After two years as the backup at Bradley Central, Tucker Pope will now wrangle the Walker Valley Herd heading into the new season. (Banner Photo: Richard Roberts)
It's not unusual for a high school athlete to transfer from one local school to another for a better playing opportunity, but Bradley County gridiron teams find themselves in a strange circumstance as the new season opens Friday.
For the first time ever, a "Quarterback Carousel" has all three local teams under the field direction of a new signal caller who once played for an in-county rival.
Javin Burke looked impressive directing the Bradley Central offense in last week's jamboree, after playing JV ball for McCallie last fall. He had seen limited time directing the Cleveland offense two years ago as a freshman.
When Burke came to Bradley in January the dominoes began to fall. Former Bear backup Tucker Pope, along with his brother and QB coach Tyler Pope, immediately headed to the north end of the county to join the Walker Valley herd. That prompted former Mustang JV wrangler Gage Kinsey to join the Blue Raiders this summer, where he has won the starting job.
"It's a unique situation. I've never heard of that happening before," remarked new Cleveland coach Marty Wheeler, who just move to town himself, from West Tennessee this past winter.
All three are juniors with Burke and Pope having minimal varsity experience under their belts, while Kinsey doesn't.
"He didn't play last year because of an injury and was strictly JV his freshman season," explained Coach Wheeler, who has a total of five new transfers on the Raider roster this season. "Although he's a junior, he's really just a sophomore, experience wise.
"The jamboree was his first varsity live action, in a game situation with referees and everything. He responded well, threw a touchdown pass and ran our offense well."
After a Red Bank interception in the end zone to thwart a scoring opportunity, the Raiders got another chance. Forcing a turnover at midfield with just under five minutes left, Kinsey led a quick three-play drive that ended with a 15-yard TD pass to standout wide receiver Robert Flowers.
“There are a lot of things we still have to work on, but I like the way we responded. We got the ball and drove back down the field and tied it up. That tells you a lot about the kids when they can respond that way,” stated the Cleveland coach.
"I feel like Gage has some savvy about him. He's more of a 'lead by example' type guy — he doesn't say a whole lot. Our guys respect him," Wheeler said. "I think he has the capability of being able to lead our offense the way we want him to."
"We been really pleased with his progress since he got here," assessed the veteran coach who led his Covington team to three state championship games in the last 10 seasons, including last year's against Alcoa.
"He wasn't here to go through spring (drills) with us, but he came in at the start of the summer and has gotten better each time out. The players and the coaches have responded well to him. He's picked up what is a new scheme and terminology to him," the Raider mentor said of the 5-foot-11, 165-pounder.
Wheeler and his new signal caller will be thrown right into the fire in Friday's season opener as the Raiders hit the road to defending Class 5A champion Knox Central.
New Bear gunslinger Burke, too, has caught on to his new team fast, throwing for 216 yards while completing 8-of-14 attempts, with a pair of TD tosses, plus he scampered in from 11 yards out for another score during two jamboree periods last Friday.
"He made good decisions. Even when he had to scramble, he was still looking downfield for receivers," commented veteran Bear head coach Damon Floyd.
On his first scoring strike, Burke scrambled around for several seconds before spotting highly-recruited junior Tray Curry about 50 yards downfield. He was able to get the ball to him while on the run. The No. 2-rated 2021 athlete in the state by 247sports.com was able to pull the ball away from a defender and stiff-arm him to the ground before completing the 80-yard dash to pay dirt.
Burke's second scoring bullet was also after a scramble, finding Kanon Hall in the back of the end zone from 13 yards out.
"His (Burke's) arm is so strong, he can throw it 60-70 yards, even after scrambling around," proclaimed Floyd of the 6-foot, 200-pound junior. "He's able to create and find receivers even after the routes have broken down. He's good about making something from nothing."
During his freshman season at Cleveland, Burke was forced into the lineup after several Raider signal callers went down with injuries that season. He responded by completing 10-of-16 passes for 123 yards, including a 33-yard TD toss to Darius Howard in a 45-7 win over William Blount.
“Our offense really sets up well for the quarterback to be a dual threat,” Floyd said. “As long as Javin makes the right decisions and trusts his teammates, he will be set up for success. He has the ability to make really athletic plays when he needs to. Our high expectations of our quarterback are not changing.”
Over the past four years, Bradley starting QBs have averaged 2,561 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions per season, while rushing an average of 104 times for 420 yards and 10 touchdowns. Dylan Standifer and Cole Copeland were both two-time All-State performers in those seasons.
Burke is set to lead the Black-and-Gold against perennial powerhouse Farragut in the season opener Friday at Bear Stadium.
New Mustang wrangler Pope served as Standifer's backup the last two seasons. Getting Friday night time for the Bears, he actually had a better completion rate than the all-stater two years ago, connecting on 7-of-8 passes as a freshman for 47 yards, including a four-year toss to Curry in the end zone.
Actually, Pope has found a receiver on all 12 of his varsity passes, but two of them had on the wrong color jersey. Ironically, one of his INTs, as well as his TD throw, came against the team he now leads. Pope was 3-for-4 for 16 yards last season.
“Offensively, I think we are going to be pretty talented throwing the football. Tucker Pope is just a really talented kid," proclaimed first-year head coach Drew Akins, who led very potent offenses at Red Bank and Ooltewah before taking over the Walker Valley program last winter.
"He's got a lot of arm talent. He understands football and he's a football player. It's fun to have that. I haven't had many of those through my career. He can put the ball in spots that not everybody can put it in.”
After a perfectly thrown over-the-shoulder strike for a 70-yard score to Brody Swafford in the first jamboree period last week, Pope fired two more TD tosses in a 14-0 win over McMinn County. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder connected with Daniel Denton for a 45-yard score and Noah Duprey on a 17-yarder.
Pope will lead the Herd to Knoxville Friday evening looking to snap a 13-game losing streak in the season-opener at Karns.
Ironcally, the lone Mustang victory in their last 21 games came against Akins' Red Bank squad on Oct 6, 2017.