Alcoa is sending a record three finalists to the Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Awards later this month in Murfreesboro.
You could make a case for four, finalist and Tornado junior Vanderbilt Hambrick said.
A finalist for Class AA back of the year, Hambrick will be joined at the Embassy Suites Hotel & Conference Center on Nov. 29 by Alcoa teammates Darrell Warren and Derek Evans, co-finalists for lineman of the year.
In a big year for Blount County football, Maryville placekicker Zach Sharp is among three finalists for kicker of the year, selection there encompassing all classifications.
Warren, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound defensive end/linebacker/running back, has the numbers and an offer from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Evans, a 6-2, 270-pound offensive linemen, is a recent Appalachian State commitment with an additional offer from West Point.
Sharp has pumped 59 of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks this season and is lights out from 50 yards in on field goals.
It’s a worthy quartet. It should be five, though, Hambrick said.
“I’d give it to (Tornado fullback) Taharin Tyson,” he said. “He’s blocked for me for three years and has never gotten nominated for Mr. Football.”
Hambrick’s selection as a finalist comes during a season when the lightning-quick Tornado was included in the “Sports Illustrated” feature section “Faces in the Crowd” for his performance in Alcoa’s 35-31 win over Maryville earlier this season. The 5-10, 175-pound Hambrick appeared blazing fast in running for 209 yards and three scores, the last the game winner with two minutes remaining.
“I don’t think I’m that fast,” Hambrick said. “I think I’m quick. I think that’s what people get wrong. It only looks like I’m going fast in the open field.”
Yeah, kind of like a comet.
The truly stunning rushing totals the Tornadoes have amassed this season support Hambrick’s claim when it comes to Tyson’s omission.
Top-ranked Alcoa (11-0) has accumulated better than 3,600 yards rushing this season in running the school’s record win streak to 39 games. The six-time defending state champion Tornadoes host Loudon in a Class 3A second round game on Friday.
Unlike a year ago, when Gatorade State Player of the Year and Mr. Football finalist JaRon Toney ran for a state record 50 touchdowns, this season’s Tornadoes share more of the workload.
Hambrick has run for 1,010 yards and 13 touchdowns on 60 carries, averaging 16.8 yards per pop. The more powerfully built Warren has blasted his way into opposing end zones for 24 touchdowns, amassing 748 yards on 77 rushes for a 9.7 yards per carry average.
Then there’s Tyson, whose nine touchdowns and 667 yards on 62 carries equates to 10.8 yards per blast. That kind of productivity and selfless play helps keep the focus where it should be, Hambrick said, and not on Mr. Football.
“It’s an all-of-us award,” he said. “The real award is going to Cookeville.”
Should Alcoa reach a seventh consecutive state championship game the first weekend of December, there’s little question Evans, Warren and Hambrick will be a big part of the reason why, Tornado coach Gary Rankin said.
“Those three are outstanding,” he said. “I told them (Tuesday) I’m very proud of them.”
Rankin has coached his share of Mr. Football winners during stints at Murfreesboro’s Riverdale High and Alcoa. The eight-time state championship coach, with four tittles each with the Warriors and Tornadoes, has twice produced double Mr. Football winners in a season. Hambrick, Warren and Evans have every right in believing they could become the third.
The Tornadoes have assembled a mass of seeming interchangeable parts in the quest for No. 7, but Warren’s overall productivity make him the team’s unquestioned leader. Seldom playing more than a half this season as Alcoa has run roughshod through opponent after opponent, the super-quick end has still racked up a team-leading 10 sacks, all while moving to linebacker occasion.
“I’ll play wherever coach wants me to be,” Warren said. “Just teach me how to play it, and I’ll play it to the best of my ability. There’s no point in doing something if you’re not going to give it your all.”
It’s an exhaustive challenge, one Warren has met by way of a frightening commitment in the weight room. His 625-pound squat is an Alcoa record — for now. Warren hasn’t gone in for the heavy stuff since the summer.
“That was a while back,” he said. “There really is no telling how much I squat right now. I’m interested in finding out myself.”
Warren’s speed and power isn’t lost on the guys up front, Evans said.
“You always know in the back of your mind when Darrell is coming you better get out of way,” he said.
The versatility Hambrick, Warren and Tyson afford makes their job a lot easier, center John Tucker Rankin said.
“It’s good to know we have these kinds of backs,” he said. “It takes the pressure off.”
Evans’ inclusion as one of the finalists for AA linemen is quite the statement, Gary Rankin said. Blount County has produced several finalists and winners through the years, but most, like former Tornado Tyler Robinson a year ago, have been tight ends or defensive ends — who have stats.
“It’s rare for an offensive lineman to be nominated,” Gary Rankin said. “It’s like the Heisman Trophy for an offensive to be nominated for that kind of stuff.”
It takes a lot to get noticed where Evans plays, but you do notice, Warren said, partly because Evans & Co. are so good at their jobs.
“They love to block,” he said. “They love what they do.”
The competition will be stiff for Hambrick, Warren and Evans. Even a 2,000-yard season and a state record for rushing touchdowns wasn’t enough to secure Toney the award last season, a decision Warren still finds a little curious.
“I thought he should have won it because of all of the records he broke,” he said. “Fifty touchdowns in one season — that’s incredible.”
Toney also started at linebacker on defense.
Sharp’s inclusion among the final three kickers, considering punters are included and 300-plus high schools fielded football teams this fall, comes with a prestige all its own. When the 6-2 senior’s first-ever field goal attempt for the Rebels is factored in, it takes on even added luster.
Most recall Sharp’s debut by way of two 30-plus yard kicks in an ultra-dramatic, 20-19 win over William Blount in front of 14,000 fans at Mike White Field four years ago. Those kicks were cake, he said, considering what took place the week before.
“My first attempt at Clinton was a 45-yarder, and I slipped and fell,” Sharp said. “It was a complete shank.”
Sharp has since blossomed into one of the South Region’s elite, setting a state record for consecutive extra points along the way. He’s made good on 48 of 50 as the Rebels (10-1) ready to host Farragut in a Class 6A second round game on Friday. Maryville’s super foot kicker is 6-of-8 on field goals, with a 50- and a 49-yard boot included on his resume.
“I’m very excited for Zach,” Maryville coach George Quarles said. “I feel he’s very deserving of this because he’s worked so hard and has had a great year.
“If there’s a better kicker than him in our state, I’d like to see him.”
It’s the kickoffs that have become the stuff of legend, though. The Maryville coaching staff is much appreciative of Sharp’s ability to make opponent after opponent begin drive after drive from the 20-yard line and no further. Sharp’s ability to keep the ball out of the hands of Bearden’s Devrin Young in a Week 6 Rebel win was an award-winning performance in and of itself. The reward, regrettably, is still forthcoming.
“The kickoff coach said he’d buy me a steak dinner if I had all touchbacks,” Sharp said. “I think I did, but I didn’t get my steak dinner.”
Former William Blount Governor Kase Whitehead is the only other punter or placekicker to be named a finalist for kicker of the year.
The awards ceremony is the unofficial kickoff to championship week. However things go with Mr. Football, if the Tornadoes aren’t down the road in Cookeville four days later, the season’s primary goal will be left unattained, Rankin said.
“Our main goal has never been to get Mr. Football Awards,” he said. “Our goal has always been to win state championships.”