Alcoa coach Gary Rankin is no stranger to the task of replacing talent every football season. The Tornadoes graduate great players and then reload, as evidenced by their four consecutive Class 3A BlueCross Bowl championships.
But Rankin said this team needs to develop a less-tangible component in order to add a fifth straight title to that streak.
“The thing that we lost last year that we haven’t replaced yet is just great team leadership,” Rankin said. “We had great seniors — great kids last year that weren’t going to get beat no matter what — and they didn’t get beat. You could see that early in the fall.
“We’ll see who steps up and gives us the leadership we need.”
Alcoa is in the process of filling crucial holes, including quarterback. However, it returned a remarkable junior class and plenty of depth at the skill positions.
The Tornadoes are coming off their first undefeated season in eight years. The state title is their 17th, which broke a tie with Maryville for the most in TSSAA history.
Rankin said the potential for more success is there.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” he said. “We’re skillful. We’ve got a lot of kids that can do things with the football, but we’ve got some weak spots we’ve got to try and shore up. Chemistry has been good so far, but leadership is questionable sometimes.”
Walker Russell was responsible for supplying a substantial amount of that leadership last season. Now a quarterback at Tusculum, Russell was a four-time state champion and the 2018 Tennessee Titans Class 3A Mr. Football winner. He is one of two Alcoa quarterbacks to knock off rival Maryville in the last decade.
Last year, Russell completed 65.7% of his passes (117-for-178) for 1,796 yards and 27 touchdowns while throwing six interceptions. He also rushed for 298 yards and six touchdowns.
Those numbers would have been bolstered had Russell not spent the second half of most games on the sideline coaching his replacement, Sam Vaulton, once Alcoa was comfortably ahead. The Tornadoes averaged wins by 37 points on their way to a 15-0 record.
“I think having Walker as a mentor has been one of the best possible things that could happen for Sam,” Alcoa offensive line coach Brian Gossett said. “To watch Walker go about his business and to watch him lead a team has been awesome for Sam, but I will tell you that Sam is his own guy. Sam knows that he has certain talents and certain things that he needs to focus on. He’s not trying to be Walker, he’s trying to be the best version of Sam he can be.
“I always judge a quarterback by how the guys look at him when he comes in the huddle, and our guys look at him with respect and they know he’s ready to go. That makes a big difference.”
Russell’s career came to a close in fitting fashion in the state championship against Covington at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium in Cookeville. He punched in the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds remaining, clinching a 21-14 victory while etching his name into Alcoa lore.
Now, it’s Vaulton’s turn to take over the reins.
“We lost Walker — he’s obviously a great quarterback — but we lose great players every year,” Rankin said. “(Vaulton) has got certain strengths and weaknesses just like all quarterbacks do. He’s a good leader, he understands the game, sees the field well and makes good decisions. If he’ll do that, we’ll be fine.”
Brackson Alford and Eli Mitchell are among the four returning starters up front tasked with protecting Vaulton. Alcoa’s offensive line is regarded as one of the best in the state, which should make for an easier quarterback transition.
“He’s going to have to get comfortable being out there and having all the experience of being in a big game,” Alford said. “But I think he’ll grow accustomed to it and he’ll be really good.”
Mitchell said the offense is “starting to get in the flow of things.”
“It’s like nothing really changed,” the senior lineman said.
“I see us repeating again.”
Vaulton will also benefit from a surplus of offensive weapons, the bulk of which are juniors who contributed heavily last year. Junior wide receivers Ahmaudd Sankey and Isiah Cox will serve as targets. Sankey had 33 receptions for 458 yards and seven touchdowns, including two in the state championship, while Cox finished with 302 yards and five touchdowns on 16 receptions.
Alcoa graduated a pair of key running backs in K’Vaughn Tyson and Kareem Rodriguez, but it returns the junior duo of J.R. Jones and Tristan Blankenship. Jones and Blankenship combined for 988 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns last season with Jones boasting more speed and Blankenship serving as more of a power back.
Last season, Rankin said it was one of the best sophomore classes Alcoa has had.
“It seems like they’ve grown up some,” Rankin said. “A lot of them contributed, but there were times when they were in slumps and they didn’t do as well as they needed to do, but a lot of that’s from maturity, I believe.”
On defense, Alcoa graduated a handful of key players, including linebacker Shannon Mitchell, defensive ends Landon Ray and Adonis Salter and defensive tackle Jakobe Robinson. They combined for almost 250 tackles — roughly a quarter of the team’s total.
A senior, Caleb Copeland is tasked with leading the young defensive line that lost three of its starters.
“We don’t have as much experience, but we’re still stepping in to get the job done,” Copeland said. “I just have to step up and lead the defense because we’re really young still.”
Alcoa will kick off its season on Aug. 24 at Blackman before taking on Austin-East on Aug. 30 in its first region matchup.
Rankin predicts the frontrunners in 3A will remain similar to prior years. Covington, Milan, Red Bank and Pearl Cohn are the teams that come to his mind first.
Rankin said he also expects a team not typically in that upper tier to step up. Upperman was that squad last season, with Alcoa ending its season in the semifinals with a 27-14 victory.
“Some of the pieces we’re looking at — the depth we’re looking for — are starting to materialize,” Rankin said. “The state championship game is the game to us. We’re going to try to work and give ourselves a chance to get back there.”