If the Walker Valley Mustangs can pull off two wins in 2018, they will double the number of W’s produced in 2017.
But, with the loss of offensive stars Kolten Gibson and Zeke Westfield — who made up the lion’s share of the Mustangs’ offense — and a group consisting of mainly sophomores and juniors returning, it could be more difficult done than said.
Combine the youth factor with three road games to open the season — Chattanooga Central, Bradley Central and Rhea County — and head coach Glen Ryan and staff will see early how the young Herd will handle the new season.
“That’s the million dollar question. We lost a couple of really good players in Zeke and Kolten. We started a bunch of freshmen last year and ... they are still puppies. Hopefully they are a little bit better, but they are still puppies. Sophomores will make up the majority of our team, and that doesn’t bode well in our region,” said a candid Ryan of the 4-5A big-dog field that includes reigning state champion Knoxville Catholic, Rhea County, Lenoir City and Soddy-Daisy.
Of the half dozen seniors coming back this fall, only four see regular field time for the Mustangs. The graduation attrition will need to be filled quickly and the younger names on the roster will need to season fast if Walker Valley hopes to have a realistic shot at the postseason.
“Offensively, we’ve got some big shoes to fill. We’ve got to get better there. But, we should see improvements on defense. We are a little more settled there. We’ve still got some kinks to work out, but were in a little better shape on that side of the ball. Special teams is still a big question mark. Those are the two areas where we were not very good last year.”
“It’s going to come down to how quickly these guys can become seasoned,” he continued. “The positive thing about this group is they are a very good group of kids. We’ve weeded down and cut out the ones who didn’t want to be here, or couldn’t do the things we asked them to do. What we have is a good group. We don’t have a lot of them. We’ve only got about a few more than 50 kids that are sophomore and above. We have another 24 freshmen. We’ve got 70 kids on the roster, but for the guys on Friday night we are down to about 50. For 5A, that’s a small roster.”
Ryan is counting heavily on quality over quantity after culling the excess and is expecting this group of youngsters to mature quickly.
“What we’ve got we feel like are guys who are on their way to being pretty good football players,” said Ryan.
On the offensive side, the Mustangs are looking at a quarterback battle between Griffin Broome, Daniel Denton and Gage Kinsey.
“All three of those guys have shown some moments. We just need consistency. The problem is none of them have gone out and been consistent and taken the bull by the horns. We need one of them to step up. We’re not asking them to do the things we asked Kolten to do, obviously. They don’t need to go out and win games on their own. They just need to go out and be part of the process and the team. They need to do the things we need them to do, not put us in trouble. Move the football, and put points on the board.”
At running back, look for sophomore Heath Tanksley, the most consistent back for the Mustangs last season, to handle the load. “We’re expecting big things from him,” said Ryan.
Kallum Lowe, who saw action in 2017, will also see his share of time in the backfield group. Also look for Cleveland transfer Avery Gray to be a part of the rotation along with Skyy Craig.
Running pass patterns at wideout for the Mustangs will be junior Jack Anderson.
“We’ve been spoiled. We’ve had some good, tall receivers, guys who could run. Hopefully, Jack can step in and fill some of that void,” Ryan stated.
Sophomore Reid Gibson, who saw action as a freshman, will also be looking to hook up with whichever arm is throwing passes for the Mustangs. Eli Hancock — who is not the tallest of the group, but is possibly the fastest, according to Ryan — will also see action at the slot.
Ryan and staff have done a bit of moving bodies around when it comes to the offensive line. Clint Davis stepped down the line from tackle to the tight end/H-back spot. Davis has shed some pounds and trimmed up, but still has the size and hands to get the job done on the end of the line, as well as downfield.
The only familiar face the Mustangs will see on the offensive line will be Hayden Gibson. The rest of the line will be brand new. Only three bodies that saw playing time on the line last season will one back for the Mustangs this time around.
“Not some, but a bunch of them have got to come on for us,” admitted Ryan. “They’ve got to play like seasoned guys.
”When it comes time to go on defense, the Mustangs are in a bit better shape.
Chris Crenshaw returns to one of the defensive end spots while Christian Vandusen, who played tackle as a freshman and was a leading tackler, returns to the line. There will be new faces at the other tackle and defensive end position. Also returning to the lineup will be linebackers Spencer Wilson who has moved inside as a Mike (middle) linebacker. At the other linebacker positions, Dylan Jenkins and Kellar Carson will be backing up the defensive line. All three bring experience to the defensive unit.
Further back, Camerson Saunders has moved to one corner while Craig will defend the other corner. Kole Hall has moved from from outside linebacker to strong safety. At free safety, a pair of sophomores, Hayden Moore and Lane Miller, complete the secondary unit.
“There again, those freshmen who are sophomores now having to step in. We are young on defense. We’ve got three seniors, two juniors and the rest are sophomores. That’s young,” said Ryan. “It’s a matter of us continuing to get better every day. We can’t let a single day go by where we don’t improve. We can’t afford too many of those days. We can’t.”
The head Mustang understands that with young athletes, it’s hard to keep them on the straight and true path, but for the team to improve over a tough 2017, continued improvement is a must.
“Hopefully, the closeness of this group will help us through some early woes, playing as a team versus playing as individuals,” he said. They are working hard. They want to do well. They want to please. They want to do things. It’s just a matter of getting it down and it becoming second nature to them.
“We’re not super athletic. We can’t say we can go out and beat anybody at any given time. Offensively, we’ve got to be sound and play tough up front. We’ve got to protect our quarterback in the passing game and open up some holes for our running backs. Defensively we’ve got to swarm to the football. You can make up for a lot of mistakes if you can get hats to the ball. We’ve got to do that every single down.”
Ryan said the Mustangs will face more talented teams, and in order to overcome the difference they must do the little things right time after time. He is looking for athletes to step up and fi ll the gaps left by the Westfields and Gibsons, and make a name for themselves as the season rolls by.
“It’s their turn. That’s the way it should work. When you lose guys you should have guys step in and say, ‘It’s my turn.’ But, they’ve got to go do it. This bunch has shown that. They want to do well. They want to do things right.”
Ryan said the 2018 Mustangs have been a fun group to coach, but the season progression will determine the rise and fall of the fun factor.
“I feel like we definitely have improved in certain areas, and we still have a long way to go in others. It’s going to be an interesting year for the Mustangs,” he acknowledged. “We have to improve on 1-9. I feel like we can. It’s got to be a flip. We can’t win ballgames by going out and outscoring people. We have to win football games the way you are supposed to win football games. We have to play good defense and good special teams. Our offense has got to do enough. They just have to score one more point than our opponent. If we can do that [more often], we have a chance” for a decent season, he said.
“I feel like we can definitely improve on last year. How much we can improve I’m not really sure, it’s up to them. I feel like we can make a run and when the dust has settled, hopefully, if we do a good enough job we can be there vying for a playoff spot.”