SPOTLIGHT: Walters finds confidence — and the end zone (x8) — in special performance

BACK IN GEAR:  Benton quarterback Gray Walters answered a challenge from his coach last week, emphatically, posting one of the more remarkable outings in the state this season. (Photo by APRIL JOHNSON, Journal Sports)

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

Something just wasn’t right.

Benton quarterback Gray Walters knew it. So did his coach, Reynolds Moore.

Others might not have even noticed, but whether they did or not wasn’t the issue. The problem was that Walters, who was in his third year as a starting quarterback, just wasn’t playing to the level that was expected.

“I didn’t really think I was playing my best as I could,” Walters says. “I really don’t know what was going on. It was just weird. Really weird.”

It had been a little uneven, to say the least, for Walters in the first four games. He threw for 104 yards in a rout over Northwood dominated by the Tigers’ defense.

He had been knocked out of the next game after a big hit, but returned to post 353 passing yards in a 54-52 loss to Arch Manning’s Newman Greenies. However, Walters completed less than half of his passing attempts in that game.

In a wild 75-59 loss to Airline, he had just 121 yards and suffered two interceptions.

This wasn’t what Gray Walters had planned on. Whether it was his own high expectations or those of others, they weren’t being met.

“I’m pretty sure that’s what it was,” Walters says. “I put a lot of pressure on myself and tried to do too much.”

“I don’t think he was having a lot of fun playing football,” Moore says.

What’s more, there was also increasing playing time from his backup, Jeffrey King. “And I heard the whispers in the community that maybe Jeffrey should be starting,” Moore says.

Moore decided it was time to call Walters in for a meeting.

“He told me that if I didn’t step it up, he wasn’t afraid to put Jeff in,” Walters says. “I just needed to take the pressure off myself, calm down and do what I do best.”

Message received.

What he “did best” against previously-unbeaten Byrd last Friday was throw for eight touchdown passes. That’s e-i-g-h-t, in case you didn’t read that right the first time.

And 512 yards.

And he completed 22 of 32 passes.

And he threw zero interceptions.

Though Moore is obviously pleased with the results from last Friday night, he knew much earlier that the message had been received.

“I told him that I needed him to stop doing what he had been doing the last four weeks and step up,” Moore says. “I told him that the losses aren’t on him, but ‘we are going to split the reps in practice between you two’ and that I needed him to step up because if Jeffrey outplayed  him (in practice), (King) was going to start (last) Friday night.”

That was last Monday, when King was taking about 40 percent of the snaps in practice. By Wednesday, Walters had performed so well that King’s first-team reps were down to about 15 percent.

“I believed – and I hoped this would be the case – that Gray knew he had to win the job,” Moore says. “Just like when he was a sophomore and he won the job that year. When he got hurt this year and Jeffrey came in and played well, I think (Walters) just got into this funk. To his credit, he could have been mad at me and pouted. But he didn’t.”

Right before kickoff against Byrd, Moore put his arm around Walters. “Go have fun,” Moore told him. “You forget sometimes how much you love to play this game.”

When Walters had a fumble that was returned for a touchdown in the first quarter, it might have sent his confidence level in the wrong direction. Not so.

“I had already thrown three touchdowns by then, so my confidence was up,” Walters says. “I just knew I couldn’t let that get me down and stop me from what I was doing already. It felt like no matter what they did, we couldn’t be stopped at all.”

He’s right. After that fumble, Walters proceeded to throw five more touchdowns as Benton rolled 63-28. This week, the revitalized Tigers will travel to take on Natchitoches Central on Friday night.

“There were times when I was watching film before the season and thinking Gray is really good,” Moore says. “Sometimes we miss how good our kids are because we see them every day and are accustomed to what they do. I think he felt a lot of pressure that really wasn’t there. I think he was wearing a lot of things that he shouldn’t have been.”

Says Walters: “I feel a lot better.”

Contact JJ at johnjamesmarshall@yahoo.com