GREENVILLE, S.C. — With his fourth season having just wrapped up, safety Jordan Walker has had a front-row seat in watching the culture that's being built in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program since Rusty Wright took over as head coach in late December 2018.
Rather than in leaps and bounds, the growth has come along a slight incline, much like the Cliff Hangers game on "The Price is Right."
Nineteen of the Mocs who played their final game for UTC in Saturday's 26-7 loss at Furman in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs had been with the program for at least four seasons. Led by guys such as two-time reigning Southern Conference defensive player of the year Jay Person and running back Ailym Ford — both of them All-Americans in past seasons — plus All-Southern Conference edge rusher Ben Brewton and so many others, that group laid a solid foundation.
And with a roster projected to return a lot of talent from this season's 8-4 team that both returned to the playoffs and won a game for the first time since 2016, that's a mantle that can be carried forward. Walker, who had a team-high 11 tackles in the loss to the Paladins (10-2), has been around a while but was a sophomore on the 2023 roster with a redshirt season and the pandemic year figured in.
"These seniors, they came in and held everybody accountable," Walker said. "They made sure they were a good example of how we go in and go about working hard, doing good in the classroom. When you're trying to win the championship, all that translates to the field, so the guys did a good job of leading by example. I watched every bit of it, and I'd love to carry it the next couple of years."
Wright was seated next to Walker on Saturday as he made the statement, which has to be music to the coach's ears as he continues to try and build the program at his alma mater in his image.
"Hopefully this group's legacy will be — and we'll see next year — if they got us and keep us moving on the right track," Wright said. "We talk about it all the time, there's no going backwards, and I don't think this senior class ever went backwards. It might not have been pretty all the time moving forward, but I don't think they ever went backwards.
"Winning at Chattanooga is a little harder than what you think, OK? It's not easy, and we've worked our tails off every day to make it right and give ourselves a chance to go play and play well, and it's because of the young people in it that hadn't quit, that hadn't left us, that don't enter the transfer portal. They don't enter the transfer portal and come back — that's not how we do it here. You enter, you're gone — and at the end of the day, Chattanooga is going to be better for it and we're going to figure out a way to keep playing, I promise you we will."
That's the group that helped spearhead the Mocs' turnaround this season, one that started with a disappointing 41-27 loss at North Alabama, a game that Wright said "might have been the worst performance we've had since I've been here."
At that point, the playoffs seemed improbable, especially considering Kennesaw State — a team transitioning to the Football Bowl Subdivision with additional scholarships — was coming to Chattanooga a week later. But the Mocs won to start a four-game streak, and they had a chance to play for the SoCon title on Nov. 4 against Furman, a team with more than 40 seniors on its roster. The Paladins won 17-14 that day at Finley Stadium, and they had an easier time Saturday in Greenville as the Mocs' injuries eventually mounted to the point of radically changing the starting lineup from earlier in the season.
Would players such as Ford, Person, junior quarterback Chase Artopoeus, junior defensive back Reuben Lowery and others have made a difference if they were available Saturday? Maybe, maybe not.
The point is, even in falling short of the quarterfinals, the program has turned around and should enter the 2024 season — which opens with games against FBS opponents Tennessee and Georgia State — considered somewhere close to one of the top 15 FCS teams in the country.
"I think Coach Wright did a great job of holding us accountable and keeping us together, and one of the biggest growth I've seen was a little better every day, a little better every year, you can see when it comes to getting one win better every year," said running back Gino Appleberry, a senior who had 458 yards and five touchdowns after taking over as the primary running back for the final six games of the season.
"This year we played for the conference championship, and next year it's going to be different."
Contact Gene Henley at [email protected].