The other side of the ball

Defense often overlooked in Tornado march to state

Alcoa’s Austin Tallant (16), Nathaniel Robinson (6) and Daniel Robinson (5) combine on the stop of an unidentified Fulton player earlier this season. The top-ranked Tornadoes (14-0) meet second-ranked Milan (14-0) in the Class 3A state championship game on Friday at Tennessee Tech.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Alcoa’s Austin Tallant (16), Nathaniel Robinson (6) and Daniel Robinson (5) combine on the stop of an unidentified Fulton player earlier this season. The top-ranked Tornadoes (14-0) meet second-ranked Milan (14-0) in the Class 3A state championship game on Friday at Tennessee Tech.

Milan has scored more points. Alcoa has been tougher to score on.

The Tornadoes have the best running back the state has ever known when it comes to finding the end zone. Milan has one of the best linebackers you’ll ever watch play. He’s a Division I commitment. Last year, he collected a record 22 tackles in the championship game, 14 of them solo.

In a title bout worthy of star billing, top-ranked Alcoa (14-0) and second-ranked Milan (14-0) will meet in the championship game for the second year in a row, this season moving up to vie for the BlueCross Bowl’s Class 3A crown on Friday at Tennessee Tech University’s Tucker Stadium.

Kickoff is 4:30 p.m. EST.

Blount Today Sports Radio, WLHR 97.9 FM, will have the broadcast.

The game will be televised locally on WVLT-2 (MyVLT).

Jaron Toney ran for 104 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries a year ago as the Tornadoes stopped the Bulldogs, 28-14, in the 2A championship game. The Alcoa senior was named the game’s offensive most valuable player for his efforts.

That performance must have really lit a fuse. The Mr. Football finalist has morphed into “Touchdown Toney” in this his senior season, Alcoa’s 2,000-yard back blasting the state’s single-season records for rushing touchdowns, rushing/receiving touchdowns and points scored in helping the Tornadoes back to the title game. Toney’s 47 rushing scores are one less than the entire Milan backfield combined.

An impressive offensive line and a fullback carved from stone have helped Toney set new state marks of 49 rushing/receiving touchdowns combined and 294 points scored as well.

Fullback Taharin Tyson and quarterback Austin Tallant headline a stable of ball carriers to which Alcoa can turn to spell Toney. While the Tornadoes don’t throw much, tight end and Kentucky commitment Tyler Robinson and receivers Steven Isom and Daniel Rockymore have delivered when called upon to keep opposing defenses honest.

All that withstanding, it’s on the other side of the ball where the Tornadoes have perhaps best distinguished themselves this season. Friday, the state’s fourth-ranked defense is likely to be tested like never before. Milan can really score.

“They’ve just sort of destroyed everybody they’ve played,” Alcoa coach Gary Rankin said. “It’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”

That said, only Boyd Buchanan (6.7 points), Jo Byrns (7.3) and Friendship Christian (7.8) have yielded fewer points than Alcoa (8.1) this season. Robinson, a Mr. Football selection a year ago and a finalist this season, draws a lot of attention at one of the ends. That notoriety has helped junior Darrell Warren to a breakout season at the other.

“I think it starts up front for us on both sides of the ball,” Rankin said.

With linebackers Deontra Herbert and twins Daniel and Nathaniel Robinson orchestrating it all, the Tornadoes have yet to be played within a touchdown this season. The Bulldogs may have the horses to be the first.

Senior Jobronski Gilbert has pounded on the opposition for 1,588 yards and 31 touchdowns on 244 carries. Gilbert, like Toney, is his team’s go-to back in the running game. No other Bulldog has more than three rushing scores. Milan, though, does more than run the ball.

Quarterback Zach Ryan has thrown for close to 1,600 yards and 22 touchdowns. He’s accurate, too, having been intercepted only five times. The Milan senior excels at spreading the wealth, with four Bulldogs with better than 250 yards receiving on the year.

Dominque Moore, a 6-foot-1 senior, sets the pace, his 587 yards on 30 grabs equating to a 19.6 yards per catch average. He’s found the end zone with one of Ryan’s passes 11 times.

Milan brings an offense averaging 39 points per game to the rematch.

It can become overwhelming, especially if you let yourself get caught up in the numbers, Daniel Robinson said.

“I just try to treat it like any other game,” he said. “I try to think of it as just another game and focus on what I need to do to help the team win.”

Nathaniel Robinson echoed the sentiment.

“You don’t want to get caught up in all the hype,” he said. “If you get caught up in it, you can’t do your job.”

The best way to slow down such an offense is not let it have the ball, and, with Toney, Alcoa has been able to dominate time of possession this season.

“We’ve been able to keep the ball away from a lot of teams, and that’s a pretty good plan if you do it,” Rankin said.

Avery Williamson could make that awfully tough on Friday.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior was a one-man tackling machine a year ago. The future Wildcat seemed to be everywhere in amassing his record 22 stops, all while averaging 12.8 yards per carry as a fullback on offense. Williamson was forced to make all those tackles because the Tornadoes beat on the Bulldog defense for 54 rushing plays.

With Alcoa limiting then-Milan quarterback Justin Coleman to 4 yards passing with a pair of interceptions, it was enough. With the right approach, Rankin is hoping for a similar result in the rematch.

“I think if the coaches do their part, the kids will be ready on Friday night,” he said. “The emotions and want-tos will take care of themselves on Friday.”

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