Asked for his perspective, Brian Nix owns a view of Alcoa football isn’t blinded by almost two decades of success.
The Tornadoes’ new head coach vividly remembers the dire state of affairs when he arrived at Alcoa, before he helped first John Reid, then legendary coach Gary Rankin rebuild the dynastic program.
“I told people, when I came to Alcoa, no one was scared of Alcoa,” Nix said. “They got beat by 55 points in the playoffs the year before, so no one was scared of Alcoa. I was like, ‘If you want people to have fear, to respect Alcoa, to be Alcoa, you have to make it that way. Don’t just assume.’
“Because when I got here, two years prior, they had lost to Wartburg, 14-0. A lot of people forget those days. Prior to that, a few years before, they had won a state championship. Alcoa went from, in 2000, undefeated state champions to (in) 2002, 2-8. That was in a two-year span.”
Alcoa has built success into success in the two decades since. The Tornadoes have won seven consecutive state championships, claiming their 20th overall by downing East Nashville, 45-14, in last season’s Class 3A BlueCross Bowl, and are perennially considered one of the state’s powerhouse programs.
The only room for doubt emerged in February, when Rankin stepped down after 16 seasons, ending a tremendous run at Alcoa that included 13 state titles and a 215-20 record.
Nix, Rankin’s longtime defensive coordinator at Alcoa, was promoted to the head job, and he’s now tasked with extending the Tornadoes’ reign of power in Class 3A. Thankfully for Alcoa, he’s well aware of what that will take.
“Complacency is the enemy for everyone who has had success,” Nix said. “There are a ton of books about achieving success. I’ve not seen any books about sustaining success because it’s hard. That’s what we talk to our kids (about). We hired a new coach and I was like, ‘We need to get used to winning by 40 (points) and people not being happy because it’s not about that end result of the game.
“It’s about, ‘How did we play? How did individual players (perform)? Are we better? Last week we struggled at this. Next week, we need to get better.’ So the whole week of practice was about this one blocking scheme or this one coverage or this one kid’s struggling with this technique. Next week, he needs to look better. If he didn’t, we lost the week. So to me, it’s that incremental progress is what’s so important in how you avoid that sense of complacency.”
Senior offensive lineman Lance Williams, one of the team’s top players and leaders, hasn’t seen much of a change since Nix took over, either.
“It’s the same exact thing,” Williams said. “The yelling don’t stop. The running, the conditioning, the working didn’t stop just because Rankin’s leaving.”
Repeating as state champions year after year is always a challenge, but it’s one the Tornadoes seem to have no problem conquering. With a new coach for the first time in nearly two decades, though, and the departure of one of the most decorated quarterbacks in program history, more questions surround Alcoa than any other time in recent history.
It’s no matter to Nix. He isn’t about to let the dynasty end anytime soon.
“Our kids want to do well,” Nix said. “They want to be pushed. I’ve talked to great players (who) want to be coached. I’ve heard Tom Brady say that, ‘If you’re a great player, you want to be coached, you want to get better.’ I want to be coached. We go visit Georgia, we go visit Alabama, we go see Tennessee practice because I want to be that.”
“Really, we’re just going to come in there as a team like we’ve been working,” Williams added. “We’ve grown up together, played football together since middle school. We’re really just here to play. That’s what we’ve been taught to do. We’re coached by the best, so we’re just ready to come back and win a fourth one (as a senior class).”
One of Alcoa’s major hurdles on the road to winning that eighth straight title is replacing quarterback Caden Buckles, who was named BlueCross Bowl MVP each of the last two seasons and won Class 3A Mr. Football last season after throwing for 1,883 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Senior Zach Lunsford is expected to take over under center, and he’s no stranger to the role. With Buckles ineligible for the regular season after transferring in, Lunsford was a part-time starter for the Tornadoes in 2020, then served as Buckles’ backup last season.
Lunsford’s dedication to the program isn’t lost on Nix, who said he’s excited for the 6-foot-2, 190-pound signal caller.
For leadership, though, look no further than Williams, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound Virginia Tech commit. He’s been one of the area’s top talents for years and anchors an Alcoa offensive line that also features Indiana commit Tyler Jeffries (6-foot-4, 295 pounds).
“Lance is an energy guy,” Nix said. “Lance likes playing football. I think (some) guys play football because they’re good at it. He likes the game. He likes to get up there and block people. He’s a high-energy guy and he’ll play some both ways because he can do it.
“You talk about a kid who has never lost (in) high school wrestling. He’s a two-time state champion, didn’t wrestle as a sophomore because of COVID. He’s just a likable kid. I don’t know if Lance ever had a bad day. He brings a lot to your team and just plays really hard.”
Running through the holes opened by Williams and his peers will be senior tailback Jordan Harris, who rushed for a team-best 559 yards and eight touchdowns last year. He recorded those stats on just 40 carries.
“Jordan Harris, he’s going to carry that rock this year like always,” Williams said. “He’s going to score touchdowns.”
The recipe for another state title calls for mixing those offensive touchdowns with defensive success. Alcoa’s defense produced five shutouts last season, all in a row with the final two coming in the Class 3A second round and quarterfinals, and will look to tally even more this year.
That effort starts and ends with senior linebacker Aaron Davis, a blur of a tackler who is arguably the unit’s most important piece. He led Alcoa last season with 67.5 tackles, tallying 8.5 in the Tornadoes’ state championship win over East Nashville. One of his two sacks on the season also came against the Eagles.
“Of course, on defense, Aaron Davis is our leader,” Nix said. “He’s the guy that kind of makes things go over there.”
At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, junior defensive lineman Joe McCord should continue to wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage. He totaled 20 tackles last season, and all three of his tackles in the state championship game, which included one sack, were for a loss.
“Joe McCord is a guy, a defensive lineman, that I think will have a big year for us,” Nix said.
Alcoa will have to replace Isaiah Bryant’s production in the secondary; he snagged a team-leading three interceptions last season. Five other Tornadoes also picked off at least one pass, though, and with the plethora of talent the program usually boasts on each side of the ball, it’s not hard to imagine another such team effort.
“We’re kind of scattered all around with names, really,” Williams said. “We’re not an old team, we’re not a young team, we’re all kind of mixed in. It’s pretty nice.”
Year after year, the Tornadoes are solid both offensively and defensively, but Nix won’t allow any slacking in the game’s third phase.
“We always try to do well on special teams,” Nix said. “What’s going to be the difference between you and those teams that are as talented as you, that run a program like you, that are well coached? That’s what we tell our guys. Other teams have good players, other teams have good coaches. What are the little things we’re going to do?”
Alcoa should be in good hands with the return of junior kicker Bacon Lauderback, who nailed six field goals and 69 PATs as a sophomore.
After entering the season having never kicked a football, Lauderback proved his mettle in Alcoa’s 21-20 double overtime-win over West, booting through the game-winning extra point.