Coach Walker, Panthers remain focused on weight room as summer approaches
By KEITH SPARKS
Liberty Hill’s new Head Football Coach and Athletic Director Jeff Walker, who accepted the position in late February, is starting to make some changes with the Panther football program. The first of those changes is making sure the players are attacking the weight room with the same urgency they’ve shown on the football field.
“I got in and they had changed what they were doing in the offseason from when I was here,” Walker said. “I wanted to get back in the weight room, so we really got back in the weight room. They were doing a lot of good stuff, but it was just different stuff. I’m more of a weight room guy. I want to get on the squat racks, and I want to start moving around some iron.”
Weight training, specifically squats, according to Coach Walker, can pay huge dividends in a number of ways on the football field. The first being injury prevention, which will be a big priority for the Panthers, as Walker mentioned that the Panthers’ top two running backs struggled with injuries last season, and the second being speed.
“I truly believe a good squat will make you as fast as running,” Walker said. “That’s kind of our goal right now is to get back in the weight room. We can run and stuff in the summer, get in shape in the summer, but I’m not as worried about being in shape and running right now as I am about being strong. We’re a physical bunch, and it’s hard to be physical if you don’t have muscle.”
Coach Walker and the Panthers are focusing so heavily on the weight room, in fact, that they haven’t stepped foot outside of it, yet. The Panthers will head to the field for some football drills starting at the end of April and continuing into the summer for conditioning, but that isn’t at the top of Coach Walker’s priority list just yet.
Prior to Walker’s arrival, the Panthers’ offseason consisted of both conditioning and weightlifting, as linemen and skill positions would rotate from the field to the weight room and back, taking a day off from lifting in between each weight room session. Those days are over with Walker at the helm.
“I feel like you really have to break down muscles on a daily basis to get stronger,” Walker said. “I’d love to have gone out (to the field) already, to be honest with you. I’d love to see these kids throw the football and hand it off, but right now we’re so focused on just getting them to where we need them to be going into summer. We’re not going outside until I feel like we’re strong enough to go outside.”
In the summer, the UIL allows coaches to run workouts for six weeks, during which the Panthers will be in the weight room Monday through Thursday each week. The other four weeks, the players have the option to work out on their own, as the weight room will remain unlocked, but the coaches will no longer be involved.
Walker said his players have handled the transition well, which was to be expected. Although none of the current Panthers are old enough to have played for Coach Walker during his time as an assistant at Liberty Hill, his reputation precedes him.
“They’ve handled it well,” Walker said. “I think a lot of them, unfortunately, have heard about me from back in the day. I have a whole bunch of ex-players still in town, and they had to put up with Coach Walker. It’s been good. It wasn’t like I came from out of state or, you know, came from out of town and I’m an out-of-towner that nobody knows. They know what we’re going to do, so it’s not a lot of change. It’s pretty much I’m coming back to do what I used to do. I’m just wearing a few more hats.”
Walker has spent the last few months going back and forth from Liberty Hill Junior High to the high school as he finished his tenure as Junior High Girls’ Coordinator, but is now at the high school full-time. According to Coach Walker, the transition has been pretty hectic.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “There’s just a lot of things going on. It’s all good, it’s just you want to get everything done right now. I’m one of those that, you know, I want to get ready for summer and get everything ready for August, and there’s just too many other things going on. It’s been crazy, but it’s been crazy good. I want to get it all done today, but it’s going to take me about another month or two.”
His new desk, formerly that of Jerry Vance, remains strewn with rosters, spreadsheets, inspirational quotes, and other papers, serving as a metaphor for what has so far been a “crazy” offseason.
“I mean, you can see my desk,” Walker said with a grin. “It’s crazy. It’s just piles and piles, let’s put this here and let’s put this pile here. It’s more hats. It’s a lot more to do, but it’s all good, it’s all fun, and it’s all stuff I like to do. It’s just a matter of finding time to get it done, and get to the soccer game, and get to the baseball game and all that stuff so you can be there to support them.”
One of the papers on Walker’s desk has a quote that he keeps visible to remind him that the transition will take time. The day he accepted the job as Head Coach, Walker mentioned that his relationships with the players were what he missed most about coaching football, and this quote reinforces that statement.
“Motivation is a daily relationship with your players, not a fiery pep talk,” he recited out loud.
Walker reiterated his interest in those relationships, explaining how important they are to the success of a football team. Each player responds differently to different coaching tactics, and one of his priorities throughout the offseason is to learn each of his players’ personalities so he can understand what motivates each and every one of them.
“I think they’re working hard, they just don’t know how much harder they can work,” Walker said, “and I don’t know how much harder they can work. As a coach, you push, you push, you push. You think you can do 10 reps, I’m going to make you do 12. If you’ve done 12, I bet I can get you to do 14. We’re always trying to get better, and some kids, you push them too far and they’re out the door and you don’t see them anymore. You have to know them before you push them real hard, so it’s been a slow-go.”
While he prepares to push his players to their absolute limits on the field and in the weight room, Walker understands that he must first establish a trust with his team in the locker room. The first step to doing that, Walker said tongue-in-cheek, is “I’ve got to learn all their names.”
“I haven’t jumped in yet and said ‘It’s my way or the highway,’” he said. “I’m, I guess, a players’ coach. We’re going to push them and get them out of their comfort zone on a daily basis, but it’s a big deal that they know that I love them, I care for them, and we’re going to be there for them, but we’re not going to baby them once we get out of this field house. I always tell them ‘In the field house, I’m going to baby you and I’ll take care of you, but when we walk out there, it’s time to go to work.’”
While he still has plans to make some changes to his staff, Walker has already made a big one. He recently brought his brother, Kent Walker, on as the Panthers’ Defensive Coordinator. Kent Walker, like his brother, was formerly the Head Football Coach and Athletic Director at Rogers High School. His first day on campus at Liberty Hill was Monday, April 3.
“I took him away,” he said of hiring his brother away from Rogers. “It’s just a little different change. He was Head Coach, now coming over here being an assistant, he’s going to be the DC for me and run that side of the ball. It works good. We’re on opposite sides of the ball. I have a passion for the offense, and he has a passion for the defense. We mesh well. He doesn’t know much what I do and I don’t know much about what he does. We just take care of our side of the ball. We’ve always been able to work together well.”
Walker said he knows that three of Liberty Hill’s assistant coaches from last season will leave the team before the start of next season “for one reason or another,” but wouldn’t name names as those moves are not yet official.
While Liberty Hill fans anxiously await the start of the 2017 football season, all can rest assured that the Panthers will come physically prepared from their time spent in the weight room. As far as their skills are concerned, everybody will have to wait and see.