Chad Walker, a veteran college football assistant, is bringing his experience to Land O’ Lakes High as its new head varsity football coach.
He is replacing Brian Wachtel, who resigned in November after a combined 25-42 mark in seven seasons. His only winning season was in 2013, when the team went 8-3.
Walker, was among 40 applicants for the position.
The Pennsylvania native was selected from a field of 11 applicants interviewed for the job, according to Land O’ Lakes High School athletic director Michael Frump.
At 33, Walker is relatively young. But, he doesn’t lack experience. He’s coached at the postsecondary level for about a decade.
His stops include Division II Pace University in New York, where he served as offensive coordinator/quarterback coach; Bridgton Academy in Maine, as head coach; Division III Kenyon College in Ohio, as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach; Division I FCS Lafayette College, coaching linebackers, tight ends and special teams; and Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, as defensive line coach.
Several of those roles required rebuilding and transforming losing programs into stable ones, Walker said.
He looks to do the same at Land O’ Lakes.
“I coached at Kenyon College, where we hadn’t won a game in four years. Pace University, the same sort of thing. So, I’ve always been a part of these turnaround jobs. I’ve really kind of learned what works, what doesn’t work,” Walker said in a recent interview with The Laker/Lutz News.
Walker’s playing career also is notable.
Groomed as a tight end, he earned four varsity letters at Lafayette from 2002 to 2005 and was a Patriot League All-Conference selection in 2005.
He later played professionally for two years in NFL Italy as a player/coach and the European Federation of American Football in Sweden. A knee injury ended his playing career and routed him to coaching.
“Football’s my passion,” Walker said.
For the past year, Walker has served as director of football operations/quarterback coach at Tampa-based Applied Science and Performance Institute (ASPI), which provides advanced training to elite athletes and pro football hopefuls. He now is overseeing logistics for nearly 50 football players, as they gear up for the NFL Combine.
At APSI, he’s gotten to work alongside former Tampa Bay Buccaneers like Yo Murphy, Reidel Anthony, Booger McFarland, Todd Washington and others.
“Being around these former NFL players, seeing how they relate to the guys, seeing as how they coach on the field during position drills and different things — it’s really continued to help me grow, not only in the football side of things, but also in life,” Walker said.
While he balances his duties at APSI, Walker has been familiarizing himself with the Gators program.
He’s met with current and prospective players and assistant coaches, and has observed offseason workouts and weightlifting sessions.
He’s also spent time watching film of the 2017 season, evaluating returning players and their skillsets, while scouting team opponents.
He’s also in the process of filling out the rest of his coaching staff.
“One thing that caught my eye about Land O’ Lakes was the tradition,” Walker said. “Obviously, there’s some things to be done, but there’s some tools in place,” he added.
Walker becomes Land O’ Lakes’ fifth head football coach since the program started in 1975. In addition to Wachtel, previous head coaches were Matt Kitchie, John Benedetto and Dan Sikes.
For many years, Land O’ Lakes had one of the top football programs in Pasco County, earning a string of 14 straight playoff appearances from 1997 to 2009 under coaches Benedetto and Kitchie.
However, the recent success of other programs in the county — as well as an ever-challenging district — have made winning consistently a tall task.
Despite taking over a Gators program in the midst of four straight losing seasons—and a 4-5 mark in 2017— Walker is optimistic about the future.
Said Walker, “I don’t necessarily think there’s an overhaul that needs to be done or a complete cultural change because I do think there’s a foundation there that you currently don’t see at a lot of places when people talk about, ‘Well, there hasn’t been success in the past.’
“I think Coach Wachtel laid a pretty sturdy foundation with that, and now it’s just to try and take it to the next level, and obviously get guys to buy into what my philosophy is and what our foundation’s going to be, and just learn to compete and to grow,” Walker said.
Part of that starts with encouraging more Land O’ Lakes athletes — such as the school’s basketball players — to join the football team.
“There are definitely athletes in the school right now I think can benefit not only the football program, but could benefit them as well,” Walker said, adding he went to see a Gators varsity basketball game within the first few weeks of being hired.
The new coach is mum on the types of schemes he plans to implement on offense and defense, but described it as “something that I’ve been successful with, and something I think the kids will enjoy as well.”
He added: “At the end of the day, it’s about the kids and bringing back some excitement in the Land O’ Lakes football program. We’re going to be, I think, fun to watch on Friday evenings.”
Playbooks aside, the Gators should have budding talent to work with — on both sides of the ball — in 2018.
Leading rusher Kyle Leivas, who tallied 1,050 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017, is expected to return for his senior season, teaming up with a promising quarterback, Ethan Forrester, who will be a junior this season.
On defense, the Gators are expected to return its top three tacklers in linebackers Myron Bloom (76 tackles, two sacks) and Clayton Hendriksen (75 tackles, 1.5 sacks), and safety Nate Howard (66 tackles, one interception).
Meanwhile, Walker’s experiences — especially as a college coach — may yield additional recruiting and scholarship opportunities for some of those Land O’ Lakes players.
“I do think one thing that is beneficial that I do bring to the high school level is the understanding of recruiting,” the new Gators coach said.
That includes such things as “how to market yourself to a college coach” and “how to market yourself to an admissions office academically,” he said.
There are also other things that need to be addressed, including community service and “growing yourself as a young man to put yourself in the right position,” Walker said.
NOTE: Spring practices begin in Florida on April 23; the first allowable day of contact practices is April 28.
Published February 21, 2018