There are a lot of holes to fill.
Its not every day an Alcoa High School football team graduates 20 seniors.
Fresh off its third consecutive Class 2A state championship, the Tornadoes opened spring practice a week ago with a whole new look. Gone are 2A Mr. Football back Chris Shiverdecker (Carson-Newman), Mr. Football Lineman finalist Rae Sykes (Tennessee), BlueCross Bowl Offensive Most Valuable Player Kyrus Lanxter (Kentucky) and two-time BlueCross defensive most valuable player Bart Hicks.
Of 22 starters on offense and defense in Alcoas 31-3 demolition of Goodpasture last December at Middle Tennessee State University, 14 will not be back.
"The last couple of years, the talent level thats left Alcoa High School has been tremendous," Tornado coach Gary Rankin said. "There are going to be a lot of new faces."
Juniors Brian Sommer and Randall Cobb should keep Alcoa high on the list of places to visit for college recruiters next season, but returning to Murfreesboro this fall for a shot at an unprecedented four-peat isnt going to be easy. Fortunately for the Tornadoes, many of last seasons 2A contests were full-blown routs by halftime, affording Rankin the opportunity to get reserves plenty of minutes.
"Our biggest concern is weve got to find a few people on defense," Rankin said.
Eight starters are gone on defense, including all four down linemen, two linebackers and two parts of a dominating secondary.
Key for the defensive front will be the development of junior Josh Dossett and 6-foot-1, 200-pound sophomore Tyler Robinson. Cut from the same mold as the hulking Sykes, Robinson has the potential to continue a string of Alcoa standouts at the end spot in recent years. The 6-1 figure, in terms of stature, is decidedly conservative for the budding prospect, wholl double at tight end.
Filling the tackle spots is going to be a lot harder since even Tornado reserves at those positions a year ago were seniors.
Defensive coordinator Brian Nix has been experimenting with a three-man front this spring as an alternative, providing the losses can be compensated for at linebacker.
"Were going to be really, really fast defensively this year," Sommer said.
Losing Hicks and fellow senior Darrell Tate is big, but junior Troy Hodge, the lone returning starter at linebacker, distinguished himself in a big way in last years title game, coming away with a pair of key red-zone stops.
While the losses of seniors Alex Green and Lanxter are sure to be felt, the secondary could prove a bright spot for the Tornadoes in 2007. Sommer, with offers from Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Colorado on the table, returns at one of the corners. Behind him will be sophomore strong safety Sam Thompson, a bigger hitter whose first season as a starter last fall turned heads.
"It should always be the goal of an Alcoa team to get back to state," Sommer said. "Weve got a lot of people that are going to have to step up this year. We lost a lot of key players. We lost a lot of big players."
Few of them were bigger than the sprint champion Shiverdecker, but, in Hodge, Rankin feels the Tornadoes have his replacement in house. At present, the 5-10, 180-pound Hodge is in training with his mentor as a member of Alcoas 4x100-meter track team.
"We think Troy can be a tremendous running back," Rankin said. "Hes got great speed. Hes got good balance. He does a lot of things well."
While Hodges ability to loosen defenses for four quarters has yet to be seen, Sommer and Cobb are known commodities. It could result in a shift in strategy, Rankin said.
"Theres good chance well throw the ball a little bit more than we did last year," he said.
Sommer returns as a rare talent at one of the receivers, a super-athletic, 6-foot-1 flyer with all the tools. The list of colleges courting his services is only expected to grow this fall. Hes taking it all in stride, Sommer said.
"Im really excited about getting all the interest from all the schools and getting the offers," he said. "A lot of schools feel I can play on either side of the ball, depending on where I want to play. Theyve given me that option. South Carolina would like me to try to play both. Right now, I dont care.
"Its a great feeling when you get mail and stuff (from colleges), but Im keeping myself grounded."
Cobb, drawing interest from many of the same schools seeking Sommers services, blossomed at quarterback in his first season as the starter a year ago. Super quick with a powerful left throwing arm, the Tornado signal-caller directed an Alcoa offense that committed only eight turnovers in 15 games a year ago.
Cobb reminds him of another quarterback he once coached, Rankin said. Former Riverdale star Eric Locke, a former Tennessee Vol, became one of the states premier players as a dual-purpose threat under Rankins direction as Warrior coach in the late 1990s. Cobb, Rankin said, has many of the same qualities.
"Theyre similar in some ways," he said. "I think the thing that sticks out is theyre both highly competitive. One thing that sticks out about Locke is he was such a strong kid, and Randalls gotten stronger, too."
There are more questions than answers for the Tornadoes at this point.
"Weve got some eighth-graders that are going to have to contribute (as freshman)," Rankin said.
Regardless of whos in there, theyll get it done, Sommer said.
"I feel confident about what were going to be able to do," he said. "There could be some hard times at first, but I feel confident we can make it back to state. Having Randall back is a great thing. He did a great job last year. He and I have a feel for each other."
Stop them or outscore them. Either one works.
2007 Alcoa Tornadoes
Offense Running backs James Stultz, Chris Shiverdecker; receiver Kyrus Lanxter, tight end Rae Sykes; offensive linemen Josiah Standridge, Corey Brewer.
Defense Defensive linemen Rae Sykes, Neil Cooper, Bobby
Keller, Justin Dunkin; linebackers Bart Hicks, Darrell Tate; defensive
backs Kyrus Lanxter, Alex Green.
Offense Quarterback Randall Cobb; receiver Brian Sommer; offensive linemen Josh Kincannon, Jeff Hickman, Seth Coulter.
Defense Linebacker Troy Hodge; defensive backs Brian Sommer,