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Tornado line, Rebel defense again keys matchup

Alcoa offensive linemen, left to right, Derek Evans, Caleb Mangum, John Tucker Rankin, Adam Stephens and Eli Looper catch a breather during the Tornadoes maroon and gray game earlier this fall.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Alcoa offensive linemen, left to right, Derek Evans, Caleb Mangum, John Tucker Rankin, Adam Stephens and Eli Looper catch a breather during the Tornadoes maroon and gray game earlier this fall.

Rebel linebacker Tommy Wilkinson brings down a Bearden ball carrier last season.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Rebel linebacker Tommy Wilkinson brings down a Bearden ball carrier last season.

It’s easy to forget it was 27-24 Alcoa with less than a minute to play in the third quarter.

Maryville didn’t have the ball very much in what became a 41-24 loss to the Tornadoes last season at Goddard Field, but the Rebels did strike quickly on a couple of occasions.

In the fourth quarter, the Tornadoes just kept pounding away with a running game that racked up 454 yards rushing on the night, and, eventually, the Rebels relented.

If a similar situation presents itself Thursday night at Maryville’s Shields Stadium, there’s no reason to expect the Tornadoes to act any differently, Rebel coach George Quarles said.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ve worked on that. We know what Alcoa is going to do. For the most part, they’re going to run up and hit you in the mouth and see how you respond.”

Kickoff for the televised State Farm Rivalry Thursday contest is 7 p.m.

MyVLT2 will have the telecast.

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

The six-time defending state champion Tornadoes didn’t enter last season’s game with the sole intention of running right at the Rebels, Alcoa coach Gary Rankin said. That won’t be the case again this year, he said, unless the opportunity presents itself.

“That wasn’t our plan (last year),” Rankin said. “That’s not our plan this time. If our offensive line is as good as last year, they’re going to have to prove it.”

If last week’s 64-0 thrashing of Middlesboro, Ky., is any indicator, there’s a chance it could.

“There’s a reason they were 15-0 last year,” Quarles said. “They’re pretty strong.”

Seniors Derek Evans, Caleb Mangum and Adam Stephens and juniors John Tucker Rankin, Eli Looper and Steven Manuel constitute an offensive line that looks every bit as formidable as a season ago. In the rout of the Yellow Jackets, senior Darrell Warren, junior Vanderbilt Hambrick and sophomore Ezekial Koko each ran for a pair of scores. Middlesboro isn’t Maryville, though. Alcoa starters played sparing after the opening quarter, so it remains to be seen if the line blocking for Tornado backs this season compares with a year ago.

Maryville has been preparing for a physical confrontation in its opener for much of fall camp, Quarles said.

“We’ve got to take the fight to them,” he said.

The Rebel defensive front the Tornadoes will confront is largely an unknown. All four starters up front — senior Jared Miller and junior Joseph Watson at the ends, juniors Chase Starritt and Thomas Phegley at the tackles — are each new to their posts. Senior Tommy Wilkinson and junior Nathan Miranda lend some experience at linebacker. Sophomores Trace Fuller and Will Murrin, while young, are big hitters.

Again for the Rebels, how much the quartet can alleviate the need to use junior Jacob West at both running back and linebacker will tell much.

Where the Tornadoes are looking to run the ball if the chance presents itself, it’s just the opposite for the Rebels. Junior Patton Robinette will get the start for Maryville at quarterback. Senior Austin Canfield will also play.

“There’s no difference,” Rankin said. “They can both execute.”

The receiving corps they have at their disposal is a genuine concern, Rankin said, and Maryville seniors Desmond Horne, Stian Romberg and Clarence Langley are only the beginning.

The Tornadoes are arguably strongest defensively in the secondary, with seniors Austin Tallant and Steven Isom returning starters. Junior Lajaun Warfield has done nothing but impress so far this fall.

“We feel like we’re OK in that area,” Rankin said, “but you can think you’re OK and Maryville can make you look silly.”

Where the Rebels have replaced their front four from a year ago, the Tornadoes are all brand new at linebacker. Senior fullback Taharin Tyson will play there some, Rankin said, as will All-State defensive end Darrell Warren. Senior Jordan Patrick and sophomores Jarod Crenshaw, Landon Turbyfill and Koko will be called upon as well.

“We need to have a good night passing the ball,” Quarles said. “We need to have a good night throwing and catching.”

The quick dismissal of Middlesboro didn’t afford much of a chance to see how far along his new linebacking corps has come, Rankin said, for it’s not only the Rebel passing game the Tornado coaching staff is concerned with.

“I think it starts with their quarterbacks and receivers,” Rankin said, “and you go from there.”

West is a big-play back in all respects. Senior Robby Pederson has run hard this fall to earn the start alongside West. Freshman Shawn Prevo has game-breaking speed and acceleration.

“There’ll be a number of them in there,” Quarles said.

Both teams have retooled quite a bit since last season’s collision at Goddard Field. Only the lights of the stadium on game night will tell how well it’s gone.

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