Between Maryville’s George Quarles and Alcoa’s Gary Rankin, Friday’s Rebels/Tornadoes clash at Shields Stadium will feature two of the best offensive minds in high school football anywhere.
Between the two of them, they’re responsible for nine state championships at their respective schools, with Quarles collecting an astonishing seven the last eight seasons at Maryville, Rankin two in his first two seasons at Alcoa. The veteran coach claimed four titles at the helm of Class 5A midstate power Riverdale before taking the Alcoa job.
It’s a defensive coordinator of exceptional skill who can match wits with either coach. Friday, Rebel assistant Jim Gaylor and Tornado defensive coach Brian Nix are tasked with just such a problem.
Both, their bosses say, have what it takes.
“I put a lot of responsibility on his shoulders,” Rankin said. “I give him as free a rein as anybody can give someone. I’m involved in personnel. As far as strategy, he does all of that.
“I do offense, but I’m a defense guy. That’s where it’s won or loss.”
Quarles has directed a Maryville offense lethal in its efficiency in claiming the last four Class 4A state titles. The Rebels (1-0) enter the clash with the rival Tornadoes (1-0) riding a 61-game winning streak.
Over that span, the Maryville offense has averaged 37.5 points per game. All the while, the margin of victory the Rebel defense has remained three touchdowns, from a high of 30.5 point in 2004 to a low of 21.3 just last season.
“That’s the key,” Quarles said. “You don’t win as many games or as many championships as Maryville and Alcoa have done without playing really good defense.”
The Rebel defense has yielded 11.2 points during the run, a number grossly misleading in just how dominant Gaylor’s defenses have been. Quarles has a maintained a practice of pulling his starters whenever the margin reaches 35 points or better. Often, Gaylor’s defensive unit is manned by reserves in the fourth quarter, where many Maryville opponents dodge the shutout.
“I’m real big on not getting anybody hurt at the end of the game,” Quarles said.
Gaylor’s not complaining. Shutouts happen, but they’re never the goal, he said.
Limiting opposing offenses to three plays and out, getting the offense the ball back, creating turnovers and not giving up the big play are what the Rebel defense strives for most.
No player better typifies Gaylor’s approach to defense than senior linebacker Cody McCoy. Line-of-scrimmage skirmishes for the 5-foot-6, 165-pound McCoy is tough work.
“I try to take advantage of my quickness because I’m a little faster than them,” McCoy said. “If they get a hold of me, they’re going to win.”
During last week’s season-opening, 28-7 win over Region 3-4A rival Halls, the super-quick linebacker even played up on the line over the center.
Gaylor’s defense of choice, the 4-3, is ever-adaptable. Its versatility is a big reason players like McCoy are able to shine.
“I’ll guess I’ll have to retire before we play a 3-5,” he said. “I’m comfortable with what we do.”
That doesn’t not, however, mean tweaks aren’t added when necessary.
With Halls one of the area’s best at running the wing-T, McCoy was needed over the ball to construct a five-man front. When the Rebels went with six defenders at the point of attack, fellow linebacker Luke Cox lined up alongside McCoy.
“There was a third-and-1 and we jumped in a 60,” Gaylor said, “and they didn’t know how to block it.”
Cox and McCoy would lead Maryville with eight tackles each on the night. The key, though, was nine other Rebels with four or more stops, a group approach that included big games from seniors Justin Smith, at one of the ends, and Tyler Martin, at defensive back.
“If you look at the tackle sheet after a game, we’ve got a lot of guys making six or seven stops instead of 12,” Gaylor said.
Gaylor takes pride in his defenses running to the ball as a group. The crowning game in that approach to defense came as Maryville began its current run of four consecutive titles.
The 2004 BlueCross Bowl matchup between the Rebels and West Tennessee powerhouse Melrose featured explosive offenses on both sides. Maryville was led by record-setting quarterback and future South Carolina Gamecock Cade Thompson, who would go on to be named the state’s Mr. Football the following season. The Golden Wildcats were powered by one of the state’s best-ever backs in 2004 Mr. Football Craig Cooper, “a tailback that’s starting for Miami!” Quarles said.
The Rebels struck first, with place-kicker Albert Sacchet adding the extra point. Cooper uncorked a scintillating run down the sideline to answer for Melrose soon after. When the speed back, who doubled as the Wildcat kicker, missed on the point after, the Rebels delivered a defensive stunner that brought their coordinator to tears.
Final score: Maryville 7, Melrose 6.
“There are a lot of times I’m thinking, ‘How in the world did we slow this team down,’” Quarles said.
Halls was a stern, opening test, Gaylor said, but defending the wing-T is vastly different from the wide-open, balanced attack the Tornadoes will bring to Shields Stadium.
“It was the first game,” he said. “They (the Red Devils) couldn’t throw it. It’s a whole different game this week. We’ve got to defend the whole field. We’ve got to defend their skill people more.”
Nix is equally mindful of the firepower the Rebels can train on an opponent.
Gaylor, head coach at Clinton prior to joining the Maryville staff for Quarles’ first season as coach, has had years to perfect his approach to defensive football.
“Jimmy’s been doing it for years and years,” Rankin said. “He’s the backbone of the of that defense during all those championships.”
Nix, on the other hand, has had to be a fast learner.
Former Tornado coach John Reid named Nix his defensive coordinator when the former took the Alcoa post in 2003. Nix, now in his fifth season running the Tornado defense, was 26 at the time.
He knows his stuff. It’s why he never thought twice about making a change, Rankin said.
“I’d heard some good things about him,” he said, “and when I came to talk to him and interview him, I liked his enthusiasm and his knowledge of defense.”
Like Gaylor, Nix favors four down linemen and three linebackers as his base defense. It’s best suited for adapting to changing opponents, he said. Slowing balanced offenses like Maryville, teams that can throw as well as they run, would be difficult without a great deal of zone coverage in the secondary.
“It’s a lot easier to get that eighth man into the box than get him out,” Nix said.
Much in keeping with its counterpart across town, the Tornado offense is capable of stupefying feats of scoring. Alcoa lit up visiting Spring Hill for 63 points in last week’s opener. Perhaps more telling was the three points the Tornado defense yielded. It’s been a trend during Nix’s stay as coordinator.
David Lipscomb issued the Tornadoes a sound drubbing during a 2002 Class 2A state quarterfinal game. Alcoa left the field that night on the business end of a 55-6 loss. Things were vastly different the following season, Nix’s first with the Tornadoes. The Mustangs would manage only a pair of scores as Alcoa rolled en route to the first of four 2A crowns.
“To hold them to two touchdowns, for me as a young coach, was pretty awesome,” Nix said.
It would get better.
Facing down high-powered offenses the likes of the B.J. Coleman-led McCallie Blue Tornado and the Dennis Rogan-fired Fulton Falcons were great wins both, but one tops them all, Nix said.
Alcoa entered the 2006 state championship game against a Goodpasture offense touted as one of the most brutally efficient wing-T attacks that state had ever seen. The Tornadoes were in for a sure pounding.
“There was this build up that their offense was so great, “Nix said. “That just irritated me because we were playing a tough schedule. That’s irritated me because of the kids.”
The Crusaders entered averaging 44 points per game, a stunning number for a ground oriented offense like the wing-T. Goodpasture had compiled a 98 percent success rate to score after reaching an opponent’s red zone.
The Crusaders looked ready to open the shelling after marching to first-and-goal at the Tornado 3-yard line early in the contest. Alcoa held, thanks to a dynamic first-down play from then-junior linebacker Troy Hodge, and Goodpasture was never again the same team.
“That stand was just awesome for our kids,” Nix said.
Final score: Alcoa 31, Goodpasture 3.
In much the same consistency Gaylor’s defenses have shown in helping Maryville win four straight, Nix’s stop units have only gotten stronger. Alcoa would polish off the Crusaders, 35-3, in the championship game a year later.
The Tornadoes have had their share of name players during the current four-peat, as have the Rebels. They’ve also, like Maryville, had a collection of players like the tireless McCoy who are a major reason why his defensive schemes have been successful, Nix said.
Impact players like defensive end prospect Tyler Robinson will need big games for the Tornadoes to break to a seven-year losing streak to the Rebels. Equally big will the performance of players like seniors Jeff Hickman, Conner Miles and Chase James, the Tornado quarterback who doubles at safety.
“A lot of their focus their whole lives has been coming to play for Alcoa,” Nix said. “Maryville has a lot of those kids, too. That McCoy is like that.”
Scheming for Spring Hill was nothing like what awaits the Tornado defense on Friday.
“They execute,” Nix said. “With some teams, you leave a receiver open and they don’t hit him. You leave a receiver open against Maryville, they’re going to hit him.”