By Gabriel Stovall
TYRONE, Ga. — When the Sandy Creek football team took the field Tuesday evening for its first spring practice of the 2015 season, many things were as they’d always been.
The presence of smoke coming from the grill where the football team’s booster club prepared hot dogs and hamburgers to feed the players after practice — a long-standing Sandy Creek tradition.
The miniature gaggle of Division I college football coaches and recruiters coming to scout out the annual collection of ample next-level talent Sandy Creek’s been known for collecting over the last 15 years.
There was the high-energy, midseason level intensity present in the first full pads workout of the soon-coming season. Coach Chip Walker said he likes to let his teams “get after it” right from the beginning of the spring.
“We don’t ease into anything over here,” Walker said. “We like to see right from the start who’s going to be the guys who will step in and mix it up a bit.”
And, of course, the sky-high expectations of competing for region and state championships year after year. That expectation perhaps being fueled by the fact that Sandy Creek failed to win its region for the first time since 2007.
Even some of the names were the same. For instance, another quarterback and coach’s son named Walker will be taking snaps under center with the hopes of being tabbed the Patriot’s starting signal caller.
The difference? There will be another guy in his shadows with thoughts of winning the job for himself.
Gone for the 2015 season will be Coach Walker’s eldest son Trey along with his 1,388 passing yards and eight touchdowns. His younger brother Bryant, a rising sophomore, will try to keep the starting spot in the family for the upcoming season, but Trinity Christian (Sharpsburg) transfer Grant Hurston may have something to say about that.
Hurston, a 6-foot-2, 220 pounder, came over from the Georgia Independent School Association (GISA) school with clear cut desires to be the man at the controls of the Sandy Creek offense.
“I was totally excited when I found out I’d have the chance to come and play here,” Hurston said. “It’s always something I’ve wanted to do since I moved up here. Sandy Creek is known for winning region championships and state championships, and I want to come here and win a state championship and get noticed, and I know the coaches will do their best to get me noticed.”
But he’ll have to fight off a confident, if inexperienced, Bryant Walker who said he felt comfortable taking snaps and running the offense during the team’s first spring session.
“It felt really good to be out here,” Bryant Walker said. “It was slow for the first few minutes, then everybody picked it up and started moving around better.”
Bryant Walker said he feels like he has the early advantage, thanks to the tutelage his brother Trey gave him last season and, you know, the whole “the coach is my father” thing.
“Trey taught me a lot as a freshman last year,” he said. “He taught me everything so that when he left I’d have a chance to start. Now, I’m out here my first day and I feel like I’m kind of ahead of everybody right now because I know where everything in the offense needs to be.”
As for Hurston, he acknowledged some initial butterflies, but said he settled in quickly.
“It was both exciting and nerve-wrecking to start off with,” Hurston said. “You come out here and you don’t know if the coaches are going to be on you or if they’re going to support you. But from the beginning they were there, supporting, teaching and instructing me. Coach Walker was right there standing beside me, teaching and helping me. I felt like I learned a ton on my first day.”
Hurston said he saw first hand the vast difference in size, strength and speed between a mid-level GISA team and a perennial Georgia High School Association (GHSA) Class AAAA power.
“It’s definitely a lot faster paced here,” he said. “You can tell that by far, even as wide receivers and corners go. There’s a huge difference between the speed and strength. I know I’m gonna have to focus a lot more because their’s a lot more to learn and it’s a faster, better league and level of football to learn.”
Did we mention the expectations?
Since Walker took over the program back in 2005, the Patriots have never finished with less than seven wins and have made the playoffs each season. Since 2008, the first year Walker broke the 11-win barrier, Sandy Creek has gone 89-6-1, with multiple region titles, three state championships and two undefeated seasons.
Where most football programs in the state would be content with an 11-2 record and state quarterfinals appearance — region championship or not — Chip Walker concedes that failing to add another region crown to the mantle in 2014 felt like a let down.
“Over the years we’ve managed to get the program up to a point where expectations stay the same every year,” the coach said. “Every year we’re going out to compete for championships. We tell the kids that from January when we start mat drills, all through the offseason.”
And Bryant Walker said he’s been around the program enough to know that Hurston will have his work cut out for him trying to manage those expectations if he wins the starting job.
“Our offense and the way we play, it’s fast, fast, fast,” Bryant Walker said. “We like to pound the ball and pound the ball. For (Hurston) to come in, it’s going to be a lot different. Coming to a 4A school where everything’s going to be faster and bigger, it can be hard and a lot of weight on his shoulders. He’s going to have to get used to that.”
Just as Bryant will have to get used to the shift in his relationship with his dad, now that he’s the only Walker son left in the program. Bryant Walker said he has ambivalent feelings about now being the only Walker kid under his father’s football tutelage.
“I like it, and I don’t like it,” he said with a smile. “I like it because he teaches me things step by step so I can get better. I don’t like it because he’s my dad, and he’s gonna be on me, on me, on me. That’s good because I like being pushed to be greater, but it’s still gonna be hard.”
Good news for Bryant, though. His father says the experience coaching his older son has given him wisdom for handling his younger son.
Said Chip Walker: “It’ll be fun coaching him. Hopefully I’ve learned some things from the good and the bad I’ve done in the past, and I’ll be able to apply those to Bryant.”
Whoever wins the job will be sure to have a plethora of weapons at their disposal offensively, starting with Korey Banks, a speedster wideout who caught a team-leading 34 passes for 542 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and who’s individual blip on the recruiting radar is getting bigger with each passing week.
Just in the last month Banks has picked up offers from Arizona and Michigan, now with former San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh taking over the Wolverine program’s reigns.
Also a diverse corps of tailbacks in junior-to-be Marvin Hubbard, who Chip Walker says “is probably the fastest running back we have,” fellow rising junior and scatback-type Dre Parson and bruiser back Jalen Green.
The coach said the trio could see equal action early as Sandy Creek finds a way to replace Ole Miss signee Eric Swinney and his 1,842 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns from last season.
“Eric had all of the qualities together that those three have individually,” Chip Walker said. “But who’s to say one or all of those guys won’t be able to put all those things together over the next two years?”
For now, both Bryant Walker and Hurston will use the spring to concentrate on building bonds of team chemistry in their new roles — Walker with his father, and Hurston with his new teammates — even as they get used to working with the talent around them.
“I came in at the beginning of semester mat drills with them and everything, so I’ve had a chance to get to know everybody early,” Hurston said. “I know I’m gonna have to be a leader. We have good athletes, but sometimes everyone’s not gonna have their heads on right. You’ve always gotta have somebody that everybody can look to in distress. I want to be able to fill that role. I want these guys to be like a second family to me on the field.”