CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Russ Huesman remembers a time when Davis Tull was not the most feared defender in the Southern Conference.
Two years ago, the little known defensive end was battling through injuries and buried on the scout team as a true freshman. To a certain degree, he even debated leaving the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
"He was coming off a broken leg his senior year of high school and was beat up in his first season here," Huesman recalled of the Knoxville native. "He wanted to go home halfway through it. He was homesick and wanted to just be a student at Tennessee. But we weren't going to let him leave. If he left, we were going to get a car and bring him back.
"We say it all the time, we just have to get them to be sophomores. Once you get them to be sophomores, then they're good to go."
Now the goal is to keep Tull from being a senior and eventually graduating from UTC.
The former Bearden star, who likely would have ended up at a larger school had that broken leg not slowed his recruiting as a high school senior, committed to making the most of his career with the Mocs.
The results have been record-breaking.
Tull's lone sack in last week's win at Elon gave him 24 for his career, breaking the old Chattanooga career mark of 23.5 held by friend and former teammate Josh Williams.
And he's only halfway through his junior year.
The two exchanged messages after the game, celebrating a record they, in a way, achieved together.
"I think he was mostly happy for me," Tull joked about Williams' texts. "But really I owe him a lot. I played offense in high school and had really only played one year of defense when I got here. I had never put my hand on the ground and played in a stance, for one.
"Josh taught me lots of little subtle things about setting up moves and not just playing off pure athleticism."
Still, that pure athleticism alone was enough to make UTC coaches excited about his future amidst his struggles as a freshman.
While he may have learned plenty under the tutelage of Williams, Huesman believes there's a far greater influence to credit for Tull's growth.
"I love the fact that Josh Williams is his mentor and helped him out, but Josh Williams ain't coaching him up. Marcus West is coaching him up," Huesman said of his defensive line coach. "Marcus West is the guy coaching Davis Tull, and that's why he's so good. Marcus West was the guy coaching Josh Williams, which was why he was so good, and the same with Josh Beard before him."
To his defense, Tull has given West plenty of credit as well for his emergence as a contender to win the Buck Buchanan trophy as the nation's top defensive player in the FCS.
"(Playing defensive end) is really more of a mental game. It's rock, paper, scissors out there every play with your moves," said Tull, who was the SoCon's co-Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2012 after a UTC single-season record 12.5 sacks. "You have to get your opponent to think you're doing one thing, then do the opposite.
"Coach West has really instilled that in us and really works with us on our moves. There's about 15 of them that he's really drilled into us."
But Tull's moves were limited in the first few weeks of the 2013 season, delaying the inevitable celebration for his career sack record.
"He didn't really talk about it, but he wasn't healthy at all," Huesman said. "He was coming off sports hernia surgery from the summer and just really wasn't himself, then he got food poisoning late in camp.
"He sucked it up and played because that's what the team needed him to do, but now you can see that he's healthy and he's a totally different player."
Tull made no excuses about his slow start, instead using his quiet first month as motivation for the rest of the season. He has 4.5 sacks in the last two weeks alone, including 3.5 and two forced fumbles in a win over Furman two weeks ago.
Now that he's back on track, Tull's focus is only forward.
The Southern Conference career sack record of 36.5 is well within reach for Tull, who has a season-and-a-half left to play, but he won't divulge the goals he has for himself.
He's gone full-speed in everything since committing to stay at UTC, and doesn't plan on slowing down anytime soon.
"The work you put in is the hard part, but if there's something you really want, you can do it. It's just about how much work you put in," Tull said. "I sit down every offseason and write out what I want to do the following year. Obviously as a team, we want to make the playoffs and win some championships. If me getting sacks helps that, whatever that number of sacks is, that's the number I'll be shooting for."
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