One of the most successful football programs in Central Texas will rush into a new era this fall with old-school swagger.
Jeff Walker has grabbed the reins as head coach and athletic director at Liberty Hill, taking over for Jerry Vance, who retired. Walker knows the lay of the land at the high school in western Williamson County. He served as Vance’s offensive coordinator in 2001-07, helping the Panthers win Class 3A state championships in the final two years.
Walker, a 48-year-old Texas State alum, makes it abundantly clear he remains fully committed to the slot T, an offensive relic of yesteryear, a ground-bound attack rarer than rain in July in this era of froufrou spread offenses.
“Preparing for us in three days is a nightmare,” Walker said Thursday while giving a tour of the school’s shiny purple-hued facilities, which include a 5,000-seat stadium that opened in 2013. “All your outside linebackers have been in coverage, and now they’re having to take on guards and sweeps and engage in the physical side of football.
“I believe in the slot T. We do something different from anybody else. We don’t spread it out, throw it all over; we’re a run-oriented offense, which has gone the way of the dinosaur. We do it from Pop Warner on up. We are different, and we pride ourselves on that. We’ll run the slot T and maybe add a few wrinkles.”
For those who’ve never seen it, the slot T involves a lot of fakes and misdirection in the backfield and complicated blocking schemes up front.
“We try to hide the ball,” Walker said. “We tell our quarterbacks we’re not going to pass for 4,000 yards, but we’re going to make the ball disappear. It’s 11 guys selling out on every play. I like the toughness it brings. We don’t have that wideout who can just stand there like in the spread. If we have a kid just standing, he doesn’t play.”
Vance rolled up a 155-46 record in Liberty Hill with that ancient offense. Walker has a 131-25 record running the slot T as an OC with the Panthers and as the head coach at Rogers, where his teams were 59-13 and averaged more than 50 points per game from 2008 to 2014.
“We have a system from the ground up,” Walker said. “We know what we do and how we do it. It’s a lot of little things. Our water breaks are even different from most schools. Everything we do is scripted. There’s no guessing. We have a proven plan.”
Yet for all of Liberty Hill’s success, some question whether the slot T will work in Class 5A, which is where the 4A Panthers are likely to land in February when the UIL announces the results of its latest biennial realignment. Liberty Hill never has had a wealth of NCAA Division I athletes, and the Panthers’ advantages in size and depth — the burgeoning program has about 160 players available for its freshman to varsity squads — will be tested by a move up in class.
“I like to hear those doubters. We will prove them wrong,” Walker said.
He noted that Phil Danaher at Corpus Christi Calallen, Walker’s alma mater, is the all-time winningest coach in Texas high school football, and he uses the wing T, a close cousin of the slot T. A year ago, Calallen reached the Class 5A, Division II state title game, losing to Aledo 24-16.
Liberty Hill already has beaten several 5A teams in recent years, including Brenham in 2014, the year after the Cubs played for a state title. Walker also was part of a coaching staff that won big with the slot T at then-Class 5A San Marcos.
“People are so caught up in the spread, they think there is no other way,” he said. “We have something that works. Our kids have confidence; they believe in what we do. We’ll be successful wherever we go. I really, truly believe we won’t miss a beat. I think the slot T can win a state championship in 6A.”
While he insists the Panthers’ future is bright regardless of their UIL classification, Walker is still sorting through the 2017 roster, as only five starters return from an 8-4 team that won a playoff game.
Fullback Hunter Oncken, a 1,200-yard rusher, looks to be the headliner, along with offensive tackle Matthew Carter and cornerback Bryce McCatty. Yet they all must prove themselves to their new coach.
“We can go look at the board right now, but every position is up for grabs, including quarterback,” Walker said.
“Here’s what I can tell you: The cupboard is not bare. We have lots of good kids coming up. We expect big things, and so do they.”
Walker spent the past two years away from football as he dealt with a medical issue and spent more time with his wife, Miranda, and their 13-year-old twins, Madison and Regan. As part of his return to coaching, he hired his younger brother Kent as Liberty Hill’s defensive coordinator, and the Panthers will shift to a 3-4 base defense.
“Kent’s got a lot of passion for the game, and he knows defense,” Walker said. “It’s always great to have someone in your corner with whom you have the ultimate trust. He’s got a track record at Round Rock and elsewhere.
“My last game as a head coach, we lost 73-72 (to Refugio) in the playoffs. I don’t want to get in any more shootouts like that.”
At Liberty Hill, Walker will preside over a highly successful athletic program. The school recently finished third in the Lone Star Cup Class 4A standings for the 2016-17 school year, when the girls basketball and softball teams reached state title game. The volleyball team also reached the final four, and the boys basketball and soccer squads joined the baseball team in earning postseason bids, too.
“Everybody around here makes the playoffs,” Walker said. “We’ve got smart, hard-nosed kids who are very coachable. When we arrived in 2001, we started raising expectations. We keep setting the bar higher. I don’t think you’ve seen it all yet.”
MAKING ITS DEBUT, THE BREAZEALE CUP
Today, we unveil the inaugural Breazeale Cup rankings, which are topped by Liberty Hill, followed by Westlake and Dripping Springs.
Compiled by American-Statesman sports writer Thomas Jones, the rankings recognize the most succcessful high school athletics programs in our coverage area, regardless of their UIL classifications. The Breazeale Cup follows a formula similar to the one University Interscholastic League officials use to settle on Lone Star Cup winners, except that the Breazeale Cup does not factor in extracurricular activities beyond athletics.
You’ll find the top-20 finishers and details about the Breazeale Cup’s namesake on Page C7. The complete rankings are listed online at mystatesman.com/sports/high-school.