It’s hard to argue with 17 yards per catch for a career.
“I’m lining up at receiver (on Friday),” Maryville senior Brent Burnette said. “I’m not playing quarterback this week.”
The Mr. Football finalists caught a throw-back pass from running back Thomas Shuler and rambled 17 yards to convert a crucial third-and-15 for the Rebels in last week’s 17-9 win over West. The reception was the first for Burnette during his Maryville career.
The Rebels are keeping it in the playbook, but don’t look for Burnette to be anywhere but under center when top-ranked Maryville (12-0) hosts second-ranked Red Bank (12-0) in a Class 4A quarterfinal Friday night at Shields Stadium.
The Rebels and Lions met at this point last season in Chattanooga, with Maryville winning, 38-14, en route to its third consecutive state crown.
“There’s been some talk about this game for a while,” Rebel coach George Quarles said.
Across town, three-time defending 2A champion Alcoa (11-1) welcomes Gatlinburg-Pittman (11-1) to Goddard Field in a rematch of the 2005 epic that saw the Tornadoes overwhelm the Highlanders, 91-7.
Both kickoffs are 7 p.m.
The Rebels enter Friday riding a 57-game win streak. Ranked No. 7 nationally by Sports Illustrated, Maryville is 33-1 in postseason play since the turn of the century. The Rebels have won six of the last seven 4A crowns.
None of that matters Friday, Burnette said.
“We don’t think about that,” he said. “We just worry about the game we’re going into this week.”
The Lions are worthy of such single-minded focus, even without Tim Benford.
The Red Bank star suffered a broken arm in last week’s 35-7 rout of Halls. Benford entered postseason with better than 1,000 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns. His loss is significant, but the Lions still have plenty.
Benford was injured in the first quarter. Fellow senior Dominique McDuffie stepped up with a pair of touchdown receptions, adding a 66-yard punt return for another score, as Red Bank only got better after Benford’s departure.
Red Bank quarterback Jake Benford had his finest games as a Lion, completing 15 of his 16 passes for 204 yards and four scores, two each to Benford and McDuffie. The Lions led 28-0 at the half.
With fire-plug running back Tracy Sims, 5-foot-11, 235 pounds, averaging in excess of 9 yards per carry, Red Bank has plenty of pop.
“They’re very similar to last year,” Quarles said. “Their defense is very aggressive.”
The Lions are stout in the defensive interior with 6-1, 245-pound junior Miguel Sanchez and twin seniors Taylor and Tylor Chambers, 6-3, 285, manning the wall. Maryville looks to be picking up the tempo on the ground at just the right time. Senior Tim Rodrigues and junior Thomas Shuler have taken turns delivering big nights the last two weeks.
“Teams are still not expecting us to be able to run the ball,” Quarles said. “The passing game has helped us out a lot. I think we’re just getting better and better (running the ball). Coach (David) Ellis just does an amazing job with those (offensive) linemen.”
If the Rebels are able to claim an unprecedented fourth consecutive state crown, completing a fourth consecutive unbeaten season in the process, an argument could be made it would be the most impressive of the lot.
Rodrigues and Shuler have run with improved vigor in recent weeks. While the Rebel pair revved, Burnette’s powerful right arm has been Maryville’s saving grace. His 335-yard, two-touchdown performance against West last week made him the school’s all-time leader for yards passing in a season.
With 28 touchdowns on the year, Burnette needs six more scores to take possession of that single-season mark as well.
He’s done it while playing through a shoulder injury at midseason. His plentiful corps of receivers — which includes tight end, Mr. Football finalist and University of Tennessee commitment Aaron Douglas, seniors Tyler Clendenen and Stephen Shiver and sophomore Chris Jordan — has been banged up at one time another this season also.
Through it all, the Rebels have come up with the answer, even if, as with Burnette’s landmark catch, it’s unconventional.
“It’s finding a way, whatever it takes,” Quarles said. “Whether it’s the hook and lateral or throwing the ball back to the quarterback. Whatever we need to survive and advance, that’s what it takes.”
Where the Rebels have battled injury to remain on course for a four-peat, the Tornadoes have taken aim at history this season wrestling with youth. The tussle, surprisingly, has been largely one-sided, Alcoa coach Gary Rankin said.
“Our kids are playing good right now,” he said, “playing hard. It’s even surprised me a little bit.
“We’ve played a lot better football than I thought we would. Our coaches have done a tremendous job.”
The Tornadoes lost 20 seniors off last season’s championship team. It’s difficult, to say the least, for a 2A program to rebuild after such losses, but then most small schools don’t have a leader like Randall Cobb.
The senior and University of Kentucky commitment is closing his Alcoa career in a flourish. The hard-throwing left-handed quarterback was named a finalist for Mr. Football last week. On Monday, Cobb’s stock spiked again when he was extended a scholarship offer from the University of Tennessee.
“There’s not a better 2A football player in the state” Rankin said. “There may not be a better player in the state (in any classification). Last week, he was just amazing.”
The dual-threat Cobb completed seven of his nine passes for 160 yards and three touchdowns, adding five carries for 149 yards and two additional scores, as the Tornadoes raced away from Christian Academy of Knoxville in the second half last week en route to a 56-21 romp.
Cobb’s play has been without blemish this season. Fellow senior Troy Hodge has also delivered, his scoring bursts out of the backfield forming a perfect compliment.
“Troy’s done a great job,” Rankin said. “He’s got a tremendous amount of ability.”
Junior Sam Thompson is averaging better than 30 yards per catch at one of the receivers.
“He’s really stepped up a level,” Rankin said.
Cobb, Hodge and Thompson form a dynamic core. However, the Tornadoes have again laid waste to Class 2A competition this season because players like sophomores Deontra Herbert, Tyler Robinson and Jaron Toney have blossomed alongside them.
Mirroring last season’s title run, the Tornadoes have all but decimated in-class competition. Christian Academy’s 38-21 regular-season loss at Alcoa marked the only time this fall a 2A team has played the Tornadoes within three touchdowns.
It’s easy for such a success rate to lead a team to complacency. With the Highlanders coming to town, there’s that 91-7 thing to think about as well.
Rankin, whose Riverdale teams won 73 consecutive region contests during his tenure as coach, is unconcerned.
“I think it’s all about the way you practice,” he said. “We practice hard everyday.”
Rankin said he worries little about the Tornadoes giving much thought to the Highlanders last visit to Goddard Field. Only a handful of current players were on the roster then.
“There are only eight teams left,” Rankin said, “so you don’t take anyone lightly.”