Rhea County will fly into “The Corral” Friday evening with its fourth head coach in as many years, but according to Walker Valley coach Glen Ryan this Golden Eagle team reminds him of the old boys from Evensville.
“They are playing old-fashioned, smash-mouth, Rhea County style football,” declared Ryan, who remembers the successful Eagle teams of the past from when he coached at Soddy-Daisy.
“They have a good offensive line that is opening holes and are very balanced in their running attack with their fullback, halfback and wingback,” the Mustang mentor remarked. “They don’t throw much, but when they do they’re pretty accurate.”
In fact Rhea County, which switched from District 5-AAA to 6-AAA this season, is off to a strong start behind a running attack that has gone for 697 yards and a dozen touchdowns in convincing victories over winless Coffee County 55-20, and handing White County (2-1) its first loss of the season by a 33-6 margin.
After going toe-to-toe with second-ranked and unbeaten East Hamilton last Friday, Walker Valley (2-1) won’t get a breather this week for its annual homecoming contest.
“There are no easy Ws on our schedule,” declared coach Ryan. “We will find out what we are made of this year, that’s for sure.
“Our guys realize we didn’t cash in on some opportunities against East Hamilton,” he added. “We got three early turnovers, but only got one score out of them. We made some costly penalties and had some blown coverages that gave up big plays late in the game. All these mistakes can be corrected.
“We have got to put last week behind us, get back to work and get ready for this week,” Ryan remarked. “This is not the Rhea team that only won three games the last two years. We’ve got to be on our toes and ready to play another hard, physical game.”
New coach Mark Pemberton returned to Rhea County after just one season as head coach at Brentwood, taking over when coach Ron Crawford accepted the Cleveland High job. He led the Bruins to an 11-2 record and the Class 6A quarterfinals last season.
He has held four positions since his 2008 Knox Catholic team went 15-0 and won the state championship.
The offensive coordinator for former Eagle head coach Jason Fitzgerald for two years, Pemberton has a career head coaching record of 163-69, plus won the 1976 state title as quarterback of Rockwood High School.
The potent Eagle offense has spread the ball evenly to a trio of main runners, all three of whom have scored three touchdowns in the first two games.
Speedster Demetrius Patterson, who had a 99-yard kickoff return for a score in last year’s battle with the Mustangs in Evensville, leads Rhea with 23 carries for 230 yards.
Jacob York and Joby Berry have 22 and 21 carries respectively for the Eagles, having gained 167 and 187 yards. Having completed 9-of-16 passes, quarterback Austin Dotson also ran for two scores last week, plus threw a TD pass.
The Rhea defense has limited its first two opponents to a combined 273 yards of offense and four scores, plus has four takeaways.
“This isn’t the Rhea team of the last two years,” proclaimed Ryan.
Walker Valley has been impressive to start the season as well, with victories over East Ridge (21-3) and Sequoyah (24-21) before putting up 35 points against the powerful East Hamilton squad last week.
The Mustangs have posted 732 offensive yards and 80 points, while the defense has 10 takeaways in just three outings.
Seniors Tanner Dillard and Chandler Hunt, plus junior Holt Spencer, have been the three main stallions carrying the ball for Ryan’s herd, with a combined 401 yards of total offense and five scores.
Junior signal caller Cory Cook has directed the Mustang gallop, completing 20-of-42 passes for 272 yards, three for touchdowns, and throwing just one interception.
Freshman Cooper Melton has been his main target with five catches for 94 yards, including a pair of spectacular TD snags. Senior Colton Morrow has 129 yards of total offense including three catches for 88 yards (29.3 average).
The Mustangs are a perfect 9-for-9 when getting into the Red Zone this season, scoring eight touchdowns and a field goal. “We have worked hard on our goal line offense,” expressed coach Ryan. “We don’t want to let opportunities slip away.”
Meanwhile the WV defense has limited opponents to just a 63 percent success rate in the Red Zone, allowing four TDs and a field goal in eight invasions.
Defensively for the Mustangs, junior Reed Jacobs leads the area in tackles with 28, including seven behind the line of scrimmage. Classmate Jake Johnson has 23 total hits, including a QB sacks and he has caused a fumble.
Junior Hunter Newport has a pair of tackles for loss in his 19 tackles, while Morrow has 18 hits and five takeaways — caused two fumbles, recovered two, plus returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown. Dillard has three tackles for loss and a fumble recovery in 17 total hits.
While Rhea County holds a 6-2 advantage in the overall series between the teams, the last four games have been split. Walker Valley had 385 rushing yards in last year’s 35-21 victory on the Eagles’ home turf, with Justin Ware gaining 176 yards on 23 carries.
After Walker Valley went up 21-0 in the third quarter, things got a little hairy in the final minute of the frame. Rhea got its first score with 21 ticks left on the clock, but Ware broke free on a 65-yard TD run 16 seconds later. Patterson then returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a score as the horn sounded.
“I expect Friday to be another whale of a game,” declared coach Ryan. “It will be another hard fought, physical game.”
Due to halftime homecoming festivities, kickoff for the contest has been moved up to 7 p.m.