ALEXANDRIA — Nate McCallum knows all too well Alexandria High School’s history of great tailbacks and doesn’t mince words about his aspirations that way.
“I’ve heard that every time we have a good back in Alexandria, I mean, that’s what I look forward to,” he said. “I want to be that best back, coming from Alexandria.
“That’s what I look forward to every game. I’ve got to be better than Mac Campbell. I’ve got to be better than Keenan Woodruff or anybody else that came here.”
Eighth-grader Ronnie Royal, a second-year varsity player, already feels his place in history.
“People say I’m the first seventh-grader to play to play varsity football, or something like that,” he said. “It feels good, but I can’t get big-headed. I have to stay humble.”
Two talented backs, a flexible coach and an injury helped McCallum and Royal to produce a rare feat this season. With Royal’s 256-yard performance against Sardis last week, Alexandria has two backs to post 200-yard games this season.
McCallum rushed for 206 against Crossville, 225 against Boaz. He and Royal put up 100-yard games before McCallum’s bum ankle gave Royal the chance to tote the load against Sardis.
McCallum is expected to be full go against Southside on Friday.
Their production, done largely off of direct-snap “Wildcat” offense, coupled with a defense that gives up just 7.6 points a game has helped Alexandria to a 5-0 romp through the first half of its season.
The Valley Cubs have validated second-year head coach Todd Ginn’s July promise that they, though young, would be better than prognostications. They’ve made their cut and blown by gloom and doom that followed a poor showing in a spring jamboree at Lincoln.
“Everybody was sleeping on us,” McCallum said. “That was only a spring game. We were just trying to see where we were at and see where all of the players could play.”
At that point, Ginn was juggling three quarterbacks, looking to replace departed senior Jacob Wells. He didn’t yet know the counterintuitive approach he would take with this Alexandria team.
A 1997 graduate, Ginn was Alexandria’s quarterback, sharing a backfield with Campbell, after all. Imagine if Ginn’s late father, hall-of-fame coach Larry Ginn, had gone “Wildcat” with Campbell.
Larry left his three sons many pearls of wisdom, however, and making it work with “your pieces” rates among the most fundamental.
“I would say that the traditional under center, we’ve probably been under center five times all year,” Ginn said. “Most of our stuff is in the shotgun and just trying to put defenses in a predicament.
“We know what messes us up, defensively, and the things that kind of put you in a bind, so we kind of plan our running attack based on that.”
The short of it is that a physical, punishing runner like McCallum, and a stout-for-his-age speed back like Royal, take direct snaps and choose their holes behind what Ginn calls a “tenacious” offensive line, fullback Devin Burton, tight end Grady Trantham and blocking-minded receivers Dustin Warren and Ethan Barnes.
McCallum and Royal run against eight- and nine-man fronts a lot. They must stay patient with shorter runs until longer runs break, but McCallum can help himself by running over people. Royal can make one missed tackle go a long way.
“When you watch Ronnie run, Ronnie is wide open from the word go,” Ginn said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s running into a wall or a bubble. He’s going to hit it the same way.
“Ronnie is just a special eighth-grader. There’s no telling his ceiling. It’s unbelievable where his ceiling can go.”
Ginn has recently started entrusting Royal with read decisions off of direct snaps, a tactic that sets up intriguing moments with Royal and McCallum in the backfield at the same time. Ginn must temper their use with defense, where Royal has played “99 percent” of snaps at safety and McCallum plays outside linebacker when needed.
McCallum is a senior, and next year’s mix will likely bring a look more along the lines of what Ginn envisioned when he took the Alexandria job in May of last year. The ‘Wildcat’ formation as a rule and not the exception is a 2019 improvisation.
“I don’t think this will be us, moving forward. I really don’t,” Ginn said. “We’ll do it some, but this is just one of those things that, dad said, ‘Take your pieces, and make it work.’”