The kinder, gentler Gary Rankin Alcoa High School’s football team has come to know the last three weeks is gone.
In his place is a coach who knows the five-time defending state champion Tornadoes are in for a stern test when they open the season at Bell County, Ky., on Friday.
The Bobcats are the defending Kentucky state champions in Class 4A. They’re coming off an unbeaten, 15-0 season. Bell County shut out eight opponents a year ago, sweeping them from the playing field by a combined 404-0 margin.
The Bobcats blasted their 15 opponents for 42.9 points per game last season. On six occasions, they hit the opposition for 50 or more, including three times where they rang up 60.
Did we mention they run the wishbone!
Bell County is 29-1 the last two seasons.
“This is a state champion in a 4A classification,” Rankin said. “This is a big-time program. It’s an Alcoa. It’s a Maryville. It’s a Riverdale.
“We’re going into a hostile environment. We know that. Those kids (the Bobcats) take a lot of pride in playing for that community.”
Kickoff in Pineville, Ky., is 6 p.m.
Blount Today Sports Radio, WLHR 97.9 FM, will have the broadcast.
Heritage’s Mountaineers and William Blount’s Governors, both under the direction of new head coaches, also kickoff the 2009 season on Friday.
The Brint Russell era at Heritage opens with his Mountaineers on the road at Karns. David Gregory’s tenure at William Blount begins with the Governors visiting Sevier County. Both kickoffs are 7:30 p.m.
Maryville’s Rebels are off for Week 0, opening next Friday on the road at arch-rival Alcoa.
With the smack talk on Internet message boards raging all summer between fans of the two schools, Rankin was in no mood for missed assignments and lapses in concentration on Tuesday. There were up-downs and shouts of “run it again!” when a play went awry. More than once Rankin halted practice to issue a stern rebuke.
“Wow!” said senior Jaron Toney, offensive most valuable player of last season Class 2A BlueCross Bowl.
“We got after them pretty good in practice,” Rankin said. “The tempo was pretty good (Tuesday). I think (Tuesday) was the first time they realized game time is near.”
The pace at which Rankin drove practice also made an impressive on senior and Division I prospect Tyler Robinson, the state’s reigning Mr. Football who’s received offers from four schools to date, including Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Middle Tennessee State University.
The Tornadoes didn’t practice well on Monday, Robinson said. Much of Rankin’s ire was earned. The Tornadoes must take the same approach with the Bobcats that he does in fielding offers from colleges seeking his services next season.
“I don’t think I’m special,” Robinson said. “I’m just one of (the Tornadoes). If they (the Bobcats) double me, good. That just leaves somebody else open.”
Each of Blount County’s four schools played to dress rehearsal at the Maryville Orthopaedic Clinic Football Jamboree last Friday’s at Maryville’s Shields Stadium. The Tornadoes blanked the Governors, 27-0, in an impressive display, but the Governors have had a lot of ground to make up over the summer with Gregory only assuming his post in May. Bell County coach Dudley Hilton has over 300 wins in 34 seasons coaching Kentucky high school football, a run that includes three state titles, two of them with the Bobcats.
“They’re 29-1 over the last two years,” Rankin said. “You don’t do that by luck.”
The Tornadoes, who move to Class 3A for the playoffs this season, know much is at stake in the high school version of the Tennessee/Kentucky border war, Toney said.
“I think this is a way to show Tennessee can compete with just about anybody anywhere,” he said.
“We’re definitely going to go and play for Tennessee,” Robinson said.
The Tornadoes lit up the opposition much like the Bobcats did last season. Behind the quick cuts and hard running from Toney and the plunging, sometimes brutal assault by sophomore fullback Taharin Tyson, Alcoa lit the scoreboard for an average of 41.5 points per outing a year ago. Like the Bobcats, the Tornadoes shut out eight foes.
With a combined 16 shutouts between them a year ago, the team with the better showing defensively Friday is likely to have the upper hand, Toney said. Slowing the Bobcats ball-control wishbone offense is going to be no picnic. It’s assignment football to a large degree, man-on-man, and it’s extremely physical.
“Usually, when people run the wishbone, they think they’re going to run it down somebody’s throat,” Toney said.
The Bobcats throw a wrinkle into things on occasion, shifting to the power-I for short-yardage situations, dropping into the shotgun when forced to throw.
“You’ve just got to read your keys, “Tyson said. “That’s what he (Rankin) has preached all week.”
For Alcoa’s defensive front, the job will be one of getting low and staying there, Robinson said.
“You’ve just got to stay down,” he said. “If the defensive line does their job, we should be all right.”