George Quarles isn’t the kind to keep going to the well when nothing’s there.
The Maryville High School coach knew the Rebels would struggle running the ball this season, at least initially. Replacing an entire starting backfield and two key members along the offensive will do that.
To compensate and to give the running game time to develop, Quarles gave quarterback Brent Burnette the green light to let it up. The results earlier this week were compelling in their magnitude.
Burnette was named the Tennessee Titans Class 4A Mr. Football Back of the Year at the awards banquet at the Nashville Airport Marriott. Burnette was joined on stage by senior tight end and University of Tennessee commitment Aaron Douglas, who secured the 4A lineman of the year, his second in succession.
It marked the second time in as many seasons the Rebels have swept their classification in voting for the state top honor for high school football.
Completing a Blount County triple, Alcoa senior and University of Kentucky commitment Randall Cobb was named 2A back of the year. William Blount senior and Marshall commitment Kase Whitehead was selected one of three finalists, encompassing all classifications, for kicker of the year.
Burnette said it wasn’t so much nerves he felt when all the finalists were called to the front of the stage, but that was before the winners were announced.
“I was like, ‘I know Aaron has this,’” he said. “(Next) they called my name, and I couldn’t believe it. It’s such a big honor.”
Junior Thomas Shuler and senior Tim Rodrigues have given Maryville (14-0) a powerful rushing attack entering Saturday’s Class 4A state championship game with Maplewood at Middle Tennessee State University. The Rebels are seeking their fourth consecutive state title, 11th overall in the playoff era, and 60th straight win.
Early, with the running game struggling, much of Maryville’s hopes for a four-peat were hitched to Burnette’s strong right arm.
“We weren’t going to waste our time beating our heads against the wall,” Quarles said.
While Rodrigues, Shuler and the offensive found sync, Burnette burned through the Maryville record books. His 3,277 yards and 36 touchdowns are both single-season Rebel bests, as is his 205 completions.
“We knew we’d have to rely on our passing game more,” Burnette said, “not just because of our running backs, but to give our line some time to develop.”
In four postseason games, Burnette only got hotter.
“He’s picked it up in the playoffs,” Quarles said.
One of Burnette’s favorite targets was the 6-foot-6 Douglas, who caught 39 of his long-time friend’s passes for 609 yards and four scores.
Winning a year ago was enough for him, Douglas said. Seeing Burnette walk a winner this season has made their unblemished run together as Rebels all but complete.
“He was up against some great competition,” Douglas said, “but they do a great job of picking the best for the award.”
Cobb was also one of those deserving best.
Throwing for close to 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns, adding 700 yards and 11 scores rushing, Cobb put a young team on his shoulders this fall. Like the Rebels, the Tornadoes (13-1) are seeking their fourth consecutive state crown this weekend in Murfreesboro.
Alcoa meets Goodpasture Christian School for the third straight season in the 2A title game on Friday.
“It felt pretty good,” Cobb said. “I wasn’t expecting it.”
The Tornado leader also wasn’t expecting how much in demand he’s become as the season has progressed. Cobb committed to the Wildcats early. Last week, the University of Tennessee offered the strong-armed left-hander a scholarship.
For now, it’s trying to secure that fourth title, Cobb said. He’ll decide where to play his college ball once his high school career is done.
It isn’t easy.
“I try to keep it off my mind so I can focus on this week, but it’s hard,” Cobb said.
No more difficult than the season Cobb has delivered in leading the Tornadoes back to Murfreesboro.