Mr. Football winner Darrell Warren is gone. So is elite edge rusher Jonivan Henry.
Alcoa defensive coordinator Brian Nix is faced with the challenge of replacing their impact in hopes of putting an eighth consecutive state championship defense on the field, but the talented, young defensive architect doesn’t have the ends that can play on the edge like Warren and Henry. What he does have as Maryville comes calling Saturday at 7 p.m. are some fast linebackers.
Nix decided the solution was to put four of those fast linebackers on the field at once and slide his ends inside for a brand new 3-4 defense.
“It’s just the personnel we have,” Nix said. “We just didn’t have the ends we had in past, just not the numbers, but we had a lot of linebackers. We wanted to still play cover two but be able to get some pressure on the quarterback. And it’s not just this year, it’s something that fits our personnel the next three or four years.”
Not only are Nix’s linebackers fast, but the new defense allows them to be used in a variety of ways, something the Tornado assistant hopes will makes reading the defense more difficult on any quarterback Alcoa faces this season. At any time, as demonstrated in a 21-0 shutout of Cleveland and Elite 11 quarterback Chad Voytik in last week’s opener, the Tornadoes can send any one of their linebackers on a blitz to any gap, while still maintaining seven players in pass coverage.
“At times those guys should be a big mismatch for an offensive tackle,” Nix said. “The linebackers played good. Caleb Burchfield, a sophomore, got out there and played well. Jarod Crenshaw made some big hits. We had guys who stepped up (Saturday).”
This offseason, Alcoa added an exciting and explosive playmaker when Austin-East quarterback D.J. Oggs transferred in, but, thus far, his play-making ability has shined brightest coming off the edge as a pass rushing linebacker.
Oggs sacked Voytik, a Pittsburgh commitment, three times during the afternoon’s contest.
“In this defense, I’m doing a lot of different things. I’m running all over blitzing, and their quarterback doesn’t know who is going to be coming after them,” Oggs said. “It was pretty good, but I’ve never played both ways an entire game, and I’m going to be motivated this week in practice to play better.”
Nix is pleased with what he’s seen so far.
“He’s a warrior. He’ll play four quarters,” he said. “He’ll do everything he can for this school and that was a great individual effort. He chooses to fight through pain, he chooses to play hard every down and that was a great performance.”
Oggs was by no means the only linebacker who performed well in the new defense Saturday. Crenshaw played strong at middle linebacker, filling holes and blowing up runs that came his way. Turbyfill played opposite Oggs most of the night, doing a good job sealing the edge to keep rushers contained and the quarterback in the pocket. At the same time, Turbyfill has the ability to play sideline to sideline.
“Our speed on the outside is a big advantage to us, and I think we played well as a unit,” Turbyfill said. “We just need to keep listening to the coaches and playing with discipline.”
Alcoa head coach Gary Rankin said he found the change Nix wanted to make with the defense appealing the first time the latter put forth the suggestion.
“I have to give credit to Mr. Nix on that,” Rankin said. “Most of the time when we change a scheme, we do it to match our personnel. We knew we weren’t going to be very big on defense, so we wanted to get as much speed on the field as we could.”
The opener with Cleveland at last week’s Airport Motor Mile Kickoff Classic at Shields Stadium graded out as an “A+,” Rankin said, but it wasn’t only Voytik the Tornadoes were thinking of when installing the new system. Maryville visits Alcoa’s Goddard Field on Saturday, and the Rebels have quite the accomplished passer as well.
Senior and North Carolina commitment Patton Robinette attended the same Elite 11 camp in California this summer as did Voytik. Facing one such talented signal caller in a season is one thing. Facing two such players in back-to-back weeks to open the season will surely test his revamped defense, Rankin said.
The results against Voytik - 13-of-20, 139 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions - were encouraging.
“He had people in his face pretty quick,” Rankin said. “To face a quarterback like him and Robinette back-to-back, I don’t know that I’ve ever done that.”
There’s the added concern that Robinette has a much, much better supporting cast.
The Rebels returned all five starters on the offense line from last season’s Class 6A championship team, along with the starting tight end. Sophomore running back Shawn Prevo, after a breakout freshman season a year ago, paced a Maryville running game that overwhelmed defending Division II champion Webb, 30-7, in the second half of last Saturday’s doubleheader.
“They’re pretty good, I tell you that,” Rankin said. “They’re pretty good.”