When Walker Valley hired Drew Akins as its football coach in December 2018, the Bradley County high school did so with high hopes the young and energetic offensive mastermind could spark a change for a program coming off a 1-19 stretch over its previous two seasons.
Akins' debut year finished with a 4-7 record and a return to the postseason, and now the red-hot Mustangs (8-2) are on the brink of another benchmark as they travel to Knoxville West (10-1) for the second round of the TSSAA Class 5A playoffs Friday night.
"We are a lot more confident, prepared, stronger and faster than we have ever been," senior defensive back Lane Miller said. "We don't go out there worrying about making mistakes, because we are one of the hardest-working teams in the state and best-coached teams, too. All we worry about when we take the field is flying to the ball and trying to make the breaks go our way."
Reflecting on Akins' tenure versus the first two years of his Mustangs career, Miller said "the atmosphere is completely different" now, which he considers "a tribute to our great coaches."
This year Walker Valley has set records for wins, points allowed per game (13) and shutout wins (three), and last week's 21-16 triumph against Knoxville Powell was the first postseason home win in program history, with the Mustangs capitalizing in just their second such opportunity.
Kallum Lowe started at middle linebacker three years ago, when Walker Valley allowed 50.1 points per game. Now he leads a fierce defense that has forced 13 turnovers over the past three games.
"Our guys circle around Kallum. We have a hashtag for our defense called #DogTagDefense," said defensive coordinator Taylor Harvey, whose group must try to quiet the run-heavy Rebels, who won 65-20 against Lenoir City in the first round. "Kallum always comes out with a chain on every week. He is always vocal and makes sure our energy is where it needs to be. He kind of creates that standard, and our kids fall in line with that every day.
"When they get flying around together, it's fun to watch."
In the Mustangs' past six on-field victories — not counting two forfeit victories due to COVID-19 — they've held opponents to an average of eight points per game.
On Oct. 12, the Mustangs forced four turnovers in a 40-12 win at East Hamilton. Against Powell, they intercepted state Mr. Football semifinalist Jordyn Potts four times. Miller had three takeaways last week, while Reid Gibson had an interception and Jadon Langford recovered a fumble.
Miller and junior Spencer Jackson have made quite the defensive backfield tandem with a combined 11 interceptions. The 6-foot-3 Miller has six picks in his past three games and 14 pass deflections this season.
After heartbreaking losses early in the season to Bradley Central and Rhea County, games in which Walker Valley held comfortable leads, a season-changing decision was made.
"After those losses, our coaches were like, 'Either you buy in, or you have to go,'" said Jackson, who has 600 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns this season. "That was a wakeup call for all of us, and everyone got on the same page and bought in. After that we have been extremely motivated and playing with a lot of confidence. Everyone has done their job and needs to continue to do so."
Langford has been tough on the defensive line — Class AAA's state runner-up at heavyweight the past two wrestling seasons, he has been called an "unsung hero" by Jackson — and the speedy and sure-tackling trio of sophomore Eli Denton (78 tackles, 13 for loss), junior Kyler Tjaarda (67, 10) and senior Dyllan Jenkins (75, six) has also made a splash.
On the other side of the ball, the Mustangs have proven hard to stop, with big statistical contributions coming from seniors Tucker Pope (32 touchdowns, 2,067 total yards), Brody Swafford (831 receiving yards, 480 return yards, 14 touchdowns) and Heath Tanksley, who has rushed for 490 yards over his past four games.
And as the Mustangs try to stick around longer than ever in the postseason, it's clear they're not ready to turn their gear in. Their coach sees no reason why that can't be put off a while.
"When things get hard, you are going to have a choice," Akins said. "You can either lay down or run away, or you can stand up and fight. Our kids have really gone from one end of the spectrum to the other. Over the last 18 to 20 months, they have really shown that they are going to fight through adversity and bring relentless effort and pride. They have done everything we have asked of them. They have the ability to be the best team in the state."