Walton appeared ready for another successful run in the 2012 state football playoffs.
The Raiders, who reached the Class AAAAA championship game in 2011, won four of their first five games last year, including impressive victories against Brookwood and McEachern to open the season. The only loss during that stretch came at North Cobb, which went on to reach the state semifinals.
But the Raiders’ hopes for another trip to the championship game faded as they lost one starter after another to injury. Walton lost three of its final six games and made a quiet first-round exit from the playoffs.
The most notable injury was a sprained knee ligament suffered by running back Tyren Jones, an all-state player in 2011 who signed with Alabama. Jones was injured in the first half of Walton’s 21-16 victory over Etowah in the ninth game and missed the remainder of the season. Without him, Walton lost its final two games – 28-24 to Roswell in the regular-season finale and 20-17 in two overtimes against Parkview in the playoffs. Jones opened the season with consecutive 300-yard games and finished with 1,682 yards in nine games.
“For whatever reason, we just had a ton of injuries,” Walton coach Rocky Hidalgo said. “Hopefully it was just one of those years and we won’t have the same issue this year. It took a heavy toll on us last year. We played the first round of the playoffs without six starters, and we had three or four guys who probably shouldn’t have been out there who had been cleared to play. We were a different team in Week 11 than we were in Week 1.”
Another Alabama signee, quarterback Parker McLeod, missed five games because of an ankle injury. He passed for 598 yards, about one-third of what he had as a junior.
Quarterback Price Wilson and running back DJ Smith filled in during the absences of McLeod and Jones, and they will be the leaders of an offense that will be replacing almost everyone in 2013. The big concern for Hidalgo heading into spring practice next month will be rebuilding an offensive line that lost five starters, including Georgia signee and all-state player Brandon Kublanow.
“The biggest thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to develop our offensive line,” Hidalgo said. “We’re going to be young up there. We feel like we have good players there, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to get ready to compete against Peachtree Ridge in the Corky Kell Classic.
“We feel like [the skill positions] will come together. We feel like we’ve got some talented kids. That stuff will all come together when we meet in the summer for the 7-on-7s. We’ll get to where we need to be with those guys. But really with the offensive line, we’ve got to spend a lot of time with those guys being physical coming off the ball. With spring practice and preseason practice, there’s really not a lot of days to work.”
2012 record: 7-4, 5-2 in Region 5-AAAAAA, lost to Parkview 20-17 in two overtimes in the first round of the Class AAAAAA playoffs.
Starters returning: 1 offense, 7 defense
Key players lost: RB Tyren Jones, QB Parker McLeod, OL Brandon Kublanow, LB Blake Montz, PK Anthony Price
Key players returning: RB/DB DJ Smith, QB Price Wilson, LB Dreyon Williams, FB/DL Henry Rowling, DE Kyle Whitaker
Spring practice dates: May 1-17
Aug. 24 – Peachtree Ridge (11:45 a.m., Georgia Dome)
Aug. 30 – at Hillgrove (6 p.m.)
Sept. 13 – North Cobb
Sept. 20 – at Woodstock
Sept. 27 – at Cherokee
Oct. 4 – Lassiter
Oct. 18 – Wheeler
Oct. 25 – at Milton
Nov. 1 – at Etowah
Nov. 8 – Roswell
Outlook: Walton returns just eight primary starters, but coach Rocky Hildalgo said 18 or 19 returning players started at one time or another because of the Raiders’ injuries in 2012. DJ Smith is expected to step in for Tyren Jones at running back. Smith rushed for 451 yards last season, including 281 in the two games Jones missed because of a knee injury. Hidalgo expects to play five juniors and a sophomore on the offensive line. If that unit comes together quickly, expect Walton to be in the hunt again in Region 5-AAAAAA.