GHSA Drive for the GHSA State Title: Walton at Buford Preview

ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - This week’s Drive for the GHSA State Title matchup is between Buford and Walton, who will face off on Peachtree TV at 8 PM this Friday in a second-round playoff matchup in Class 7A. Buford is a nationally ranked program and remains undefeated at 11-0. Alabama Commit and running back Justice Haynes has been a force on offense. Haynes has 1,528 yards and 19 touchdowns. Don’t sleep on Walton, however. They went toe to toe earlier this year against Mill Creek and lost a late-game walk-off touchdown.

Will Walton be able to slow down the dynamic rushing attack of Buford? Buford has rushed for 2,587 yards this season. Buford has three games of over 300+ yards rushing on the season. Walton coach Daniel Brunner talked about the challenge of defending Buford and what his team needs to do in this game.

“For us, it is all about getting properly aligned and getting great fits in the run. You see, on film, teams do that. They get great fits. They get a guy where he is in a one-on-one tackling situation, and he can’t make the play,” said Brunner. “The backer reverses the field and can make one miss coming out of the backdoor. He is making people pay even when you are perfect in those fits. The more times we are perfect in those fits, the better opportunities we will have to get them off the field and put them in long downs and distances. We have to win on first and second, so on third down, we put them in long downs and distances and in the places they don’t necessarily love to be. Slowing down that run game is about being disciplined in how we go about our business. That is what we are trying to work on this week.”

Makari Bodiford is a load in the backfield for Walton. Bodiford already has a 265-yard rushing and a four-touchdown game this season. The key in this game will be Buford’s front seven and if they can stop Walton’s ground game. In the 2024 junior class, Buford has two top 15 recruits in the country, KJ Bolden and Eddrick Houston, who are difference makers for Buford’s defense. Buford coach Bryant Appling talked about their impact.

“Bolden is definitely a playmaker and a game-breaker. When he gets the ball in his hands, it is usually some sort of electric play coming after it. We try to get the ball into his hands as often as possible in any game. Whether it is catching or running, returning kicks and things like that,” said Appling. “He is listed as an athlete, and he is a dang good receiver and a dang good defensive player too. He helps us out on special teams, and having him on the field is usually a plus for us.”

“Eddrick Houston has been a force all year long. We are playing him all over the place upfront,” said Appling. “He is definitely making his way to the quarterback and being a true force in defending the run.”

Don’t sleep on Walton’s playmakers, who are equally as lethal as their ground game and can do damage. They will make you pay if you pay too much attention to one player. Walton has four receivers this season with 600 yards or more and 31 combined touchdowns between the four. Walton coach Brunner talked about their impact this season and how to get them involved in the game against Buford.

“We have to get our guys the ball that can make plays for us. We are going to try to distribute. We hope that is one of the things that challenges teams. Too many guys have made plays for us this year to hone in on just one,” said Brunner. “If they do, the others must step up and make plays. At the end of the day, I think it is what gets you set up for a situation to have a chance to win a game like this. We are not banking on one kid to make all the plays. We are not banking on Makari to have a 200-yard night to win it. We are not banking on Wyatt to have two touchdowns to win it. It is going to be a team and joint effort. If we are smart and balanced in our approach, don’t get ahead of ourselves, and don’t feel like we have to hit the home run on every play, we will give ourselves a chance to have a good game on offense.”

Coach Appling outlined the keys to slowing down the potent Walton offense in the ground game in the aerial attack.

“Play your game, play gap sound, and play technique sound as far leverage and picking up the tips they give you as far as splits and things with the receivers. You are right. You can’t just cover everybody and not look at the run,” said Appling. “They have two really good running backs that tote the rock and have the chance to go to the endzone any given play. You have to be gap-sound and take chances when you can. Hopefully, get them in long down and distances. Get some pressure on the quarterback. The big thing about that is stopping the run early. Hopefully, if you stop the run early, you can get them off-kilter on their RPO game a little bit. That should keep the sticks in our favor and give us a chance to do what we want to do.”

A key player in this game will be Walton quarterback Jeremy Hecklinski. The junior has continued to take strides this season, throwing 3,009 yards and 32 touchdowns. Hecklinski showcased his ability offensively in week one against Mill Creek, throwing for 426 yards and four touchdowns. He will be pivotal in helping Walton advance to the next round. Coach Brunner talked about what he needed to do in this game.

“I don’t need him to be superman on Friday Night. I need him to make the plays he needs to make. Every throw you make doesn’t need to be an amazing throw. We need to make all those consistent throws and make the hard ones that matter,” said Brunner. “Make the ones that make you special. Make them count. He’s done that all year for us. He has done a good job protecting the football. I want him to continue to protect the football. When we put the ball up there, we have to make sure it is one that our guy can go get it. Jeremy has to be Jeremy. If he does that and goes out and be himself and makes the plays he has been making all year long, he will give us a chance to win the game.”

Coach Appling talked about the keys to victory for Buford to advance and the motto each week for his team.

“Play disciplined on defense. Just play Buford football, that is discipline, hopefully, have a better effort than the other team, more physicality than the other team, and usually, when we do that and the way we want to do it, we will find a way to win in the end,” said Appling. “The motto, especially around playoffs, is to go 1-0. I am talking about 1-0 in a rep, 1-0 in the weight room, and 1-0 on a Monday or Wednesday lift. Don’t try to win the game on Monday. Win the next rep or the next period. You keep stacking good reps on top of good reps, and you will have a chance at the end on Friday night.”

This is the first-ever matchup between Buford and Walton, and this will be a good one as both teams have championship aspirations with dynamic offenses that have been great this year.