Bradley County was home to two of the state’s most prolific passing attacks, in Walker Valley and Bradley Central. The combination of Kolten Gibson to Cooper Melton for WVHS proved difficult for opponents to defend against. (Contributed Photo: Nikki Swafford)
While football season may have ended in Bradley County, fans witnessed something truly special this season when it came to the passing attacks of Bradley Central and Walker Valley.
It was a star-studded performance that will not be soon forgotten.
Two quarterbacks with similar demeanors and skill sets struck fear into opposing defenses, as Cole Copeland and Kolten Gibson had their way the majority of the time and broke school records left and right.
For the 9-3 Bears, Copeland finished his prep career tossing for 2,541 yards and 23 passing touchdowns with just three interceptions while completing 169-of-242 passes for a .698 completion rate.
Gibson, a junior, completed 193-of-307 (.628) passes for 3,004 yards and 29 aerial TDs. He was intercepted five times for the 7-5 Mustangs.
“To have two quarterbacks of this caliber in the same area doesn’t happen very often,” Walker Valley head coach Glen Ryan said. “Anytime you have two good guys like that, they are competing against one another. They are great quarterbacks and this area has been very fortunate to have two great young men like that in the same town. Both of those guys have provided lots of excitement for football fans in Bradley County.”
Copeland’s accuracy is one of several weapons that set the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football commitment apart from others. Especially when considering only one other quarterback in the state (minimum 2,000 yards passing) has a higher completion percentage than him (Marshall County’s Bryce Wallace at 72.4, according to MaxPreps.com).
“It would be hard to say that Cole Copeland is not the best football player I have ever coached,” Bradley Central head coach Damon Floyd said of the two-time Mr. Football semifinalist, who also rushed for 12 touchdowns and 451 yards on 87 rushes this season. “That says a lot because I don’t usually compare kids and players from the past in public. When you are talking about size, skill and all the intangibles, Cole, if not the greatest quarterback to play at Bradley, he’s obviously one of the top two.
You also have Steve Sloan, who I didn’t get to see play, who played quarterback at Alabama. In the end, I think a lot of people that know Bradley football know Cole was one of the best to ever come through here, without a doubt. His legacy doesn’t get much better.”
Gibson is in unique company as well. According to MaxPreps.com, he is one of only four quarterbacks to have thrown for over 3,000 yards this season. He also rushed for 10 touchdowns and 487 yards on 100 carries.
Both gunslingers had another weapon in common: a go-to wide receiver who caught a baker’s dozen worth of touchdown passes.
Senior Cooper Melton’s impeccable timing with Gibson was on display throughout a season in which the Mustangs scored a school record 501 points (41.8 ppg). Especially when the 6-foot-3, 195-pound receiver torched and upset Oak Ridge for 151 receiving yards and a touchdown in a 35-27 first round Class 5A playoff victory.
“My favorite memory at Walker Valley was definitely beating Oak Ridge in the first round,” Melton said. “Nobody gave us a chance that game and all we heard about that week was about how good their receiver was. It was pretty nice to shock them on their home turf. Coach (Scotty) Smith, our defensive coordinator, won a state title at Oak Ridge when he was in high school and seeing how happy he was after we beat them was something I’ll never forget.”
Melton finished the season with 61 receptions for 1,123 yards and 13 touchdowns, which pushed his all-time school records to 2,281 yards and 27 receiving scores. He was also aided by the help of two other big-play senior receivers in UTC commitment Bryce Nunnelly (8 TD, 796 yards) and Zach Eslinger (7 TD, 627 yards).
“All the seniors and myself wanted to leave it all out on the field and put this program on the map,” said Melton, who is considering either walking on at the University of Tennessee or entertaining possible offers from UTC and Austin Peay. “Before we got to Walker Valley they had won eight games from 2009-12, and five of those came in Coach Ryan’s first year in 2012 when we were in eighth grade. It was a blast these past four years with all those guys, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I hope people can be proud of what we brought to this football program and the school as a whole.”
Then there was junior wide receiver Lameric Tucker of Bradley Central.
The 6-foot, 173-pound wideout not only set the new school single season record for receiving yards (1,456), catches (94) and touchdowns (13), but he still currently is atop the leaderboard in receptions across the entire state according to MaxPreps.com. In a first-round Class 6A playoff 29-25 victory over Cookeville he had his career-best performance with 15 catches for 242 yards and a pair of scores.
“My quarterback believed in me and my teammates believed in me this season,” Tucker said. “My confidence level definitely went up from last year. I just started to believe in myself more and I was able to make plays this year… I didn’t even have any idea that I had close to 1,500 yards. I was just aiming for 1,000 yards, but to do that was great.”
Even though the Bears have thrown the daylights out of the football for nearly a decade, Tucker’s record-breaking season was no surprise to his head coach.
“We’ve had a lot of good receivers here and obviously his year was exceptional in breaking those receiving records as a junior, but I think it’s a credit to him and Cole,” Floyd said.
“The biggest thing for Lameric was his confidence. He had the ability, but he really went in this year with the attitude he was going to catch everything that was thrown. Maybe there were one or two passes he didn’t catch this year that were thrown his way.
“It wasn’t shocking to us because we see him every day in workouts in the offseason and passing leagues. It’s kind of what we expect him to do,” Floyd said.
While sometimes people overlook the numbers, there might not ever be a same-season passing attack dual threat in the county as strong as that of Walker Valley and Bradley Central in 2016. It would be tough to break the double-digit school records set by the combinations of Copeland to Tucker and Gibson to Melton.