensive tackles and tight ends), Jonathan Cooley (defensive backs), Matt Feeney (linebackers), Shelton Felton (the newest hire, joining the program on June 9, outside linebackers), Nick Hennessey (offensive line) and Chris Hurd (special teams and running backs).

Former Moc Kadeem Wise is director of football operations.