For the 2014 season, Walker Valley’s football program has a total of 85 players.
“We’ve continued to keep growing, and that’s a good thing. It’s a progression and we’re at that third level of progression right now, which means that we ought to be better than we were two years ago,” Ryan commented. “We’re not as young, but still a pretty young football team. This is a real fun bunch — they come to work with a great attitude every day. They want to get better and do the things that they have to do to improve. Their excitement gets contagious and it’s brought a whole different atmosphere to this football team.”
The Mustangs are comprised of 19 seniors, 11 juniors, 30 sophomores and 25 freshmen.
“A big chunk of our seniors are at linebacker and then our offensive line has three seniors on it. Our starting linebacker core is pretty much all seniors. We’ve got a strong safety who is a senior and one corner [and] a starting nose guard” who are also seniors, Ryan stated. “We want them to be a tight-knit bunch, and this group has done a good job of that as far as coming together and pulling for each other. The older guys are reaching out and taking the younger ones under their wings better, so that’s a good thing. Eight of our seniors are starters, so there are still 14 other positions with young guys in them.”
While still technically a “young” team, it is important to note that many of those juniors and sophomores wound up with their fair share of playing time in the 2013 season, due to the numerous injuries that plagued the northern county team.
“They got thrown to the wolves last year,” Coach Ryan stated. “Last year we had some good moments, but we also had some letdown moments. Some of that was from injuries and some were because we just didn’t finish. This year, we’ve got to come out and do a better job of finishing. Even though we’re still young, those guys still got game experience under their belts last year. They’re a year old and wiser and aren’t brand new anymore, so we’re hoping that experience pays off.”
Truly, the fledgling team was thrown to the wolves in 2013.
The Mustangs were 4-6 overall last year, with a District 5-AAA record of 1-5. Adding insult to injury, the young team was outscored by its opponents 318-187.
Walker Valley topped East Ridge 21-3 and Sequoyah 24-21, handed Rhea County a 24-17 loss, which was the Golden Eagles’ only loss in the regular season and stole an overtime win from district opponent Soddy-Daisy following a five game losing streak.
This year, “the Stable” hopes to turn things around as their more seasoned team takes on some familiar foes.
“I’m hoping for this year, and I feel like we have a legitimate shot at it, to get a six-plus win season. We would like to have a winning season and make the playoffs — that’s our goal,” Ryan proclaimed. “Every Friday night is exciting to me, and when it quits being exciting then it’s time to get out. I’m excited about East Ridge and once that game’s over I’ll be excited about the next one that rolls in.”
Walker Valley hosts East Ridge for its season opener this Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Following the season opener, the Mustangs will hit the trails for three consecutive weeks of away games at Sequoyah, East Hamilton and Rhea County.
Those latter two games are highly anticipated, as Coach Ryan feels the Mustangs played their best games against the Hurricanes and Eagles last season.
“I feel that at the start of the season, when we were healthy, we played a really good East Hamilton team and gave them all they wanted. ... We probably had our best game,” Ryan declared. “We played a really good Rhea County team and beat them. Those two games were probably our highlights. Both of those teams went deep in the playoffs, so that shows that we were right there.”
Knowing that Rhea has many players returning from last year, Coach Ryan expects them to be the most challenging non-district game in the 2014 season.
On Sept. 19, the Mustangs return to “The Corral” and host county rival Bradley Central.
Polk County’s Big Red Train rolls into Charleston the following week, but without stud Zach Miller powering the team up and down the field, the Wildcats appear to be a “wild” card this year.
In October, the Mustangs will take on Ooltewah and Cleveland back-to-back District 5-AAA battles.
Walker Valley hosts Ooltewah on Oct. 10 and then travels to Benny Monroe Stadium on Oct. 17.
The Owls and Raiders were selected by the District 5-AAA coaches as the No. 1 and 2 teams in the preseason poll, while the teams flipped places in the media poll.
“I personally think that you’ve got to look at Ooltewah and Cleveland as being the two front runners this year. Both of them have a lot of talent, are very well coached and they’ve both been very successful. They’ve got that ‘it’ right now and understand what it takes to get where they’ve been, and have the talent to do it,” Ryan stated.
The Mustangs’ regular season winds down against two final district opponents as they travel to McMinn County on Oct. 24 and host Soddy-Daisy Oct. 31.
A familiar struggle the Navy-and-Gold will once again face this season is the issue of depth.
“We do not have a lot of depth up front on both sides of the ball. We’ve got to stay healthy and in the meantime have to keep working and trying to get some young guys to step in and give us some quality reps on Friday night to back us up. The most difficult part is being able to get those guys to come on in a hurry [and perform steadily], which is tough with freshmen,” Ryan explained. “Very seldom are you going to make it through a whole season without someone getting banged up. You just hope you’ve got some depth in that spot that can give you quality so there’s not a dropoff.
“I think last year we learned that just because you’re not starting, you’re only one play away from having to go in. It’s a 10-game season and a lot of things can happen between Week 1 and Week 10. We want our guys to work at constantly to get better to get out there and help us on that field. The more of them that can play on Friday night, the better off we will be with keeping guys rested.”
In 2013 the Mustangs found their offense depleted, with their Colton Morrow and Tanner Dillard being their only two returning starters.
This year, Walker Valley is sitting a bit more comfortably when it comes to their offensive players.
The team has transitioned from Wing T to what Coach Ryan described as a “spread-type scheme” on offense.
“The kids are having a lot of fun with it. We felt that with the athletes we have, that we had to find an offense that can get as many of them on the field as we can,” Ryan said.
When it comes to quarterback, the Mustangs have two potential leaders.
“Josh Jones and Kolten Gibson are our top two quarterbacks right now. Josh is a junior and Kolten is a freshman,” Ryan commented. “We’ve got some real high expectations for Kolten.”
In limited outings last season, Jones completed nine of his 20 attempted passes for a total of 186 yards and two touchdowns.
Sophomores Cooper Melton and Zack Eslinger hope to show out at wide receiver, with fellow classmate Bryce Nunnelly as the slot receiver.
In 12 receptions last year, Melton had a total of 212 yards and three touchdowns.
Junior Avery Jones and sophomores Alex King and Donnell Armour all had a good spring and summer according to Coach Ryan, and will all see their fair share of time on the field as running backs.
King had a total of 262 yards in 64 attempts and one touchdown, while Jones rushed 90 yards in 10 attempts.
“Cooper, Bryce, Alex and Avery are our go-to guys. We’ve got some other guys that have come on that we feel can be some go-to guys as well. (Zach) Eslinger has done a really good job for us and then Mason Oran, who was hurt most of last year, is back and healthy this year and is going to be an athletic guy who we can turn to. Tucker Mendenhall has had a really good summer also,” Ryan commented.
Sophomore Hayden Spencer, who has lined up under center at quarterback this summer, will also have potential as a running back.
“Hayden Spencer has done some good things this spring (at quarterback), but he’s just a little short, so we’ve moved him to running back. He’s a competitor who does some good stuff for us.”
Junior Bryson Bradley looks to hold things down at center, with seniors Ian Stanberry and Marvin Bullington at guard.
Senior Sadler Bartula and sophomore Chris Allen Ogle are slated to start at tackle.
“I think our offensive linemen Marvin Bullington, Ian Stanberry and Sadler Bartula give us some good leadership there up front,” Ryan stated.
According to the coach, freshman Hunter Rains has been getting some looks on the offensive line as well.
The Mustangs’ offensive players are extremely varied when it comes to sizes this season.
“We’re not huge by any means. I think we’re bigger than we have been in the past in certain areas, but all three of our running backs, you look out there and think you’ve seen the Munchkins from ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ They’re all five-foot nothing and built about the same, but they can all run,” Ryan asserted. “Our offensive line has two big guys, Ian Stanberry and Marvin Bullington. Both of them are 6-foot-3 and 260-270 pounds. Then you’ve got Sadler Bartula, who’s only about 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9 and probably about 195-200 pounds. While he’s not that big, he’s meaner than a striped snake and gets the job done for us. Bryson Bradley isn’t a real big guy but does some good stuff for us at center. Chris Allen Ogle, at our other tackle, is just a sophomore but is going to have some good size to him before its all over with.”
Walker Valley will be running a 3-4 defense this season with some newer faces filling the spots left open by Dillard, Morrow, and Chandler Hunt.
The linebacker core is made up by seniors Hunter Newport and Jake Johnson at inside linebacker, and senior Reed Jacobs as the strongside/outside linebacker.
“Hunter, Jake and Reed will provide some good leadership on defense,” Ryan stated.
Dallas Kuykendall, another senior, is slated as the weakside/outside linebacker.
Last season, Newport led the Mustangs with 14 solo tackles and was in on 81 assisted. He had five tackles for loss and one sack.
Johnson, who was sidelined by a concussion, had 16 solo tackles, 35 assisted tackles, two tackles for loss and one quarterback sack.
Jacobs had 10 solo tackles and was in on 34 assisted tackles. Jacobs had eight tackles for loss and a quarterback sack of his own.
Senior Brett Geren will be at noseguard, while senior Brendan Gilbert and junior Jaylon Martin look to hold down the defensive end positions.
Nunnelly and Melton will work as cornerbacks on the other side of the ball, while senior Holt Spencer and sophomore Grayson Rountree are slated for spots at strong safety and free safety respectively.
Freshman Tyler Sherk has been reportedly working with the defensive line as well.
Melton had 16 solo tackles, 34 assisted, three tackles for loss and forced three turnovers, while Nunnelly had 10 solo tackles, 30 assisted tackles and forced five turnovers.
Senior kicker Kevin Sabany returns to the field this year after being the second highest scorer for the Mustangs last season.
Sabany racked up a total of 27 points off of two field goals and 21 successful extra point attempts and is poised to once again be a reliable weapon for Walker Valley.
Senior David Thompson will be the Mustang punter this year as well.
“Both of those guys did those job last year and I feel like they’ve improved. I believe special teams will be solid for us again,” Coach Ryan declared. “Our special teams have been one of our strengths over the past couple years. We work hard on it and take a lot of pride in it — it’s a third of the ball game.”
Walker Valley’s coaching staff has a new face in the mix and saw some shuffling around during the off season.
“I think we’ve got everyone in the right place now as far as the coaches go. Everybody understands their job better and they have done a great job,” Ryan commented. “I feel like this year our staff has worked more cohesively together because we’ve gotten to the point where they understand what I expect, and I [know] where their strengths and weaknesses are.”
Kyle Sanders joins the staff as the team’s new defensive line coach. Sanders played football at LaGrange College with Coach Ryan’s son Craig, who is the Mustangs’ current linebacker coach.
Scotty Smith is the defensive coordinator and also works with Eric Swafford as secondary coach.
Todd Burkhart was named the offensive coordinator over the winter and is also the offensive line coach.
According to Coach Ryan, Coach Burkhart has done a good job of getting the new offense in place for this season.
Ken Johnson will be the quarterbacks coach, Joe Shamblin is the running backs coach and Harry Dillon is the wide receivers coach.
“We’re still working on bringing that championship mentality to this football program. Each year we’ve progressed and this year we feel that with it being our third season together as a staff that our guys should be even further along. Each year you try to learn from the things that you did well and the things that you didn’t do well,” Ryan stated.
“We’re excited about the possibilities here, and want to bring some excitement to this end of the county for football. We had a plan coming in, and we’re on track with where we wanted to be in this third year. Hopefully, we’ll keep heading in that direction.”
Walker Valley Mustangs
2014 Football Schedule
Date Opponent Time
Aug. 22 East Ridge 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 29 at Sequoyah 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 5 at East Hamilton* 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 12 at Rhea County 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 Bradley Central* 7:30 p.m.
Sep. 26 Polk County 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 Bye
Oct. 10 Ooltewah* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 17 at Cleveland* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 at McMinn County* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 31 Soddy-Daisy* 7:30 p.m.
*District 5-AAA opponent
4-6 overall, 1-5 District 5-AAA
Date Opponent Results
Aug. 23 at East Ridge 21-3
Aug. 30 Sequoyah 24-21
Sept. 6 East Hamilton* 35-56
Sept. 13 Rhea County 24-17
Sept. 20 at Bradley Central* 14-38
Sep. 27 at Polk County 7-33
Oct. 11 at Ooltewah* 14-42
Oct. 18 Cleveland* 14-48
Oct. 25 McMinn County* 0-32
Nov. 1 at Soddy-Daisy* 34-28
*District 5-AAA opponent