The fantastic four

County well represented for Mr. Football Award

Three state champions?

It’s something to think about.

While you’re at it, throw in the idea of Blount County producing four Mr. Football winners in three weeks time as well.

Maryville’s Brent Burnette and Aaron Douglas, Alcoa’s Randall Cobb and William Blount’s Kase Whitehead were each named finalists for the state’s top award for high school football on Wednesday.

Burnette, closing quickly on several school passing records, was named one of three finalists for Class 4A Back of the Year, with Douglas making the final three for 4A lineman. Douglas, a University of Tennessee commitment, was a Mr. Football winner a year ago.

Joining the Maryville pair for the Mr. Football Awards Luncheon Dec. 3 at the Nashville Airport Marriott will be Alcoa quarterback and University of Kentucky commitment Randall Cobb, a finalist for Class 2A Back of the Year.

Securing Blount County’s fourth place at the table will be Whitehead, a punter and Marshall commitment whose selection as a finalist for kicker of the year is, arguably, the most prestigious. The final three for the award is culled from a pool encompassing all Tennessee high schools — public and private — statewide.

“He’s an amazing punter,” William Blount coach Scott Meadows said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that he got this.

“The scary thing is I don’t think he’s even close to where he’s going to be. He’s unbelievable now, but, by the time he finishes college, he’ll be one of the top in the nation.”

Not bad for a converted linebacker.

Whitehead began his football career as an offensive lineman at the Pee Wee and Midget level, moving to running back in middle school. His freshman season as a Governor, he played linebacker.

With his father, Barry Whitehead, a one-time backup punter at the University of Tennessee before transferring to Maryville College, Kase said he toyed with punting midway through his freshman season.

“I’d always kicked a football around the yard when there was nothing to do,” he said.

Encouraged by his father and Meadows, Whitehead switched to punting full time as a sophomore. That he had a knack for it was apparent early. Liking it took some getting used to, though.

Linebackers, by nature, like to hit. Whitehead, who also handles kickoffs for William Blount, lowers the shoulder with authority when forced to make a tackle on special teams.

“I don’t like the hopping-on-the-back-and-hoping-they-fall-down approach,” he said.

Two things, Whitehead said, combined to convince him punting might be his ticket to a college scholarship. The first was a booming kick under duress during that year’s game with Maryville.

“I remember (former Rebel) Tyler Maples having to run backwards for it,” Whitehead said.

Still missing the rough and tumble of linebacker, Whitehead said the clincher would come the following spring.

“Going from hitting from 7 and 9 years old to just stopping, it was a big change,” he said. “I got mad at dad and told him to tell coach Meadows to let me play linebacker.

“Coach Meadows let me go through some tackling drills during the spring, and that helped. I got to hit some of the seniors, and I realized it might not be a bad idea to leave it (hitting) alone for a while.”

Two years later, the results speak for themselves, most notably so during William Blount’s 24-14 win over Dobyns-Bennett in Week 1.

It took a while for the Governor offense to get rolling. Whitehead kept the Indians pinned deep in the interim, sending a collection of towering kicks into the night sky, finishing his evening with five punts for a 53.4-yard average.

“I’d say he’s won a couple of ball games just flipping the field for us,” Meadows said.

The greatest testament to the punter Whitehead has become is the offer from Marshall, which Whitehead received and accepted this summer.

“Marshall is very, very lucky,” Meadows said. “An early offer for a punter is very unusual. I’ve had people inquiring about him from all over the country.”

Douglas, a 6-foot-6, stunningly athletic tight end, is as prized a college prospect and then some. The Rebel senior is ranked the state’s top overall prospect by the Knoxville News Sentinel. A legacy Vol, his father, David, played football there. His mother, Karla Horton Douglas, was a member of Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt’s first national championship team.

A prodigious talent with the ability to make the spectacular look routine, Douglas showed himself the class of the field in the season’s first game. Lumbering over the middle, the Rebel star snared a throw from Burnette — with one hand! — to collect a key first down. Many who witnessed the catch still consider it the season’s top play.

“That was Randy Moss (style),” Maryville coach George Quarles said.

That Burnette even got the throw off made the play all the more remarkable, Douglas said.

“Brent got hit while he was throwing,” he said. “It was behind me, and I just reached back with my hand. People were going off over that catch.”

As well they should, Burnette said, who wouldn’t get his first look at the play until two days later.

“I saw it on film, and I said, ‘Wow!’” Burnette said.

Douglas finished the regular season as Maryville’s third-leading receiver in terms of receptions, his 32 catches for 532 yards and three touchdowns bested only by wide outs Stephen Shiver (37, 519, 6) and Tyler Clendenen (35, 631, 8).

“I doubt if we’ll ever see one (like Douglas) at Maryville High School again” Quarles said. “He’s a rare find — somebody that big, that strong and moves that well — and then you throw in hands like no one’s ever seen. That’s Aaron.”

Douglas has put up his numbers this season and kept Maryville on track toward an unprecedented fourth consecutive while playing through injuries to his shoulder, back and ankles.

Maryville’s ability to spread the ball around to Douglas and receivers Clendenen, Shiver, Chris Jordan and Caleb Clement has a lot to do with the Rebels remaining on pace for a goal Douglas said the senior class set for itself four years ago. The last three state titles have each come with unbeaten, 15-0 seasons.

Four straight, unbeaten, untied?

“It would be amazing if we can pull this off,” Douglas said.

If it happens, he said, Burnette will be due the lion’s share of the credit. It’s why Burnette’s inclusion as a finalist for 4A back means so much.

“Last year was good enough for me,” Douglas said. “I just wanted to see Brent get it this year. I would love to see him walk off with that trophy.”

He’s got the numbers.

An accomplished passer with one of the strongest throwing arms Blount County high school football has ever witnessed, Burnette enters Friday’s second round game with Knox West at Shields Stadium needing 80 yards to pass former Rebel Cade Thompson for the school’s single-season yardage record.

With eight more touchdowns, he’ll pass Thompson, a 2004 Mr. Football winner, for the single-season mark in that category as well.

“It feels great to be mentioned for such an award like (Mr. Football),” Burnette said. “I’m honored.”

Thompson had a strong running game to take the heat off on occasion. While the Rebels have come on there of late, for much of this season Maryville has largely rode Burnette’s right arm to an unbeaten mark.

“He’s had to carry us,” Quarles said.

Sometimes, literally, more so than the six-time state championship coach would like.

As the Maryville running game looked for answers, opponents typically went heavy with the blitz to slow the Rebels. It’s at such moments Burnette is at his best.

“He moves around. He’s got good footwork,” Quarles said. “He can sidestep a rush and throw on the run. We’d like to see him throw some of them away. We don’t need him to be hit.”

Whereas Douglas credits his quarterback, Burnette heaps praise on his coaches and receivers for his big year, most notably Clendenen.

Maryville suffered a significant loss when Maples finished his eligibility a year ago and signed with the University of Tennessee, where he’s currently a redshirt freshman. Clendenen, this season, is proving every bit the deep threat Maples was last season.

“I knew he was going to have a breakout season,” Burnette said. “Just get him the ball and he’s going to score. I knew he was going to have a great year. He worked hard. He gets open real easy, catches everything. The things he can do after the catch is what amazes me.”

Cobb amazes for different reasons, Alcoa coach Gary Rankin said.

The future Wildcat’s numbers are every bit as impressive as the rest — 11.8 yards per carry, better than 1,200 yards passing while connecting on 64 percent of his throws. The numbers are only muted due to a succession of blowouts as Alcoa has run roughshod through its regional and Class 2A competition.

“There were a lot of games where if he’d carried it 10, 15 times, he’d have had 300 yards rushing,” Rankin said.

It’s what Cobb does in the team room and on the practice field, though, that sets him apart.

Every answer from his senior quarterback is, “‘Yes, sir. No, sir,’” Rankin said. He cuts no corners in the weight room or at practice.

“It’s not a put on,” Rankin said. “It’s who he is, and it’ll carry him a long way.”

It already has.

The three-time defending 2A champion Tornadoes began the year a young team. Four weeks into the season, best friend and All-State receiver Brian Sommer, slated to be Cobb’s primary target in the quest for a four-peat, was dismissed from the team for possession of marijuana on campus.

“It would be tough for any team to dismiss an All-State guy, especially a 2A team,” Rankin said. “We just pulled together and kept going.”

Out front leading the vanguard, he said, was Cobb.

“When all that happened, our coaches said, ‘You’re going to have distractions as a football team; you’ve just got to keep going,’” Cobb said. “The bus doesn’t stop for one person. It’s a team thing.”

Resourceful, Cobb found a ready and willing replacement in junior Sam Thompson. All the new Tornado ace has done with his leading role is average a truly astonishing 34.5 yards per catch, finishing the regular season with 552 yards and seven touchdowns on 16 grabs.

“You don’t think he’s fast,” said Cobb, who also starts at defensive back, “but then you get out there and try to guard him and he just blows past you.”

Out of the backfield, a bevy of ball carriers has added balance, led by senior Troy Hodge, who enters Friday’s second round game with Christian Academy of Knoxville at Goddard Field averaging 9.4 yards per rush.

“It’s an honor to be named a finalist,” Cobb said, “but that’s a team award because you can’t do it without everybody else out there.”

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