TANNER — A subtle smile is a prelude to a brief phrase.
The question was simple. Just a basic opinion on the expectations of Tanner High’s defense.
Kyle Shoulders’ reply:
“I don’t have any expectations other than going out and playing hard,” he said in a low-key mumble, almost too soft to hear.
To the point? Yes. But also even-keel with hardly any emotion.
Don’t expect much more from Shoulders. He truly is a man of few words.
Or at least that’s the case Saturday through Thursday.
But on Fridays?
Turn on the stadium lights and tee up the football. That’s when the transformation begins.
Shoulders still doesn’t say much, but the mild-mannered Tanner High defensive end takes on an almost bully-like personality. He makes his physical presence known, pushing opponents around without remorse. Teams try to run the ball away from his side, and they usually regret when they don’t.
Shoulders’ actions on the football field speak volumes, about both him and Tanner’s heralded defense. The Rattlers aren’t the most lively bunch away from the field, but when on it …
“They know how to turn it on,” Tanner coach Laron White said. “This is a unique bunch of personalities we’ve got on this team. But when it’s time to play, they’re very workmanlike and always bring the intensity.”
That may be a bit of understatement.
Class 2A No. 1 Tanner’s defense has been good. Really good.
No surprise there. The Rattlers (6-0, 4-0 in Region 8) are loaded with talent. Linebacker Fred Rich and safety Greg Maclin are UAB commitments, and littered throughout the starting lineup are other guys who likely will play college football.
“With the players we have back, all the talented and experienced guys, we expected our defense to be pretty good,” White said. “There are several guys out there who will have a chance to play on Saturdays (in college).”
The dominant results tell the story. Tanner gave up one touchdown in the season opener against Class 3A No. 6 Madison Academy. No other team has scored against the Rattlers starters.
The players are well aware of that fact.
“Oh yeah. We know,” linebacker Dexter Douglas said. “Keeping that going has been important to us — something that we’ve taken pride in. We don’t want to give up anything to anybody. Nothing at all.”
The group has a confident swagger, but not overzealous. They take pride in being physical. Compliments about dominating performances are worn like badges of honor.
Imposing that physical nature on opposing offenses occurs regularly.
“We always want to be the most physical team,” Douglas said. “Coming into the season, we all knew this could be a really good defense. Our front four are so good. They’re getting a good push against everybody, and we’re just out there relying on our instincts and making plays.”
Those instincts haven’t let down Tanner.
Statistically, this defense has been one of Tanner’s best. Since the Alabama High School Athletic Association incorporated a football postseason in 1966, only the 1982, ’83 and ’94 teams come close.
Tanner is holding opponents to 5.7 points per game, even though seven of 34 points allowed were against the Rattlers’ starters. Because of lopsided scores, Tanner’s starters have seen limited action in the second half in five of six games.
“We’ve got a great mentality,” Rich said. “Everyone is flying around the ball, gang tackling and making plays. Everyone out there is getting after it, trying to get the big hit.”
Finding a weakness in Tanner’s defense is a mystery no one has solved.
The group has been exceptionally good against the run, holding opponents to less than 100 yards per game.
And against the pass? Colbert Heights tried that strategy last week with no success. The Wildcats didn’t reach the end zone until the game was well out of reach in the second half.
“They’re playing really well right now,” White said. “And they’re playing with a lot of confidence, which is something we encourage. We want the guys to have high expectations for themselves, as long as they realize there’s still a lot of football to be played. But with the way our defense is playing right now, you’ve got to feel good as we start heading toward the playoffs.”
Tanner and its stout defense can clinch the Region 8 title Friday at Sheffield. But according to the players, achieving that feat has been an afterthought.
For the Rattlers, there are larger aspirations. Getting back to the Class 2A championship game — and winning the program’s first state title — are the only goals that matter. All that remain are goodies to be gathered along the way.
“To be perfectly honest, being region champs, that’s not even something I’ve thought about,” Rich said. “We’ve got bigger goals. We want to win it all.
“Yeah, winning region championships is nice, but winning in the playoffs is what it’s all about. I know everyone else here feels the same way.”
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