Backs to the future

Area teams set to rev running games

Rushing touchdowns count for six points, too.

Blount County’s four high schools may have each graduated their quarterback a year ago, but there appears to be more than enough muscle returning at running back to compensate.

Maryville senior Thomas Shuler, who lost his sophomore season to a knee injury, was flying by season’s end, rushing for 116 yards and a touchdown in the state championship game as the Rebels won their fourth consecutive 4A crown and 60th consecutive game. It marked the third successive contest — coming at the end of a 15 game season — in which the Maryville ace cracked the century mark.

Shuler’s new backfield mate at Maryville, junior Buddy Jones, is likely to remind Rebel fans of the plunging runs of former fullback Adrian “Tank” Baker. Jones has muscled up considerably and looks explosive.

William Blount returns 2007 county rushing champion Darrin Garner. There wasn’t anything close to the Governor flyer in terms of raw speed a year ago, and William Blount will still deploy the spread offense to create running lanes for the 1,000-yard rusher to get loose.

Junior Michael Cermak became more and more of the Heritage offense last season. A rare blend of power, speed and instinct, the budding Mountaineer star is sure one to keep an eye on.

Then there’s Alcoa.

“We’ve got some depth, I think,” Tornado coach Gary Rankin said. “One thing we’re doing right now is we’re working a lot of kids in there.”

The Tornadoes lost 1,000-yard game-breaker Troy Hodge after last season, but, if the first day in pads on Monday was any indicator, the four-time defending Class 2A champions don’t look as if they’ll be hurting too much.

Rankin is working six backs into the rotation in preparation for the season opener with Spring Hill on Aug. 22, with plans to use all six in the quest for a fifth straight crown. With the Tornadoes blowing through much of last season’s 2A schedule at a punishing pace, Jaron Toney, Taharin Tyson, Darrel Warren, Dee Herbert, Jalik Toney and Cameron Foster all saw plenty of work.

“They’ve all got their strengths and weaknesses,” Rankin said, “but we’re playing three sets of backs.”

With an equally deep offensive line out front of them, new quarterback Chase James likely won’t feel any pressing need to carry the offense all by himself.

“We do have some depth in the line,” Rankin said. “There are some pretty good fights up there for who’s going to start.”

Hodge, 10 yards per carry, proved a touchdown machine for the Tornadoes a year ago. Paired with Mr. Football quarterback Randall Cobb, now a freshman at the University of Kentucky, Alcoa had the star power that could blow a game open quickly. Deep threat Sam Thompson, back for his senior season, averaged 37 yards per catch.

These Tornadoes largely don’t yet have the name recognition, but they’re sure fun to coach, Rankin said.

“This team sure has no ego problem,” he said. “There’s no selfishness, and that’s very rewarding for a coach.”

Only time will tell how far Blount County’s four schools can go on the ground. Quarterbacks like Maryville’s Brent Burnette, a freshman at Middle Tennessee State University, William Blount’s Tyler Burstrom, on a baseball scholarship at Chattanooga State, and Cobb could put points on the scoreboard in a hurry. So too, though, could burners like Garner and Shuler.

Garner tore off better than 1,500 yards in becoming William Blount’s all-time single-season rushing leader a year ago. Drawing interest from several schools, he’ll be motivated to deliver a lights-out senior campaign.

Shuler was heralded as a speedster extraordinaire before a knee injury in preseason wiped out his sophomore year. The speed returned game by game last season. By the close of business, Maryville’s feature back was back to his old self, hinting a big finish this fall with 920 yards and 12 scores on 153 carries.

Tyson, Warren, Herbert, Foster and the Toneys won’t start with those numbers, but Rankin likes their potential.

“We’ve got a lot of depth for a 2A team,” he said. “We can’t really tell until we get into some scrimmages, but it looks like good depth.”

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