Walker Valley standout Bryce Nunnelly is hopeful his senior football season can lay a playoff foundation for the future. Nunnelly will be an integral part of the Mustangs' level of success in 2016. (photo by Dennis Norwood)
The 2016 Walker Valley Mustangs are looking for notable on-field change.
Specifically, they're hoping to alter their winning habits.
After all, as Robert C. Gallagher once said, "Change is inevitable -- except from a vending machine."
The Mustangs, dating to the 2001 season, have enjoyed just two winning seasons: 2008 (6-5) and 2004 (7-4).
Walker Valley, in the same time frame, has appeared in seven first-round football playoff games, ranging from Class 3A to 5A, and lost all of them.
The program has a 47-101 record in the 15 years. Its last playoff appearance was in 2014 and powerhouse Maryville, the gold standard in Tennessee high school football, put a 48-0 whipping on coach Glen Ryan’s squad.
Walker Valley’s 2015 season was a roller coaster. The Mustangs dropped seven-point decisions to Bradley Central and Soddy-Daisy and a 45-44 heartbreaking, three-overtime setback against Ooltewah.
A win against the playoff-bound and three-time district/region champion Owls would have sent the Mustangs to the postseason, but they came up 1-yard short on a two-point conversion when Alex King was tackled by Jeremiah Jackson and Tyler Reid.
That’s where the much anticipated change comes into play.
“This year I want more wins for our team,” Mustangs standout wide receiver/linebacker Bryce Nunnelly said. “I’d like to get to the playoffs and make a run for it (state title). Individually, I want to increase my numbers and that’s always a goal. But I’ll do whatever the coaches want from me so win can win more ballgames.”
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Nunnelly, who also excels at basketball and decathlon, is about to embark on his final year as part of Walker Valley athletics. As a junior, Nunnelly caught 34 passes for 607 yards and six touchdowns and returned one kickoff for a score.
He averaged 10 points in basketball and helped the Mustangs to the Class 3A quarterfinals and finished seventh in the state decathlon in the spring to earn all-state honors.
Prior to his senior year Nunnelly decided to extend his athletic career at UT-Chattanooga. His chosen sport: football.
“I had my best seasons so far in football and basketball my junior year, but colleges were just looking at me for football,” he said. “There was not much interest in basketball, at least from schools where I might have been interested in playing. I figured out that football was the way to go.”
Nunnelly was in Chattanooga on Saturday when the Mustangs played Red Bank in a high school football jamboree at Finley Stadium. Despite being dressed for action, Nunnelly did not play in the 30-minute quarter. In fact, none of the starters played.
What’s up with that?
Well, it’s like this. Walker Valley plays bitter rival Bradley Central on Thursday in the season-opening game for both schools.
“I was looking forward to the jamboree just because it means we’re just five days away from our season opener,” Nunnelly said. “We’ve been working hard for that game. The whole town’s going to be there and probably people from other schools. It’s going to be packed (at Bradley Central’s Bear Stadium). Emotions are going to be high and it should be a lot of fun.”
Nunnelly, who also had football scholarship offers from Tennessee Tech and Charleston Southern, plus varying degrees of interest from Mercer, Eastern Kentucky, Samford, East Tennessee State, Navy and Army, has come a long way from a jittery freshman to seasoned senior.
But Walker Valley coaches knew the youngster had talent.
“As a freshman I was nervous about high school,” Nunnelly said. “The coaches did a good job developing all three freshmen and helping us grow into what we are today. I feel a lot more comfortable about playing whoever and I’m not nervous about anything anymore.”
Nunnelly was a starting cornerback his initial season with the varsity football team, but was given the option to stay with the varsity or go play with the freshmen.
Nunnelly, plus a few more in his class, chose the rookie squad.
“I played freshman ball as a cornerback when we went up to Maryville,” he said. “We went up to Maryville and beat them and I played one or two more games with the freshmen, but I only played one or two more games with them. My sophomore year I started on offense and defense my sophomore year and every year since.”
Nunnelly was a raw talent that first year. Naturally, he is more polished now, whether playing receiver or outside linebacker.
“I didn’t know anything my freshman year,” he said. “I just got the ball and ran to the outside. I’m definitely better now reading the defense right when I get to the line of scrimmage. Football is a complicated game and there are a lot of X’s and O’s. I’m better at knowing which routes to run and which routes I need turn and how to change a route when running it.”
Junior quarterback Kolten Gibson has helped Nunnelly rise to a starring role, especially on offense.
In the titanic tussle with the Owls, Gibson completed 32-of-44 passes for 319 yards, rushed for 109 – both team-high totals – of the team’s 190 ground yards. He accounted for five touchdowns, three rushing.
Nunnelly caught eight passes for 67 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown, and rushed for 31 yards on five carries.
The tough loss still haunts Gibson.
“One more yard,” he said. “I think about that a lot. Ooltewah’s defense was tough and we put up 44 points against them, so I’d say that was our best game offensively last year.”
The Mustangs rolled up 509 yards on 84 plays, or 6.1 yards per snap.
Like Nunnelly, Gibson is hopeful of a more successful season this time around.
“I plan on doing the same things I did last year, only better,” he said. I’m hoping we can go further than last year, which was disappointing.”
Gibson stopped short of defining Nunnelly as his lone go-to receiver on the offensive unit, citing equal confidence in Cooper Melton, Zach Eslinger and a “couple others.”
“Bryce is sure one of them because he’s so talented,” Gibson said. “He’s a great athlete.”
Nunnelly definitely wants to enjoy his senior season and went a long way toward making that possible with his early college choice.
“(Recruiting) is kind of stressful because I like to please everybody and don’t want to make anybody mad,” he said. “It was hard telling a coach no or telling them I had committed. But I couldn’t worry about the coaches. I have to worry about myself at the end of the day.
“I talked to my family and friends, my coaches and prayed about it a lot. Everything felt right.”
Nunnelly aspires to enjoy that same bliss at the conclusion of his final football season at Walker Valley.
(Reach Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)