It’s not often the Alcoa football team is considered an underdog, but at 8 p.m. today (Saturday, Aug. 24) the Tornadoes will get to experience that role in their season opener visiting Class 6A Blackman in Murfreesboro.
“It’s without a doubt the toughest matchup we’ve ever had for an opening game,” Alcoa coach Gary Rankin said. “We’ll find out what we are. They’ll grow up from this game no matter what.”
Alcoa and Blackman have never met, and the matchup marks Rankin’s first meeting with a Murfreesboro team since he left Riverdale to fill the vacancy left by John Reid’s departure at Alcoa following the Tornadoes’ 2005 state title season.
It’s the first time the Alcoa football program has played in Murfreesboro since the BlueCross Bowls were moved to Cookeville in 2009. Alcoa defeated Milan in that last state title game at MTSU to win its third straight title under Rankin and the fifth consecutive title of a seven-title streak.
While the Tornadoes have won 12 straight season openers, Rankin knows winning this one is far from a guarantee. What he can’t stomach, he said, is losing the game by penalties and turnovers.
“They know anytime we’re facing a 6A school, we’re kind of running uphill a little bit as far as numbers,” Rankin said. “Hopefully we can keep our kids fresh, and hopefully the temperature drops a little bit.”
What Alcoa lacks in numbers, it makes up for in talent. The Tornadoes boast a junior class of dynamic skill players, including wide receiver Ahmaudd Sankey and running back J.R. Jones. They contributed heavily to Alcoa’s success last season, with Jones leading the team in rushing with 602 yards on 63 carries and Sankey ranking first in receiving yards with 458 on 33 catches.
The Tornadoes will rely on the leadership of junior quarterback Sam Vaulton, who is replacing 2018 Tennessee Titans Class 3A Mr. Football winner Walker Russell.
“We’ve got some good kids,” Rankin said. “They’ll play hard. We’re young. I think the maturity of my football team is the biggest concern. I don’t know if we’re a mature enough football team to go on the road and take on somebody like Blackman.”
The Blaze are coming off a 10-2 season, which ended in the second round of the 6A playoffs. They have roughly 120 players, including several Division I prospects. Keionte Newson and Malachi Burns are two physical receivers who will serve as targets for quarterback Drew Beam along with a speedy duo Dajeun Gibson and Luke Hayes.
“They’re balanced,” Rankin said. “They can run and throw, and they’ve got great kickers. It’s your typical Murfreesboro 6A program.”
The night is also significant because Blackman is unveiling its new turf field.
“We’re just appreciative that they would allow us to come and play them,” Rankin said. “It will be a big night of football.”