2017-2018 Walker Valley Mustangs Seniors
Simply put, a lot of question marks surround the Walker Valley Mustangs' upcoming football season after their historic 2016 campaign.
The 'Stangs will be very inexperienced, as only four starters on offense and defense return, while 82 percent of their scores on the ground or from wide receivers will have to be replaced.
All hope is not lost, however, as several stars, breakout candidates and intriguing newcomers look to make for the first back-to-back trips to the state tournament since making the postseason in the program's first four seasons (2001-2004).
"We feel like we can be competitive," sixth year Walker Valley head coach Glen Ryan said. "Our goal is to make the playoffs. Our guys have tasted what it's like to have a winning season now. Hopefully we can build on that, even though we have a lot of youth on this football team."
After a 7-5 season, which could have easily been 9-3 if not for close losses to Rhea County (one point) and McMinn County (three points), the competition with be tough yet again.
Region 4-5A contests will come against Rhea County (home, Sept.1), Lenoir City (away, Sept. 29), Knox Catholic (home, Oct. 13) and Soddy Daisy (away, Oct. 27).
The non-region schedule is no breeze either. The Mustangs will open with Chattanooga Central at UTC's Finley Stadium Thursday night, while they will have their home opener the following Friday against Bradley Central.
WV will also go on a four-game road trip (Sept. 8-Oct. 6) that includes Stone Memorial, Cleveland, Lenoir City and Red Bank. Senior Night will come against McMinn County (Oct. 20).
"Our non-region games are no joke," said Ryan, who is 75-75 all-time in his coaching career. "We have to face a ranked team in Red Bank, and in Stone Memorial, which was undefeated in regular season last year. Cleveland and Bradley are loaded, too. There are no weak sisters on our schedule."
Walker Valley lost 21 seniors, while the varsity will be comprised of 19 seniors, 11 juniors and 21 sophomores and eight freshman this season.
While a retooling season is ahead, the leader of the state's eighth highest scoring team returns in Kolten Gibson (6-2, 175).
The Mustangs averaged 41.8 points per game (501 points) and shocked Oak Ridge in the playoff for the school's first postseason victory.
"With a team that lost a lot of its skill guys, it's great to have Kolten back," Ryan said. "He can keep his ground on the offensive side of the ball and we are excited about some of his new weapons."
The rare fourth-year starter needs 33 touchdowns to surpass a Southeast Tennessee record of 106 touchdowns, which was accomplished by Bradley Central's Cole Copeland in 32 starts.
Last season in 11 starts Gibson completed 193-of-307 passing attempts for 3,004 yards (4.9 ypc) and a career best 10 scores.
With the help of returning starter and 6-foot-5, 190-pound wide out Zeke Westfield, Gibson has the odds in his favor if both can stay on the field this season together.
"Zeke is a senior, so he needs a breakout season," said Ryan about Westfield, who caught six touchdowns in one spring scrimmage and another 17 over eight 7-on-7 scrimmages one weekend.
"He has all the tools is going to be a good one. Zeke has great speed, he can jump higher than anyone and he runs good routes. We just have to have the others come along and help him."
Westfield (18 rec, 247 yds, 2 TD, 2016) is expected to draw a lot of attention from opposing defenses, while Walker Valley will also look to five others in a heavy passing game.
Fellow basketball players in junior Luke Wallace and senior Brock Gibson will see their share of targets, as both 6-foot-2 receivers will be an easy spot for Gibson.
A huge weapon in the form of 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior H-back (fullback/tight end) Sam Clements has caught eyes and has had coaches raving in camp.
Clements, also a baseball player, could offer valuable services over the middle off the field as a security blanket for Gibson if the pass rush is dialed up.
Senior Caleb Grannan also will help with the passing attack after showing, strong route running and hands in camp. Track athlete Jack Anderson also has joined the receiving corps and offers plenty of speed.
Departed wide receivers Bryce Nunnelly (UTC), Cooper Melton (Tennessee), and Zach Eslinger combined for 2,544 of Gibson's 3,004 yards and scored 26 of his 29 touchdowns.
Not only did the Mustangs lose the program's all-time leading receiver in Melton (27 touchdowns, 2,281 receiving yards), they'll also will have to deal with the graduation of record holding running back Alex King (3,852 all-purpose yards, 45 touchdowns).
Sophomore running back Kole Hall will have big shoes to fill, but has impressed with his hard-nosed style. Junior Dylan Allender will also challenge for carries.
The pair will look to run free behind big blocks up front by senior Hunter Raines (center) and junior Clint Davis, who both started last season. Senior Ethan Farster looks to have locked up a starting spot, while battles are still open between junior Bryan Grisham (6-0, 230), sophomore Hayden Gibson (5-10, 265) and freshman Christian Van Dusen.
The offensive line hopes to be strong again after only allowing 10 sacks last season and helping the offense total north of 400 yards per game.
While talent at the most important position abounds for WV's offense, first-year offensive coordinator Dave Shonts will look for several newcomers to help move the chains all season.
All four returners on this side of the ball will be on the front line in seniors Cody Duggan (6-0, 210), Isaiah Alston (6-2, 280), Koby Hooker (5-11, 280) and junior Chris Crenshaw (6-2, 200).
Duggan and Alston combined for 24 tackles for loss last season and 10 sacks. Crenshaw had 24 tackles and a sack in 2016. Duggan leads all returners with 50 solo tackles last season.
The D-line will have to wreak havoc in the backfield and force their will upon opponents to help out the seven first time defensive starters behind them.
Youth abounds at linebacker as freshman Kallum Lowe is expected to start at middle linebacker. Heath Tanksley also is expected to see a lot of time in the 4-3 scheme.
After totaling 310 tackles and 38 tackles for loss, Skyler Swafford will offer whatever advice and technique to the youngsters he can as a volunteer coach.
The key for Scotty Smith's defense will be finding ways to stop the run, after last season saw the Mustangs allow a whopping 227 ypg on the ground, compared to just 96 yards through the air.
Competing for the other outside linebacker spot will be Cooper Rountree (5-11, 190), Ashton Hill (6-0, 170), Kellar Carson and Cameron Saunders, in a battle that may not be decided until the season opener.
Senior Nolan Cawood (5-9, 130) is to be called upon as the Mustangs' top corner, while sophomore Eli Hancock is the frontrunner at the second position.
Going two ways will be Westfield and Brock Gibson, who will start a strong and free safety.
The secondary will be tested quite frequently this season, so WV will need its ballhawks to be ready to anticipate routes for crucial turnovers whenever they can.
"Our defense is something that we have put a lot of emphasis on this preseason," Ryan said. "We had a great offense last season, but our defense has been very porous at times. Our focus has been trying to get better to where we are more physical and attack better.
"We are going to be very young on defense, but we hope these young puppies can step up and play like veterans. We have to play sound defense to keep getting better."
Any extra pressure on his team is something Ryan is trying to stay away from as the season nears liftoff.
"We are too inexperienced to put any type of numbers on them on both sides," he said. "We don't want the offense to be worried about having to put up so many points. Our defense just has to hold them to one less than us."
While not set on a starter yet on the return team, Westfield is more than likely to return kickoffs and punts for the Mustangs.
Westfield is one of the state's fastest-track athletes as he finished third in the Class AAA state championship 110-meter hurdles race this past May. He also can high-jump 6-feet with a straight-up standing scissor jump.
Sophomore Charlie Swafford looks to handle extra point opportunities and field goals.