Maryville’s defense heard all the rumblings about it being a weak link throughout the offseason, and it has responded by exceeding every expectation.
The No. 2-ranked Rebels have limited opponents to 12 points and 193 yards per game through their first six games, but their toughest trial to date awaits Friday when No. 4 Bradley Central visits Shields Stadium.
“I do (think this could be a defining moment for our defense),” Maryville coach Derek Hunt told The Daily Times. “Even though we’ve played some really good teams this year, Bradley is a different test because they’re more of a wide-open offense. I think this will be a very tough challenge that will come down to how well we prepared.”
The Maryville offense will present a stronger challenge for Bradley Central’s defense, too, with running back and Tennessee pledge Tee Hodge expected to return from a turf toe injury that has kept him out of action for a month.
A high-powered offense is nothing new to Bradley Central (5-1, 3-0 Region 2-6A), but first-year quarterback Javin Burke — a McCallie transfer — has taken it to another level. The Bears are averaging 48.5 points per game this season after scoring 30.2 points per game last year.
Burke completed 16 of 23 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns in Bradley Central’s come from-from-behind victory against Cleveland and rushed for 125 yards and two more scores on 10 carries.
“I think the fact that he can score on any given play puts them at a different level than where they’ve been in the past,” Hunt said. “He’s unlike any quarterback we’ve seen in a long time because of his skill set. He can throw it a mile and he’s at his best when it’s a busted play and he gets going because if he finds a seam, he sticks his foot in the ground and he’s faster than everybody.
“He’s certainly a special talent and we have our hands full, that’s for sure.”
Burke is flanked by running back Ricky McCleary and wide receivers Tray Curry — a 4-star prospect who is the 187th-ranked player in the Class of 2021 according to the 247Sports Composite rankings — and Saylor Clark, all of whom compose one of the most dynamic offenses in East Tennessee.
Maryville (6-0, 2-0) stifled a similar playmaker-heavy offense when it faced Alcoa in the Battle of Pistol Creek on Sept. 12, holding the top-ranked team in Class 3A to three points and 122 yards.
“Alcoa is power team that can be finesse if they want to be, but Bradley wants to start out spread,” Hunt said. “They space you out so well, and that makes it difficult because of who they have in those spaces. It always helps having played good teams when you play another good team down the road, but each one is different and it’s a unique challenge each week.”
The Rebels have been without senior linebacker Seth Orren the past two weeks, but he expects to play Friday. Maryville has also been banged up in the secondary, but two first-time starters helped limit Fulton to 73 passing yards a week ago.
“We’ve gotten healthier, so hopefully we’re closer to full strength,” Hunt said. “All of our young guys have done a really good job of coming in and playing in big moments and being ready to go, so I feel good no matter who is in there.”
Maryville hasn’t dropped a region game since losing to Halls in 2000, and Bradley Central represents one of the biggest threats to ending that winning streak and preventing the Rebels from their 19th straight region championship.
“There are some big region games at the end of the year that will decide playoff seeding,” Hunt said. “There’s a lot that we’re going to learn over the next four weeks in Region 2, and there is still a lot up for grabs, but it starts tomorrow night.”