After one of the most successful runs in school history, the Walton Raiders are returning experienced players, including their star quarterback, with hopes of putting together another equally successful season in 2018.
In Daniel Brunner’s first season at the helm of the Raiders, Walton closed out the Corky Kell Classic at Georgia State Stadium when B.J. Gibson blocked a last-second field-goal attempt to protect a 31-28 lead and take the victory over eventual Class AAAAAAA champion North Gwinnett.
The run continued, and nine wins later, Walton was 10-0 and eyeing a deep playoff run. It was a vast improvement over 2016’s 4-6 record. Following a first-round playoff victory over North Cobb last season, Walton faced powerhouse Colquitt County at home. After losing a tough game 28-21, the Raiders began preparation for the next season.
Much of that offseason preparation was organized by star quarterback Austin Kirksey.
“He’s a football junkie, man,” Brunner said of his experienced quarterback. “Some of the things that he does that kind of go unnoticed is that he gets all the receivers together and they go throw on the weekends and after school in the offseason. He gets them organized and he realizes how important his position is, and getting all those other guys to his level is huge this offseason.”
Kirksey’s experience will make it easier for the Raiders offense to train younger guys to fill the core of the team. For Walton, its perimeter is solid, but the lines of scrimmage have several holes that need to be filled. Brunner feels that with an experienced leader like Kirksey, it will be much easier.
“He does a great job with that,” he said. “He does a great job mentoring the young quarterbacks and just his vast experience in what he brings to us and the intangible pieces, leadership, or things like giving him player of the week and he turns it down for an offensive lineman. That builds a lot of trust in those relationships with those offensive linemen. That’s critical for us having success this year for sure.”
Kirksey’s main target is UGA commit Dominick Blaylock, who’s rated as a 5-star recruit and the second-best receiver in the 2019 class by 247Sports. The 6-foot, 175-pound Athens-bound senior had 53 receptions for 911 yards last year. He’s considered an athlete who can do a lot with the ball, and he even plays both ways.
Kendall Alford, who caught 35 passes for 600 yards last year, is another option through the air. Running back D.J. Soyoye rushed for 1,193 yards and is expected to pick up where he left off last season. Last year, the offense set school records of 5,400 total yards and 39-plus points per game. Senior David Sobek and junior Walker Hurst will be looked upon to fill the holes on the offensive line.
On defense, key players also return. Seniors CB Mikey Farr, LB Malik Adams, CB B.J. Gibson, DB Weston Gurr and DB Drew Michalek will be leaders on this side of the ball.
“Mikey Farr has had a tremendous offseason, and not just at the corner spot,” Brunner said. “But we are expecting big things out of him in the return game and helping a little bit on offense. Those corner spots are really good for us.”
Two players with Ivy League potential anchor the defensive back position, and according to Brunner, they can hit hard.
“Another couple of guys that are three-year starters, Drew Michalek and Weston Gurr, we call them the Pixie Bros., they pack a punch, buddy. They’re Ivy League type kids, that’s where their interest is right now and where they’re getting looked at.”
Adding to the hard-hitting defense is Adams, a linebacker who can also hit.
“Malik is another three-year starter at the linebacker position and he is about as electric as they come at the position. He’s a big play kind of guy and he will thump your butt, buddy. So he is going to do some big things for us this year. Connor West is another at the linebacker spot. He’s a kid who got some playing time last year but he’s one that we expect to step up in that starting role and really do some big things for us.”
A late addition to the team will surely have an impact, according to Brunner.
“We have a defensive end, Trey Middleton, who moved in at the middle of the year, in January. He’s had a tremendous offseason with us and we are expecting big things out of him as well.”
For Walton, this spring is all about solidifying the core and building depth around the experienced players. On both sides of the ball, the main moving parts are returning. However, the new parts will take some breaking in, and according to Brunner, that’s what spring is for.
“If you look at our defense, and the same thing with our offense, we are really good around the perimeter and we just have to use the time this spring to get our line of scrimmage taken care of.”
WALTON’S 2018 SCHEDULE
8/18 Mill Creek (Mercedes-Benz Stadium)
8/24 at Collins Hill
8/31 at Pope
9/14 North Gwinnett
10/26 at Cherokee
11/02 at Woodstock