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Emotions will certainly be running high for McCallie senior defensive tackle James Howard in Thursday night's Division II-AAA Blue Cross Bowl state championship game.
The undefeated Blue Tornado (11-0) would love nothing more than to capture their third straight state title in the friendly confines of Finley Stadium, where Howard looks to make an impact on Montgomery Bell Academy (9-3) once again.
Just two years ago Howard was an integral part in setting a TSSAA state championship game record for team sacks as he had two of McCallie's nine in a 28-7 triumph over MBA. Last season, the the 6-foot-2, 280-pound brute watched from the sidelines with a knee injury as the Blue Tornado thumped MUS 44-0 to repeat as state champions in Cookeville.
"This is my last run at a state title along with all of our seniors who have poured everything into this program," said the 16-year old Howard. "This moment coming up means everything. I am excited to play the game and be on the field with all my teammates. Being here for the last four years has been an unbelievable experience."
Howard is a force in the middle of McCallie's defensive line, which has helped the team average 6.4 tackles for loss per game this season.
Despite playing a position that usually does not generate tons of tackles, Howard's relentless motor mixed with his speed, strength and technique have helped him stand out.
Even while taking on triple teams at times the star defensive tackle leads the Blue Tornado in both solo tackles (28) and tackles for loss (12), plus five sacks, which is tied with Etienne Delisle and Thomas Pilon for team-high honors. Howard has done so while missing one full game and parts of another with a minor injury.
"James is really an unblockable sort of guy," said McCallie coach Ralph Potter, whose senior class is 40-7 in their tenure. "He can more than dominate his gap and has been such a game changer. With he and Aaron (Crowder) in the middle it takes a lot of teams right out of their game plan in terms of what they try to do because they assume they can't run it in there against them.
"James has come back after missing much of last season and picked up right where he left off."
Thursday’s BlueCross Bowl
Division II-AAA state championship
McCallie (12-0) vs. MBA (9-3), 7
Howard presents a concern for opposing backfields as well as offensive lines. Whether overpowering his foes with a straight bull rush or using a swim move or spin, his speed for his size is unique when combined with his strength — he can deadlift 650 pounds and back squat 550.
In his prep career — which only included 1 1/2 games before last year's ACL tear — he has over 20 quarterback sacks.
"The key is effort. Just pure effort and dedication," said Howard, who also dominates on the wrestling mats where he pinned his way to a heavyweight state title as a sophomore.
"My parents always told me I was destined for greatness," added Howard. "That I could do whatever I put my mind to. So I put my mind to it and have given this game all I've got. Aaron Donald is my size and is my biggest football inspiration. I want to take over a game like he can in the middle."
Before punishing opposing ball carriers, Howard was a star running back who set records in middle school at East Hamilton.
McCallie coaches quickly learned how difficult he was to stop.
"When he got here he played scout team nose guard and we had a really hard time blocking him," Potter said. "Every team has their hands full with him and has to dedicate a couple of people to blocking him. I think MBA probably remembers him. I hope he has another good game and closes out his career in a great way with his classmates."
As a sophomore Howard garnered a scholarship offer from Tennessee, but with a new staff taking over his recruitment is now up in the air. However, he is excited about the possibility of wrestling and playing football in college.
For now, he will look to be a thorn in MBA's side once again. Earlier this season, in McCallie's 34-31 win at MBA, Howard had a sack and two tackles for loss.
MBA junior quarterback Marcel Reed enters the game with 1,917 total yards and 24 touchdowns and is part of a rushing attack that averages 208 yards. Meanwhile McCallie has allowed just 48 yards rushing over their previous two Blue Cross Bowl championship wins, while pilling up 12 total sacks for minus-78 yards and intercepting six passes.
"I am ready to take on 2-3 blockers at a time," Howard said. "Especially since that can give other guys one-on-one matchups. We are confident we are going to get to the quarterback. I am confident MBA is going to feel the pressure."
Contact Patrick MacCoon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.