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Front Page - Friday, October 6, 2017

Jenkins Perspective: Suddenly, it’s freshman Caldwell’s time for Mocs

Freshman QB Dominic Caldwell was forced into action against Western Carolina after Alejandro Bennifield was injured. - Photograph by Dale Rutemeyer courtesy of UTC Athletics

Fans had scarcely had time to settle in their Finley Stadium seats – much less get used to seeing UTC’s No. 1 quarterback in action – when he was gone. Again.

Western Carolina linebacker Tahjai Watt, a 6-5, 215 QB-seeking missile with something to prove, could not believe he had the good fortune to be totally unblocked in the first quarter Saturday against the Mocs. But like any good defender, he didn’t take a moment to appreciate his good fortune; instead, he made a beeline for unsuspecting UTC quarterback Alejandro Bennifield.

The Mocs quarterback, a lefty, was actually facing his attacker, but his eyes were downfield. He was not aware of Watt’s presence until the Catamount defender planted his helmet directly between the ‘1’ and ‘5’ on the front of his Mocs jersey.

Bennifield’s helmet flew off, his mouthpiece went another direction entirely, and his wits were scattered far and wide with no chance to gather them as his unprotected head thudded against the Finley Stadium turf.

As a result, Bennifield’s season consists of 11 plays and holding. He’d missed the Mocs’ first four games due to an academic suspension that has still not been sufficiently explained.

Part of the new concussion protocol, as several teams practice them, is to never give an accurate report on a player’s injury. So, we can surmise with conviction that Bennifield is suffering from a significant concussion or a whopper of a headache.

His unprotected head hit the Finley Stadium turf before the rest of his body landed, and he needed several minutes to make it to his feet.

Fans gradually became aware of the potential severity of Bennifield’s injury. First, he walked off the field, albeit unsteadily. Then he was carefully steered to the UTC locker room by a pair of concerned trainers. And when next they saw him, he was on a stretcher being loaded onto an ambulance.

And, most irritatingly, someone in the ACC or SEC apparently had gotten to head coach Tom Arth, teaching him the fine art of Coachspeak, as the most information the media was allowed to have following the pug-ugly 45-7 loss was that tests were “negative,” whatever that means.

But in the here and now, Nick Tiano was again The Man. And it was as if last week’s 62-point outburst against VMI never happened. The offense instantly reverted to the sputtering, disorganized mess that disappointed many in the Mocs’ home opener two weeks previous.

Twice, Tiano was sacked on or near his goal line by the Catamounts – who have already nearly doubled their sack total from last season – and twice it was recovered for cheap touchdowns.

Add to the mix an absurd, botched fake punt by the Mocs from inside their own 30 that was recovered on the one. Western Carolina went on to score three touchdowns that the Chattanooga defense was in no way responsible for.

Tiano was an awful 11-for-25 passing against a defense that had been allowing close to 30 points per game before he was put out of one kind of misery and into another. One final sack on the second play of the fourth quarter ended with all of Tiano’s 240 pounds landing on his left shoulder. Separated? Torn? Collarbone, perhaps? No one would say.

Arth only said Tiano, too, turned up “negative,” and that he was released from the hospital before the game ended Saturday.

Enter Dominic Caldwell.

A redshirt freshman from a big-time program in Sarasota by way of Florida International, the 6-foot-2 Caldwell converted his very first college pass into a touchdown of six yards to graduate transfer Darrell Bridges. But with Western Carolina playing keep away and the ultra-cautious coaching staff scared to death to allow a quarterback to actually throw downfield, Caldwell had only one other pass attempt (incomplete) despite finishing the game.

While waiting for word on the injury situation, the very real situation exists that Caldwell is going to have to be The Man. Listed as the team’s fourth-string quarterback pre-season, Arth went to him rather than lose the precious redshirt on Bradley Central’s record-breaking QB Cade Copeland. But the reality is that Caldwell’s season of apprenticeship in Florida has him more thoroughly prepared for the long, long road ahead.

Caldwell’s football background is impeccable.

His uncle, David Caldwell, is the general manger of the improving Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL. And if that name rings a bell to some, Caldwell was in Atlanta for five years, four as the director of college scouting during a time when Julio Jones, Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon were selected. He then served as director of player personnel, overseeing both college and pro scouting under G.M. Thomas Dimitroff when the Jags came a-calling for the 2017 season.

Before that, David Caldwell was a two-year letterman at … wait for it … John Carroll University, the same small Division III school where Arth played quarterback and then coached. So, yes, Dominic Caldwell probably knew more about Arth than 99 percent of his teammates when he transferred to UTC last December.

Arth, to the surprise of no one, was not ready to commit to the quarterback situation for this week’s Homecoming contest against Furman.

“Dro (Bennifield) went down early and I really feel for him, but we just didn’t do a good job of protecting him,” Arth said afterwards. “It was a tough situation, but there was no panic at all with Nick coming in. They put pressure on us all night and we never really recovered when he went out.

“Western Carolina has a fine football team, and made a bunch of big plays, but we need to see where we can be better. We struggled on offense all game, never had a whole lot going.”

In addition to the botched fake punt, Arth showed a willingness to gamble by passing on a possible field goal late in the first half. Instead, a fourth-down sack killed the drive.

“We had a good play called,” Arth said. “(James) Stovall was open, but Nick got flushed out of the pocket and never had a chance to get the ball to him. But we were needing touchdowns at that point (down 24-0).”

Caldwell’s lack of experience is clearly a cause for concern, but Arth’s offensive coordinator, Justin Rascati (himself a former quarterback) said many of the right things at the start of fall practice.

“These guys have a tremendous upside. We’ve got a lot of talent, some real competitors in that room,” Rascati said of his locker room. “We feel good, really good, about that position going forward.”

But that might prove to be lip service if the Mocs opt for an injured Tiano against Furman; if Bennifield, as expected, has to enter the concussion protocol, he will likely be lost to the Mocs for another three weeks.

But the visual evidence, as well as common sense, says it’s time for Caldwell to get a chance to produce.

“We certainly didn’t want to put Cole in, not knowing the situation (with the other quarterbacks), but Dominic came in, threw a touchdown pass and did a good job. I’m happy for him,” Arth said. “I know he was excited, and the team was excited for him.”

A Little Miracle in Clarksville

The most unlikely occurrence in college football Saturday was Austin Peay claiming the state’s only win by a FCS or FBS school.

To 99 percent of the football teams in the NCAA, a three-game winning streak would be considered modest. But to the Clarksville-based Governors (or Govs), it signals the beginning of a long-awaited reversal of fortune.

Going into the 2017 season, the Govs held the nation’s longest losing streak at a prolific 29.

But the difference between the 0-11 season of 2015 and the 0-11 of 2016 is that 30-year-old head coach Will Healy had taken control of the program. To say the Governors’ locker room was bereft of talent can be made clear with one fact: Healy’s first season had 20 returning regulars from a winless season, and they failed to win a year later.

But Healy, an all-state quarterback at Boyd-Buchanan School who went on to win a national championship at Richmond, was hired away from his hometown team of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he was passing game coordinator.

Healy was also an ace recruiter for the Mocs, and he convinced several Chattanooga-area players – especially McCallie quarterback JaVaughn Craig – to join him in Clarksville. And once last season’s difficult transition was over, Healy promised better things. And soon.

The 2017 season began with an 0-2 start against tough, big-time opponents Cincinnati and Miami of Ohio. But they were especially competitive against the Bearcats (26-14), so their third-week home game against Morehead was trumpeted as a not-to-be-missed occasion, and the Peay community bought in. The renovated Fortera Stadium was built to hold 7,000, and an announced attendance of 8,152 showed up to witness 10 touchdowns and nearly 700 yards of offense in a streak-busting 69-13 victory.

Many of those 8,000 stormed the field at game’s end, bringing down both goal posts in record time.

But Morehead is a no-scholarship, non-competing member of the OVC, and it alone would not validate the Govs’ claim to legitimacy. But they followed it up with a road win, 27-7 over Murray State in their official OVC opener, and this past Saturday added a third straight win, 7-0, over 21st-ranked UT-Martin.

With UT and UTC among the teams losing badly Saturday, the Govs were a lone beacon of light in a weekend of darkness in the state.

“There were times we bent but we didn’t break,” Healy said. “We rushed the passer better than we had been, and we contained their running game. This was a huge win and a lot of fun playing in front of our home fans.”

With powerful Jacksonville State looming as their next opponent, the Govs’ modest streak would seem to be in jeopardy. But only once since 2010 have they won more than three times in a season.

But failure of an epic scale has long been associated with the program. The moribund tenure of Healy’s predecessor, Kirby Cannon (2013-15), had 0-12 and 0-11 seasons sandwiched around a 1-11 year and was 1-34 when fired. The time when big-time coaches like Hall of Famer Boots Donnelly, Watson Brown and Oak Ridge prep legend Emory Hale prowled the Peay sidelines seemed eons ago.

Will Healy, at the ripe old age of 31, is rapidly earned a place to be mentioned with along with those legends.