‘Fast and physical’

Riley’s powerhouse line big part of Toney record chase

Alcoa senior Jaron Toney picks up a lead block from fullback Taharin Tyson during a game earlier this season. Guard Justin Marsh (74) is at right. Toney is within striking distance of a pair of state records as the Tornadoes visit Elizabethton for a Class 3A semifinal on Friday.

Photo by Jenifer Clark

Alcoa senior Jaron Toney picks up a lead block from fullback Taharin Tyson during a game earlier this season. Guard Justin Marsh (74) is at right. Toney is within striking distance of a pair of state records as the Tornadoes visit Elizabethton for a Class 3A semifinal on Friday.

Offensive line coach Rocky Riley instructs junior Derek Evans during a timeout.

Photo by Jenifer Clark

Offensive line coach Rocky Riley instructs junior Derek Evans during a timeout.

You have to get up and walk it off after sitting and staring at Jaron Toney’s numbers for too long.

The Alcoa High School senior needs one more rushing touchdown to break a tie with former Riverdale standout Ralph King for the state record for rushing touchdowns in a season. Toney’s next one would be his 44th.

With four more touchdowns rushing or receiving, the Mr. Football finalist would topple the record King shares with Humbolt’s Kelcey Williams for single-season rushing and receiving touchdowns combined. Toney has two touchdowns this season by way of hook-and-lateral plays, sending him into Friday’s Class 3A semifinal at Elizabethton with 45 touchdowns all told.

In last week’s 21-3 win over Loudon, the Tornado tailback ran for 221 yards on 27 carries, putting him at 2,079 yards rushing on the season.

Kickoff at Elizabethton is 7 p.m.

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

Top-ranked Alcoa (13-0) is one of only three unbeatens, along with Class 3A Milan (13-0) and 1A Wayne County (12-0), remaining in the Division I brackets.

You don’t run for as many yards and as many touchdowns as Toney has this season by running over everybody. Somebody — a great fullback as a lead blocker, a powerhouse line — is helping out. Having someone to coach that line up is critical.

Rankin was more than happy to retain fiery assistant Brian Nix as his defensive coordinator after arriving from Riverdale three seasons ago. For a line coach, Rankin decided to do some research and find out who else was out there.

Three years later, Jefferson County native Rocky Riley is looking like a home run.

“That was the first thing we were looking for is a good offensive line coach,” Rankin said. “You need to be solid up front, with a good offensive line, to be competitive.”

Riley had the pedigree for the job. Rocky and Spencer Riley had both played on the offensive line at the University of Tennessee. Rankin had become familiar with their brother, Matt, while the former was head coach at Riverdale. Matt Riley is assistant athletics director at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, where Riverdale is located.

After accepting the Alcoa position, Rankin phoned Matt Riley to inquire about his kid brother.

“He (Matt) said, ‘Hey, Gary Rankin called. He wants to talk to you about some stuff,’” Rocky said.

Riley, then an assistant at Carter, thought the longtime Warrior coach was simply seeking information on the area housing market. They met during Rankin’s first visit to Alcoa and talked a little football. After returning to Murfreesboro to fetch wife Sandra, daughter Addie and sons John Tucker and Zeke, Rankin phoned and offered Riley the job.

“I knew he coached some offensive line,” Rankin said. “I knew he had a college background, and he was a good person.”

Rankin and Riley quickly proved like-minded, detail-oriented individuals when it came to offensive line play. How to down block, how to move your feet when you pull to kick out the end, Riley said, come with a set of established rules that are there for a reason.

“We’re a counter, pull and trap oriented team,” Riley said.

More than anything, Riley said, to play the style of football Rankin had honed to a fine, hard art in winning four state titles at Riverdale, Alcoa’s linemen had to play “fast and physical” and seek their blocks with a sense of purpose.

“You ask any offensive lineman or any offensive line coach,” Riley said, “and they’ll tell you the biggest thing about offensive linemen is their heart.”

Tackles Jon Burchfield, Marcel Walden and John Weatherly, guards Derek Evans and Justin Marsh and center John Tucker Rankin comprise the core of Alcoa’s front line. Mr. Football finalist and Kentucky commitment Tyler Robinson and junior Caleb Mangum add considerable horsepower at the tight ends. Mangum doubles as a fullback in short-yardage situations.

Then there’s fullback Taharin Tyson.

“He’s got a tailback’s feet in a fullback’s frame,” Riley said. “He’s a load. Taharin is the only guy I’ve seen that can take a trap 60 yards with two guys on his back.”

Toney has rushed for better than 200 yards five times this season in pursuit of King. The guys on the line really get into it on nights like that, Riley said. They keep up with Toney’s stats better than he does.

“I tell them, ‘You’re blocking for something they’ll never be able to take away from you,’” Riley said.

It hasn’t been all sunshine and record-breaking backs since Riley’s arrival. While Alcoa rolled to its third consecutive Class 2A title Rankin’s first season, there was still a lot of improvement to be had. Riley instituted sweeping changes in personnel three weeks into that first season. Alcoa promptly lost to Fulton. When Tornado assistant Brian Gossett arrived the next season to help, Riley turned the screws of accountability a little tighter. Group work during practice became endless repetition on stepping with the right foot and proper technique.

“We don’t get it right all the time,” Riley said. “The first time we played Loudon (this season), we didn’t block ’em. We didn’t stay on our blocks at all.”

Those nights have been few and far between this season. The occasional teasing remark from his boss can be really motivating, Riley said.

In last week’s do-over with Loudon, the Redskins gave the Tornadoes fits between the tackles with various seven- and eight-man fronts. The toss sweep became Alcoa’s bread and butter play, a forced strategic shift Rankin didn’t let Riley forget during Sunday’s film session.

“He said, ‘We’ve turned into a sweep team,’” Riley said.

Along with getting quicker and more technical that first season three years ago, Riley wanted his charges to add a little weight. To that end, he invited that season’s offensive linemen to his home for a preseason banquet, with wife Natalea handling much of the preparation.

Fifteen Tornadoes stormed through 100-plus yeast rolls like it was nothing, Riley said, consuming “one of those big bags of salad from Sam’s” along with it. This year, there was no banquet.

The Tornadoes face a stiff test if Toney is to pass King and Alcoa is to move onto Cookeville next week and play for an unprecedented sixth consecutive state crown. Elizabethton shut down Austin-East’s powerful run game last week, routing the Roadrunners, 31-8, as a consequence. The Cyclones make things tough on running teams by way of a five-man defensive front.

“They’re not big, but they’re athletic,” Riley said. “They’re a good football team. They’re good at what they do. This time of year, everybody’s tough.”

Tough enough to keep Toney, Tyson and the offensive line from breaking King’s record?

“If they ever get it right and that light stays on,” Riley said, “look out.”

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