Sparked by the strong play of two quarterbacks with NFA ties, the Hardin Valley Hawks program based in Knoxville, Tennessee, has become a powerhouse Youth Football League.
Zak Acuff plays for Hardin Valley, and so does Caden Buckles, who won the Duel in July for the incoming Grade 6 division.
In the off-season, Buckles and Acuff train together. The pairing has provided mutual benefits.
“Zak really pushes me, and that helps me push myself,” Buckles said. “Zak helps me because he is a great quarterback I try to play up to his level and train at the same level he does. It really motivates me to work harder and train harder so I can get to that level.”
Buckles is already doing a standout job playing up to his own level.
Playing for 11U Hardin Valley in the Knox County Youth Football League, Buckles and the Hawks got off to a 2-0-1 start this season. He connected on 80 percent of his passes and threw for 4 touchdowns in the first three games.
“We are a run-heavy team, but when we do pass I use the best of my mechanics and I try to find the open receiver,” Buckles said.
Running out of a Single Wing offense, Hardin Valley has a lot of success running the football. When opposing defenses load the box to try stopping the run, Buckles is able to roll out and he uses his quick release and accurate arm to hit open receivers.
“I like playing quarterback because I get to be the leader of the team,” said Buckles, who also makes a major impact on the defensive side of the ball. “I get to motivate my teammates, encourage them. I get a lot of respect and I give that respect back. I just try to help others around me before I help myself.”
Last season, he played for 10U Hardin Valley and the Hawks went 6-3-1 while losing in the semifinals of the playoffs. Buckles completed 65 percent of his passes and threw 14 touchdowns.
After attending five NFA camps the last three summers, Buckles received his first Duel invite and headed for the showcase event in Massillon, Ohio, in July.
“My expectations were to do the best I could,” he said. “I wasn’t really expecting to be in the Top 5 for my first one, let alone first place. I just gave it my all and the best came out. I was pretty mind blown. It was really exciting to hear my name called as the winner. I wasn’t really expecting it.”
Finishing first against such stout competition has helped Buckles take his game to an even higher level this season. “It definitely did,” he said. “It gave me a jolt of confidence in knowing that I can compete under pressure and play to the best of my ability.”
Buckles learned how to respond to pressure in 2012-13, when he was competing against older players. The last two seasons, he has lined up against players his own age.
“It helped me because we did win some games when we were playing up,” Buckles said. “That just lets me know I can play very well against similar competiton. But even when I’m playing older, better competition, I can still use my mechanics and play well.”
Not surprisingly, Buckles does very well off the football field as well. All of his classes in school are at the Honors level, and he has been a member of the All Knox County Honors Chorus for the last two years.