Anthony McAlister, a 5-11, 225-pounder, recorded 117 tackles as a senior last season. He considered scholarship offers from Tennessee Tech and Gardner-Webb before electing to join the Vols and try to earn a scholarship.
I met Anthony last June at the UT summer camp, and came away very impressed. He's an honors student and seems to be a high-character young man. What follows is the story I wrote on him for the July issue of Rocky Top News:
* * *
He's spending this summer on the University of Tennessee campus, sweeping and mopping in one of the dormitories. But Anthony McAlister one day hopes his duties on The Hill will include dusting opposing ballcarriers.
That's his specialty.
McAlister, who is doing janitorial work at UT's Andy Holt dormitory during his summer vacation, projects to be one of the state's better football prospects in 2004. He averaged nearly 15 tackles per game as a junior at Knoxville's Austin-East High School last fall.
Stanton Stevens, A-E's head coach, says there are two simple reasons the talented middle linebacker is so productive.
''He makes some plays because he knows where to be,'' the coach said. ''And he makes some plays because he gets to places other linebackers can't.''
In other words, McAlister has the savvy to know where to go and the quickness to get there ahead of time. He also has the innate ability to deliver licks that make even fans in the back row wince.
''Gibbs ran a toss sweep against us last year, and our cornerback turned the play inside,'' Stevens recalled. ''Just as the runner was cutting back, Anthony hit the kid so hard that the helmet went flying one way and the mouthpiece went flying the other. It was the best textbook tackle I've ever seen. The impact said all you need to know about Anthony McAlister. The TV people showed that play on several of the Friday night highlight shows.''
McAlister finished the 2003 season with 180 tackles, four sacks, 15 minus-yardage stops and two interceptions. The 6-foot, 225-pounder earned all-city and all-state recognition and was a finalist for Class 3A Mr. Football, losing out to University of Tennessee signee Ramon Foster of Ripley.
McAlister's accomplishments, imposing as they were, did not surprise his head coach. Stevens knew three years earlier that the young man was going to be something special.
''The first time I saw Anthony he was in eighth grade, playing for the Baby Roadrunners,'' the coach recalled. ''I watched him make a few plays, then turned to our defensive coordinator and said, 'That's your next starting middle linebacker right there.'
''His intensity impressed me even then. It's all about how a kid attacks. There's an old saying, 'If a dog doesn't bite as a puppy, he'll probably never bite at all.' It's the same way with a football player. If he isn't aggressive when he's young, he'll probably never be aggressive.
''Anthony was really aggressive in the eighth grade, and I knew he was going to be a good football player.''
* * *
McAlister was good enough as an Austin-East freshman to start at middle linebacker for a Roadrunner team that won the state title. That speaks volumes about his talent level.
''He was raw as a freshman but he made a lot of plays just off his ability,'' Stevens recalled. ''He's learned more about the position and what he's supposed to do since then. His speed has always enabled him to chase stuff down from sideline to sideline. He runs as well as any tailback we play against and he's got good instincts.''
Now that McAlister has developed the knowledge to fully exploit his athleticism and instincts, he's pretty much the whole package.
''He makes an awful lot of stops, and that's what you want out of your middle linebacker,'' Stevens said. ''He's done a great job for us. He really carries a good hit when he gets to the pile. He's a pile-mover. When Anthony gets to it, the pile starts moving backwards.''
Blessed with 4.6 speed over 40 yards, McAlister also is adept at covering the pass.
''We don't ask him to play pass coverage a lot but that's something we have a lot of confidence in,'' Stevens said. ''We wouldn't put him on a 5-8, 150-pound receiver but we don't shy away from putting him on a slot back or running back. We don't worry about mismatches.'' v Asked what McAlister does best, Stevens paused thoughtfully.
''He does a lot of things well,'' the coach finally replied. ''He carries his weight well and changes directions well. He can stop the run and he can cover the pass, which makes him the kind of linebacker a lot of colleges are looking for.''
Tennessee may not be one of those colleges, however.
''I really get the idea they think he's too small to play linebacker for them,'' Stevens said. ''I believe he'll need a big senior year for them to be interested but I think he could put on some weight and be a really good college linebacker.''
* * *
Perhaps Tennessee will change its mind. Perhaps McAlister's performances this fall will change it. Perhaps he'll follow in the footsteps of former teammate Cory Anderson, who played middle linebacker at Austin-East and is now the Vols' No. 1 fullback.
''I see Cory around and we speak,'' McAlister said. ''But we don't know each other enough to have any long conversations about UT.''
There is a widespread perception that Tennessee has minimal interest in local products, and that's understandable. When Anderson signed with the Vols in 2002, he was the first Knoxvillian to do so since Todd Helton joined the fold in 1992.
''I don't see a lot of local people going to UT,'' McAlister noted. ''They (Vols) seem to be doing pretty good without 'em but I think it'd be nice if they got more local people on the team.''
That could happen soon. Tennessee's staff is taking a long look at Austin-East running back Albert Harris, so there's a chance McAlister could be recruited as part of a package deal. That would be fine with him.
''Albert and I have talked about maybe attending the same school,'' McAlister said. ''That'd be nice.''
McAlister attended UT's senior camp in June. He also attended Notre Dame's camp in 2003 and the Nike camp in May of 2004. He's attracting some interest from Wake Forest, Penn State, Tennessee, North Carolina and Middle Tennessee State.
Whatever school lands Anthony McAlister will be getting a quality person, as well as a quality football player. He's involved in an educational program called Project GLAD and he's part of the 100 Black Men Program which will visit The White House later this year. An Honors student, he carries a sparkling 3.5 grade-point average at Austin-East, including a 3.4 in core classes. That's a credit to his academics-minded mom.
''I've always made sure he did his homework, stayed in the books,'' Monica McAlister said. ''He knew that if he didn't have the grades he couldn't do other things ... like sports. If you take away what they like, they'll work hard to get it back.''
Anthony concedes that his mother has pushed him in academics just as hard as Coach Stevens has pushed him in athletics.
''My mom would come home every day (during the school year) and ask if I had any homework,'' McAlister noted. ''Even if I didn't, she made me read for an hour.''
So, which books did he find most interesting?
With a laugh, Anthony replied: ''I didn't like none of 'em.''
* * *
There's an old saying that the ideal linebacker is mobile, agile and hostile. Anthony McAlister fits the bill, even if he is an exceptionally nice guy.
''The thing I like about playing middle linebacker,'' he says with a mildly evil laugh, ''is there's contact every play.'' Most young linebackers idolize perennial all-pro Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens, but McAlister is a notable exception. His hero comes from the world of pro basketball, not pro football.
''I like Shaq,'' he said, referring to NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal. ''He's a dominant player, and I want to be a dominant player.''
McAlister was at his most dominant in a 2002 game against Knox Gibbs. He recorded 18 tackles that night, caused two fumbles and intercepted two passes, returning one 47 yards for a touchdown. Incredibly, he didn't win defensive player of the week recognition in the Knoxville Football League for the performance.
''Nah,'' he recalls. ''I won it for the Chattanooga Howard game a few weeks earlier. I had 18 tackles that night, too, even though I had a broken thumb and a cast on my arm.''
It will take more than a broken thumb to keep Anthony McAlister off the football field. It will take a lot more, in fact.
''I grew up playing football,'' he says. ''A year without football would throw me off.''
McAlister got his start at age 6, playing in the backyard with some neighbors. The game's physical nature proved almost intoxicating.
''We kept hitting each other till we cried,'' he recalls. He played organized football for the first time as a seven-year-old. Big for his age, he was assigned to play offensive and defensive tackle.
''I never did care for that a whole lot,'' he says. A year later he moved to linebacker, where he has remained ever since.
''I loved it,'' he recalls. ''I found a home.''
Although he's at home on defense, McAlister is no stranger to offense. He was a very effective fullback in junior high school.
''It was all right,'' he says. ''I carried a whole lot in short-yardage situations but mostly I was a blocker.''
Last fall he doubled as Austin-East's first-team center and deep snapper.
''I liked deep snapper,'' he says, ''but not center.''
''I'd rather give the hit than take it.''
If McAlister has a weakness, it is that he is so intent on making the big hit that he occasionally misses.
''Sometimes I try to take the kid out,'' he says, ''instead of just making the sure tackle.''
* * *
Could Anthony McAlister become another Cory Anderson? v Probably not.
''They're totally different,'' said Stevens, who has coached both. ''Cory was a great athlete playing middle linebacker; Anthony is a middle linebacker who happens to be a good athlete.
''Cory only played middle linebacker one year, so he didn't have much time to learn the position; he was just so big and physical that he could do it. A lot of what Anthony does is natural. He isn't as big as Cory but he's probably a little faster and a little more athletic. And Anthony's had more time to learn the position.''
While McAlister is a different style of player, he probably has just as much talent as Anderson. And, according to his high school coach, he has just as much college potential.
''If Anthony stays healthy and continues to progress, I think he could have a tremendous career at the Div. I level,'' Stevens said. ''The learning curve in college is pretty big but I think he'll learn what he needs to learn to be a very good college linebacker.''
Since he may be a bit small for a college middle linebacker, could McAlister play on the outside?
''I think he could play either one,'' Stevens said. ''He's physical enough to play inside but quick enough to play outside. And he has the ability to deliver a blow that will make people say, 'Wow! That was a great hit!' Guys who can hit like that can play against any level of competition.
''I'm sure Anthony will put on good weight -- that is, muscle -- when he gets to college. And he'll become more athletic and more agile because the talent level dictates that you do that. He'll rise to the level of the competition.''
Whether or not McAlister gets the opportunity to attend Tennessee, he's the type of young man who seems destined to succeed. He's a class act with a fine future ahead of him.
''One thing I like about Anthony is that he's consistent in his character,'' Stevens said. ''Sometimes kids act one way around other kids, clean up their language and act another way when an adult comes around, then go back to what they were doing when the adult leaves. Anthony's not like that. He carries himself the way you'd want your son to do.
''He's very disciplined. You don't make the kind of grades he makes without being disciplined.''
The question is: Can he make the grade at Tennessee?