2016 Walker Valley Mustang Seniors - Bryce Nunnelly (23), Justin Rowland (8), Chris Ogle (56), Mason Oran (24), Alex King (33), Cody Morfield (49), Kristian Williams-Soto (11), Logan Manning (27), Nathan Zakkas (16), Jacob Smithson (55), Sam Gibson (19), Tucker Mendenhall (20), Robert Varner (88), Colten Westfield (26), Cooper Tentler (45), Grayson Roundtree (14), Zach Eslinger (15), Dylan Towers (9), Noah Davis (17), Skyler Swafford (40) and Cooper Melton (31). (Photo - Nikki Swafford)
If there ever was a year for Walker Valley to be excited, this is it.
The pieces of the puzzle have been sorted out and more than likely, a complete picture will come into view for the 2016 season.
The Mustangs had high hopes for the 2015 season, but ultimately found themselves going 2-4 in Region 4-5A play and finishing up with a 4-6 overall record.
This year with a talented, upperclassman-loaded team, Walker Valley certainly seems poised for success.
"We're very fortunate and have been building toward this year - we've got to make it happen," Walker Valley head coach Glen Ryan declared. "It's an exciting time at Walker Valley with football right now and that's a good thing. Hopefully we can give people lots to cheer about this year and reach our full potential."
The Mustangs have a total of 83 players in their program this year, which includes 21 seniors and 18 juniors.
"We've got a lot of experience coming back this year really for the first time on both sides. We have 21 seniors, which is the biggest senior class we've had since I've been here," Ryan stated. "Hopefully with this bunch being senior heavy, we'll have some good leadership."
Included in Walker Valley's long list of seniors is the talented receiving corps of Cooper Melton, Bryce Nunnelly, Zach Eslinger and Tucker Mendenhall.
"We've got a good core nucleus of receivers," Ryan said.
Melton burst onto the scene during his freshman season and has been a pivotal part of the Mustang's offense ever since. Now 6 foot 3, 195 pounds, the senior finds himself at the top of quite a few of the team's top 10 lists, with a total of 1,158 receiving yards and 85 receptions.
He also has the most career receiving touchdowns in school history, at 14. Eight of Melton's TDs came last year, which earned him the distinction of having the most receiving touchdowns in a season. Melton will once again play both sides of the ball and start at linebacker on "D".
Nunnelly (6-2, 185) who recently committed to UTC, is another Mustang receiver who has made his mark on the program.
The senior currently holds the record for most receiving yards in a season, after getting 607 yards during the 2015 season. He follows close behind Melton with a career total of 1,029 yards and 66 catches, and has eight receiving TDs.
When it comes to all-purpose yards, Nunnelly is currently fourth in Walker Valley's history with 2030. He will also start at linebacker again.
Eslinger (6-0, 160) has cracked the school's all-time leaderboard as well and is currently fifth in receiving yards with 525 and tied with former Mustang Gabe Cartwright for fourth in receptions. Eslinger will also play safety.
Mendenhall, who is the smallest of the receivers at 5-foot-8, 155 pounds, played a good bit last year and follows in ninth for yards with 273 on 25 receptions.
Walker Valley is feeling comfortable depth-wise at receiver, with a couple of guys ready and waiting in the wings.
"We've got a couple guys in there to be able to spell the Meltons, the Nunnellys and the Eslingers for a little bit. We've had a couple young kids come on. Zeke Westfield is a junior this year and did a great job on JV last year. He's got height, he can run, he can catch," the coach noted. "Dylan Towers is another who saw some playing time on offense, and did a great job on the JV team. He's another good wide receiver. He knows [the] routes and has good hands."
Walker Valley's receivers are well complemented by talented junior quarterback Kolten Gibson.
"Kolten Gibson broke all of our passing records and touchdown passing records last year as a sophomore," the coach stated.
During Gibson's stellar sophomore season, he completed 166 of 258 pass attempts for 2,112 yards and 18 touchdowns which earned him the distinction of having the most passing yards and passing touchdowns in a season.
Highlights from Gibson's sophomore season include the school's longest reception/pass to Nunnelly for 80 yards and having the most yards passing in a game with 304.
To date, Gibson has the most passing yards of any Walker Valley quarterback with 3,054 and has thrown for a total of 24 touchdowns.
The junior has also proven to be a valuable runner, and has 11 career rushing touchdowns.
"I expect that after this season, Kolten will probably have some serious looks coming his way-he's on track for that," Ryan commented.
Backing up Gibson is senior Noah Davis, who will be seeing a good deal of time playing on the other side of the ball.
"Noah is a great kid - a hard worker who never complains and does whatever you ask him to do. He's going to play some defense for us this year. He's that kind of kid that we want on the field," the coach added.
Adding to the Mustangs' talented offense is senior running back Alex King.
"We've got Alex King back at running back. He set some rushing records last year and is on the verge of breaking the all-time rushing record here," Ryan said.
King (5-10, 180) is currently 691 yards behind all-time rushing leader Kevin Wells Jr. with 2,089 yards. He is also second in rushing touchdowns with 27.
While his mainstay is running the ball, King has also found himself on the school's all-time leader board for receiving as well and is currently seventh in receiving yards with 499 and third in receptions with 48. He also has two receiving touchdowns.
When it comes to all-purpose yards, King is second in the Mustangs' history with 2,936 which is only 122 yards behind Wells Jr.
Senior Cody Morefield (5-9, 200) will share the load with King, as well as see time on defense.
"He's a big part of our offense and could possibly see a lot of playing time. He's had a really good spring and good fall camp so far at linebacker as well," Ryan said.
Walker Valley's offense is stacked top-to-bottom with the team having lost only starter on offensive line.
"We've got everyone back except for one," we lost our center Bryson Bradley, and he was a good one," the coach said. "Hunter Raines has been working at center, as well as Clint Davis. They are kind of battling it out. Right now we've got Hunter listed, but Clint is right on his heels."
Anchoring the offensive line will be returning players Chris Allen Ogle (6-0, 225), who is the lone senior, juniors Sam Clements (6-1, 240) and Koby Hooker (5-11, 240), as well as sophomore Spencer Wilson (5-8, 205).
"We feel good offensively about what we have, we just have to keep working," Ryan said. "We're getting good production offensively, we just have to keep that going."
The Mustangs averaged 35.7 points per game last season and outscored their opponents 357-308. Despite this, the team still missed out on a spot in the playoffs.
"We've got to shore up our defense, because we were very porous most of the year and it was just shootouts every week. We've got to be a lot more aggressive and do a better job on defense to get where we want to be," the coach declared.
In the 2015 season, Walker Valley saw their opponents score an average of 30.8 points per game, and Ryan has duly noted that the 'Stang defense must improve.
The Mustangs' worst defeat was by 27 to Coffee County. Their next biggest loss was an 18-point game against McMinn County and a 15-point game against Rhea County. Only a touchdown separated Walker Valley from wins against Bradley Central and Soddy-Daisy.
"We can't look past anybody and that's been our problem in the past, we've either looked back or looked ahead. We can't afford to do that if we're going to have the kind of year we want to have, " Ryan commented.
"We have to take it one game at a time and focus on that game, then we've got to put that game behind us and get ready for the next game."
"Last year, we lost a tough one against Bradley and kind of sulked around for a little while and it took us a couple weeks to get back on track," he concluded.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking game for the Mustangs was their final one, against eight-ranked Ooltewah. With a playoff spot on the line, Walker Valley came up one point shy in a 45-44 loss to the Owls.
Being another year older, stronger and wiser should pay dividends for Walker Valley this season.
"I think the big thing is for coaches, players, everybody, we realized that we didn't live up to our full potential last year," Ryan said. "It's a grind, you've got to have a goal that is consistently in mind. Where do you want to be when it's all said and done? We have to stay focused in and on the goals, opponents and work ethic and habits."
"Maturity has helped with that - maturity with the guys and the coaches. We've gone back and looked at things to figure out where we can do a better job too. We're always trying to make ourselves better, because it starts with us. I also think that the guys have matured a lot and realized that they can come from behind; the Ooltewah game was a sign of that. I think in that game we grew up a lot, even though we came up short, we grew up as a football team and saw what we could do if we just went out there, executed and played ball."
Senior Skyler Swafford (6-0, 194) returns as a starting linebacker for the Mustangs.
"He set a single game record and season record for tackles last year so that's a good guy to have back and build our defense around," Ryan said.
Swafford had 145 tackles in 2015, with 18 in one night setting the single game record. His career total of 155 ranks him fifth in the program's history.
"He's joined by some other good football players. You've got Mason Oran (5-10, 165) and Grayson Roundtree (5-10, 165) back at corner," the coach detailed. "At safety we are working a couple of different guys. We've got Christian Williams-Soto and Zach Eslinger working at safety. Our other linebackers are Alex King, who played a lot at line backer last year, also Justin Rowland (6-2, 185) is our other linebacker whose in there working."
When it comes to the defensive line, the Mustangs intend to rotate guys in and out.
"D-line is going to be by committee. Our hopes are to play a lot of guys up front on D-line to keep them fresh, because some of those guys have to play on the other side of the ball as well," Ryan explained. "Cody Duggan (6-1, 215), who is going to be at nose for us, and is one of the ones that we're counting on to hopefully be the center anchor for our defensive line. Cody started at linebacker for us last year. He's gotten stronger and put on a little bit more weight, so we've moved him down to anchor in our defensive front".
Junior Isiah Alston (6-0, 280) and sophomore James Johnson (5-10, 262) are stated to see time at defensive end.
Special teams are a work in progress, with the coach looking for improvements from last year.
"Special teams is an area that we're working hard on also, because we had some breakdowns in special teams last year, especially on kickoff returns," Ryan commented. "Our special teams are made up of guys that aren't starting somewhere, but are not far away....Hopefully this gives them a chance to show what they can do."
Returning is kicker Sam Gibson, a senior this year.
"He did a really good job for us last year, he was our field goal kicker and kickoff guy," the coach added.
The only change to the coaching staff is the addition of long time high school coach Jack Daniels.
The recently retired Daniels, who gave Ryan his first high school job at Soddy-Daisy, has quite q background that includes a champion Knox Halls team, Soddy-Daisy, Anderson County, Brentwood and starting the Ravenwood program.
"He talked to me a couple years ago and asked if I might have anything and I told him to let me know when he was getting ready to retire. It all worked out, he's going to be working with our quarterbacks. He's got a real good offensive mind and does a great job with quarterbacks everywhere he's been. I'm excited to have him on board to work with Kolten," Ryan explained.
Region 4-5A play looks to be very close this season, with Rhea County chosen as the team to beat by both the coaches and media.
The Mustangs host Rhea on Oct. 23 and will be looking to stall the Eagles Wing's T offense, which includes two returning 1,000 yard plus rushers.
Walker Valley's first region meeting comes on Sept. 2, at McMinn County. Going into their 16th season, the Mustangs are still looking for their first win over the Cherokees. At the region media day, McMinn coach Bo Cagle said his team has gone to the Wing T in order to best utilize available personnel.
The Mustangs host a wildcard Cleveland squad on Sept. 30 and then welcome Soddy-Daisy, whose 2015 winning season was its first since 2010, on Oct. 7.
Walker Valley heads to Sparta on Oct. 14. The Warriors are under the direction of new coach Jerry Lowery, who is hoping to help drive the team toward success in a mainly basketball-focused town.
The regular season closes out at home for Walker Valley with a visit from Ooltewah. At the region media day, the Owls and the Mustangs were virtually neck-and-neck in the polls with Ooltewah claiming the No. 2 spot in the coaches poll and the teams tying for second in the media poll. The Owls may have lost some talented players, but with a program of over 130, there are more than enough ready to step up and fill those roles.
Walker Valley's season opens up with cross-county rival Bradley Central, in a Thursday night game at Bear Stadium. The Mustangs got their first win over the Bears in 2014, and are looking to get their second this year after coming up a touchdown short in 2015. Hixson visits "The Corral" on Aug. 26 and then non-region play for the Mustangs continues at Coffee County on Sept. 9. Walker Valley faces its final non-region opponent on Sept. 23, when Tyner comes to town.
2016 Walker Valley Mustangs
Walker Valley junior QB Kolten Gibson (3) is primed and ready to lead the Mustangs on a stampede, but Henley Headrick (36) and the rest of the Bradley Central squad will be roaring and ready Thursday evening Bear Stadium. Kick off for the new TSSAA season is set for 7:30 p.m. (Banner Photo: Kevin Cannon)
2106 Walker Valley Mustang Coaches - Kneeling, from left, John Dixon, Harry Dillon, head coach Glen Ryan, and Eric Swafford. Standing, from left, Todd Burkhart, Scotty Smith, David Shonts, Joe Shamblin and Jack Daniels. (Photo Nikki Swafford)