JaRon Toney took special interest in how well Tennessee defended Kentucky All-Southeastern Conference receiver Randall Cobb last Saturday.
Cobb, likely playing his final game at Neyland Stadium, finished with 13 catches for 116 yards as Tennessee extended its win streak over its neighbor to the north to 26 seasons with a 24-14 victory.
A Mr. Football winner his senior season at Alcoa in 2007, Cobb is considering entering his name in next spring’s NFL Draft. Described by ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. as “the best all-around player in college football,” the former Tornado is projected as an early-round selection.
The Wildcat junior has until Jan. 15 to make up his mind.
Toney wasn’t interested in how Cobb fared simply because they were once teammates at Alcoa. An invited walk-on freshman, Toney has become the ace of the scout team for the Vols, assuming the role of the player on the opposing sideline the Tennessee coaching staff is most concerned about.
Three guesses who Toney portrayed the week of the Kentucky game. You’ll only need one.
“This week I played Randall because of the wildcat (formation),” he said. “Sometimes it’s rewarding because you’re the one helping make the team better.”
The dueling Cobbs were only part of the show on a big day for Alcoa football in the regular season finale for both teams. Wildcat freshman Tyler Robinson got his first start and had his first college touchdown catch in a game Kentucky led early, only to see the Vols roar back behind the passing of freshman quarterback Tyler Bray.
Tennessee’s Alcoa contingent didn’t see the field, Toney’s role largely finished after helping the Vol defense prepare during the week. Limited by a wrist injury suffered earlier this season, former Tornado Rae Sykes, like Toney, has already trained his sights on 2011 with hopes of a greater impact.
Cobb and Robinson were Mr. Football winners as Tornadoes, with Toney, a finalist for the award a year ago, named the Gatorade State Player of the Year.
It’s a waiting game for now, but Toney said he’s encouraged by being allowed to dress for Tennessee home games. The overwhelming majority of walk-ons only see Neyland’s Shields-Watkins field from the stands on game day.
“Right now, they (the Tennessee coaching staff) just want me to put on some more pounds,” said Toney, now 5-foot-9, 175 pounds.
Many thought Toney erred when he spurned opportunities elsewhere to walk on with the Vols, but not Alcoa coach Gary Rankin. Part of a throng of 100-plus fans from Alcoa who waited for the former Tornadoes outside the stadium on Saturday, the eight-time state championship coach said he supported Toney’s decision wholeheartedly after the latter ran for a state record 50 touchdowns last season in leading Alcoa to an unprecedented sixth consecutive state championship.
“He probably could have gone someplace and be playing right now,” Rankin said, “and he chose to make that big step.”
While Toney waits, Cobb has already attained a level of success like few Tornadoes to come before.
Cobb entered the Tennessee clash as the nation’s leader in all-purpose yards with 186.1 per game. The loss to the Vols was the first time this season the nimble-footed Wildcat didn’t record a score of any kind. A finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given each season to the nation’s top receiver, the 5-11, 186-pound Cobb was mentioned in Heisman talk earlier this fall.
His 13 receptions against Tennessee leaves him three back of the Wildcat career record, with a bowl game, at minimum, yet to play. Cobb’s 145 all-purpose yards on Saturday has him within 118 yards of former Arkansas running back Darren McFadden’s SEC single-season record.
“I’ve never really paid attention to that stuff,” Cobb said. “Twenty or 30 years from now I’ll look back on my career and say I did some neat things.”
That kind of success will make it difficult to leave Lexington, Cobb said. There’s the chance there may not be an NFL season in 2011, the league currently entangled in a labor dispute with the players union. Cobb said he’ll check with NFL Draft Advisory Board before proceeding.
“It’s just going to be something that comes down to a decision I have to make for myself,” he said. “There are a lot of factors going into it. I’ll just have to be a little selfish about it.”
Losing Cobb would be a blow, Wildcat offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” he said, “but he’s probably a more phenomenal person. Where Randall has been so valuable is not in the things you can easily measure in numbers.”
Sanders wooed Cobb from Alcoa, with an offer from Tennessee on the table, by promising the strong-armed lefty a chance at quarterback with the Wildcats, and then following through. Cobb moved to receiver full-time as a sophomore, continuing to stand in at quarterback when injury or ineffective play from the starter deemed it necessary.
“The No. 1 thing a quarterback has to have is heart,” Sanders said, “and you’ve got to have toughness. I think Randall will be successful at whatever he does. When he does go to the NFL, I think he’ll be a very successful player.”
Should circumstance prove too favorable for Cobb to shun the professional ranks at this point, Robinson looks ready to pick up the standard for Alcoa. The muscled, athletic tight end had seven catches on the season entering the Tennessee game. Told by the Kentucky staff earlier in the week he would get his first start, Robinson said he did his best to remain low key.
“They said, ‘Tyler, you’d better get in there with the first unit,’” he said.
“‘You’re going to start.’”
The college game takes some getting used to, Robinson said. Getting that first score out of the way, and having it take place at Neyland, was a weight of his shoulders.
“The thing I’ve seen is the strength,” he said. “Everybody is so strong.
“In high school, you can hit somebody and they’ll fall down. In college, it’s all about technique.”
Robinson and Cobb did their school proud Saturday, Rankin said.
“Both of them played great,” he said. “It was fun to see them come out there and represent our school like they did.”
The Tornadoes are back in the state championship game for a seventh consecutive time, looking for a seventh straight crown, on Friday in Cookeville. The Wildcats have expressed an interest in more than one of them, including running backs Darrell Warren, Vanderbilt Hambrick and Taharin Tyson and receiver Steven Isom. Hambrick and Warren have both rushed for better than 1,000 yards this season, with Tyson needing less than 40 to join the club.
Toney, a two-time BlueCross Bowl most valuable player, said he never rested easy as the starter his last two seasons with Alcoa with Tyson, Hambrick and Warren waiting in the wings.
“I was always worried about Darrell and Vee coming to get me,” he said.
Told Alcoa was within 400 yards rushing of a 5,000-yard season, Robinson responded: “That’s crazy. That’s just amazing how they’re able to do that.”
Cobb said he remains in contact with Warren, Tyson, Hambrick and Isom and a few other Tornadoes.
“I do whatever I can to help them (in the recruiting process),” he said. “I talk to them once a week.”
Whether the foursome eventually finds its way to Lexington or another spot on the college football map, the important thing is that they get there, he said.
“It’s important not only for (the Tornadoes) but for the Alcoa community,” Cobb said. “We’re trying to make a name for our city because we’ve got a lot of talent that gets overlooked.”
Cobb said he’ll consult Rankin and father, Randall Sr., before coming to a final decision about the draft. Rankin’s advice proved a big help in making his college choice, he said. When Alcoa High School brought him to midfield for a tribute at a recent game, it helped put it all in prospective, he said.
“That was one of the most memorable moments I’ve had in my life because of the pride we take in our program,” he said.
The feeling, Rankin said this week, is mutual.