Darrell Warren is bigger.
Vanderbilt Hambrick is faster.
Rising sophomore Ezekial Koko is a veritable specimen of combined raw speed and power, and he projects as six-time defending state champion Alcoa’s third option at tailback.
Still, it’s still going to take a season beyond belief for any of them to duplicate the record-setting year former Tornado JaRon Toney turned in during the run to No. 6, and it’s not just the state-record 50 rushing touchdowns the future Tennessee Vol scored, Alcoa coach Gary Rankin said. Toney, like the rest of last season’s senior class, he said, were simply great leaders.
“We just had some great senior leadership,” Rankin said, “just great team players and kids that love Alcoa.”
The Tornadoes entered spring practice two weeks ago looking most to address concerns along the offensive line and at the linebackers. Four starters along the offensive line must be replaced, tight end and Kentucky signee Tyler Robinson included.
“I felt like we had one of the best offensive lines in the state last year,” Rankin said.
Alcoa’s rushing totals last season support that assessment. Two gems return — rising junior John Tucker Rankin at center and rising senior Derek Evans at right guard — as the Tornadoes retool. Senior Adam Stephens, junior Steven Manuel and sophomore Thomas Loy look ready to help ensure the process isn’t a long one. Rising sophomore tight end Dalton Ownby has been one of the spring’s biggest and best surprises in stepping in for Robinson.
“We feel like we’ve got some very capable running backs,” Rankin said, “but we’ve been more concerned about replacing some linemen. I think we’ll be OK there.”
On defense, Toney was part of a graduating class that took with it all three linebackers. Robinson’s departure for Lexington meant the loss of Division I talent at one of the ends as well. Warren flourished on the end of the line opposite Robinson a year ago.
Rising senior Jonivan Henry has impressed this spring stepping into the spot vacated by Robinson. Of all the budding prospects dotting Alcoa’s roster this spring, he’s looked the most intriguing.
“Jonivan’s got a world of ability,” Rankin said, “if he’ll just turn it loose.”
Spring practice has seen many of Alcoa’s losses from a year ago begin to be addressed, Rankin said.
Rising senior Taharin Tyson had a lot to do with Toney’s record year, the former a clinical lead blocker at fullback. This spring, the Division I prospect has doubled at linebacker with the first-team defense. Crenshaw, Turbyfill, Koko, Ownby and rising senior Jordan Patrick are all battling to fill the other two spots, each looking up to the task.
It’s what BlueCross Bowl Defensive Most Valuable Player Dee Herbert and Nathaniel and Daniel Robinson added in the huddle in terms of leadership that’s hardest to replace, Rankin said.
While the loss of Toney’s 52 total touchdowns is substantial, the Tornadoes aren’t looking as if they’ll be without the necessary weaponry offensively as they chase a seventh consecutive title.
Warren and Tyson are lighting up the internet recruiting sites, as is gazelle-like rising senior Steven Isom at one of the receivers. Hambrick and Koko afford the Tornadoes a lot of versatility at running back. Not to be overlooked is rising sophomore Jarod Crenshaw, who’ll back up Tyson at fullback.
Toney may be gone, but Alcoa looks as if it’ll still run the ball this fall. It just won’t be as much a matter of necessity.
Isom has had a healthy Austin Tallant throwing him the ball this spring. The rising senior spent much of last season with a broken bone in his throwing hand, a fact he managed to disguise from the Tornado coaching staff for duration of the season. A tough runner with a strong arm, Tallant is throwing the ball this spring much as he did in moving in as the starter a year ago.
Alcoa’s limited passing game a year ago withstanding, Isom possesses genuine big-play ability. The Tornadoes will need a game-breaker on the other side to keep teams honest, though, and there, Rankin said, it’ll be the fall before anything is settled.
“Isom’s back. He’s the big key,” he said, “but we’ve got to find some receivers. There’s no doubt about that.”
Rising junior Hogan Goodson saw plenty of work as Tallant’s backup a year ago and looks only improved this spring. Turbyfill has come on fast this spring and looks to be another option, along with fellow sophomore Korey Bach.
Like Toney’s record-breaking year running the ball, Alcoa’s sixth consecutive state crown is also a state record. Seven straight won’t be any easier than the last six, Rankin said, but the goal remains the same.
“I don’t know if we can go 15-0 again,” he said, “but we’d like to get back to that state championship game.”
Wonder what the record is for rushing touchdowns in a season for a team?