When longtime head coach Dickey Meeks arrived in Pittsburg prior to last season, many were wondering how quick the "turnaround master" would get things moving in the right direction.

The Pirates were just 4-6 in the regular season last year, but achieved their first playoff win since 2009. With a bevy of talented underclassmen and seasoned veterans returning, Pittsburg could be primed for breakout success in 2013.

Liberty-Eylau and Paris, who both soundly defeated Pittsburg in district a season ago, will undoubtedly provide a big test. Princeton, a newcomer to the district, won 10 games in 2013 and Paris North Lamar's new coach spent the last couple years as a college assistant at Memphis.

District 7-4A Division I Preview

Pittsburg RB/LB Fre'Zarian Harrison. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)
PLAYMAKERS
  • Quez Allen, QB, Jr., Paris
  • Corey Braxton, DB, Sr., Liberty-Eylau
  • Fre'Zarian Harrison, RB/LB, Jr., Pittsburg
  • Donelle Hoof, RB, Sr., Liberty-Eylau
  • Ricky Jackson, LB, Sr., Liberty-Eylau
  • Billy Kimble, QB, Jr., Pittsburg
  • Sir Charles Perkins, LB, Sr., Pittsburg
  • Keitron Reed, RB, Sr., Paris North Lamar
  • K.D. Scott, WR, Sr., Paris
  • Derek Templeman, DL, Sr., Princeton
  • Tray Walker, RB, Jr., Pittsburg
  • Jordan Williams, LB, Sr., Paris

 

TOP GAMES
  • Oct. 10 -- Liberty-Eylau at Paris
  • Oct. 17 -- Pittsburg at Liberty-Eylau
  • Oct. 17 -- Princeton at Paris
  • Oct. 24 -- Paris at Pittsburg

 

1. Pittsburg Pirates

Pittsburg QB Billy Kimble. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Dickey Meeks

2013 finish: 5-7 (3A D-II area finalist)

Returning starters: 8 offensive, 7 defensive

Players to watch

  • LB Sir Charles Perkins, Sr., 5-9, 175 (50 tackles)
  • RB/LB Fre'Zarian Harrison, Jr., 5-11, 230 (457 rushing yards, 6 TDs)
  • RB Tray Walker, Jr., 5-6, 150
  • QB Billy Kimble, Jr., 5-11, 167
  • OL Jermel Jefferson, Sr., 6-4, 305
  • DL E.J. Hill, Soph., 6-2, 245
  • DL Quentin Edney, Jr. 6-1, 211
  • OL Ryan Fueston, Jr., 6-4, 300

 

Pittsburg Jermel Jefferson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Pittsburg had its moments of offensive excellence a season ago, but there were also instances of inconsistency. For the season, the Pirates averaged 24.8 points per game. Pittsburg eclipsed the 50-point mark twice in 2013, both against Wills Point -- once in the season opener and another time in the bi-district round of the playoffs. But if those two games are taken out of the picture, Pittsburg's offense averaged only 20.9 per game. The Pirates were held to two touchdown or less five times a year ago, including shutout losses to Palestine and Gilmer. There were several underclassmen playing on that side of the ball last season, and with the majority of them returning, second-year coach Dickey Meeks expects to be much improved on offense moving forward.

The trigger man is junior quarterback Billy Kimble, who has the capability of hurting opposing defenses both with his arm and his legs. Expect the Pirates' signal-caller to hit the field with more confidence this year after getting his first taste of quarterbacking on Friday nights in 2013. The offensive backfield figures to be in good shape as well with the return of running backs Tray Walker and Fre'Zarian Harrison, who both performed exceptionally well as sophomores. Walker is the smaller of the two backs, and possesses game-changing speed. Harrison, built like a linebacker, offers a completely different running style. Expect to see Harrison in on short-yardage and goal-line situations all season long. The offensive line is big with senior Jermel Jefferson and junior Ryan Fueston -- both 300-pounders -- expected to anchor the Pirates up front.

Pittsburg LB Sir Charles Perkins. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Pittsburg's defense struggled for most of last season, allowing opponents to average more than 35 points per game. As is often the case, the Pirates' defensive performance from game to game usually dictated the outcomes. In Pittsburg's five victories, the defense allowed 24.2 points per game -- a far cry from its seven losses, in which the Pirates surrendered an average of 43. The big key for Pittsburg's defense this fall will be achieving a greater level of consistency all the way through the season. There are seven players returning that had starting experience in 2013, so there's hope that Pittsburg's 'D' will take a big step forward in year two under Meeks' staff.

Without question, the strength of Pittsburg's defense will be up front. The defensive line has plenty of size with the return of Quentin Edney and E.J. Hill, two players with the potential to dominate offensive lines on a weekly basis. Edney blends quality size and supreme quickness off the edge in rushing the passer, while Hill can serve a variety of roles on the D-line -- from plugging running lanes in the interior line to bullying opposing offensive tackles in pass-rushing situations. The linebacking corps could be the very best in the district. Harrison is an imposing figure, who has excellent speed for a defender of his size. Sir Charles Perkins is a three-year starter, who uses his quickness and instincts for finding the ball to make tackle after tackle.

Pittsburg RB Tray Walker. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

2014 outlook: Coach Meeks has a proven track record of turning programs around, and that process has begun in Pittsburg. Before his arrival prior to last season, the Pirates had hit a rut, missing the playoffs in three consecutive seasons while combining for a 13-17 record from 2010-12. Meeks returned Pittsburg to the postseason for the first time since 2009's state semifinalist team, and the veteran coach's track record suggests the best could be yet to come. After leading Chapel Hill to a state title in his first season as head coach in 1989, Meeks went to Pine Tree and the Mount Vernon, injecting life into both programs. He took over the Henderson job, and by his fifth year, the Lions were celebrating their first-ever state title.

Pittsburg lost to Liberty-Eylau and Paris last season by a combined 65 points, but the Pirates also bring back much more firepower than those two and figure to make a substantial leap with a second full offseason under Meeks and his staff. What should help prepare Pittsburg for life in 7-4A D-I is a non-district schedule that features Gladewater, New Boston and Atlanta. If the Pirates are able to win the district, they figure to get a favorable first-round matchup, and will most likely have to contend with the likes of defending 3A D-II state champion Argyle, former 5A and 4A giant Dallas Carter and an Alvarado team three years removed from a state finals appearance.

 

2. Liberty-Eylau Leopards

Liberty-Eylau's Donelle Hoof (8) runs the ball late in the first half of the Leopards' first-round playoff loss to Kaufman on Nov. 15, 2013 in Gilmer. (Jeff Stapleton, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Steve Wells

2013 finish: 6-5 (3A D-I bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 3 offensive, 3 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Donelle Hoof, Sr., 5-5, 163 (660 rushing yards, 6 TDs)
  • LB Ricky Jackson, Sr., 5-11, 232
  • DB Corey Braxton, Sr., 6-0, 160 (58 tackles)
  • WR Malcolm Gant, Sr., 6-0, 165
  • RB D.Q. Steels, Sr., 5-7, 165 (602 rushing yards, 4 TDs)
  • LB Ricardo Lockett, Sr., 5-8, 185
  • QB Kemon Freeman, Jr., 5-10, 180
  • DB Thurman Morbley, Jr., 5-10, 150

 

Offense: Liberty-Eylau averaged 27.6 points per game last season, which is considered slightly above average in today's world of high-flying offenses. A massive piece that will be missing in 2014 is receiver Davion Hall, who could be making an impact in Baylor's receiving corps as a true freshman this fall. Replacing a player of Hall's caliber is almost an impossibility, unless it's done with a grouping of talented skill players. First-year coach Steve Wells only has three returning offensive starters at his disposal, but there a few prospects that could be on the verge of having breakout seasons.

Senior running back Donelle Hoof is not the biggest running back you'll see in East Texas, but he may be one of the most exciting. Hoof put on a show at the second annual ETSN.fm + APEC Football Recruiting Combine in Tyler earlier this summer. The speedy back posted a laser-timed 4.54 40-yard dash, sixth-best among the 26 running backs that participated. And despite weighing in at only 163 pounds, Hoof put up 14 bench reps at 205 pounds, which was good enough to tie for third-best at his position. Fellow senior running back D.Q. Steels was expected to work out as well, but a knee injury kept him from it. If the Leopards' back can make his way back to the field this fall, L-E may have one of the most electric rushing duos in the area. Senior receiever Malcolm Gant is a solid option in the passing game.

Liberty-Eylau's Ricky Johnson (20) celebrates after scoring during the Leopards' 30-8 loss at Texas High on Sept. 13, 2013. (Evan Lewis, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The Leopards' defense had its ups and downs a season ago, but there were times when the L-E 'D' was dominant. Following a three-game losing streak early in the season, Liberty-Eylau's defense picked up their level of play and held opponents to an average of 14.4 points during a pivotal five-game winning streak that allowed the Leopards to creep back into the playoff hunt. L-E's defense will experience turnover similar to that of the offense with just three starters back, but the defenders the Leopards do have returning are expected to have big impacts this fall.

Liberty-Eylau will have voids to fill on the defensive line, but if the Leopards can figure out things up front, the second and third levels of the defense should be able to take care of the rest. Linebackers Ricky Johnson and Ricardo Lockett are both physical playmakers capable of impacting the game in a multitude of ways. Johnson's combination of size, speed and natural instincts lends itself to the Leopards' senior becoming the unquestioned leader of the unit. Lockett, while not as big as Johnson, uses a healthy mix of downhill speed and physicality to make up for what he lacks in height and weight. The defensive backfield will be a strength as well with the return of both Corey Braxton and Thurman Morbley.

2014 outlook: Liberty-Eylau annually produces some of East Texas' best athletes on the football field. The list in recent years consists of former Oklahoma and NFL receiver Brandon Jones, ex-Oregon running back and San Francisco 49ers running back LaMichael James, current Texas A&M running back Tra Carson and Baylor true freshman receiver Davion Hall. But since the 2006 state championship, the Leopards' program has struggled to rediscover playoff success. Since '07, L-E is only 39-36 without any postseason wins. Fans are hoping Wells can help bring back the program to statewide prominence.

The Leopards will be challenged right off the bat this Thursday when they face Gilmer in Tyler in the season opener. L-E has other non-district games against Mount Pleasant, Arkansas High, Tatum and Atlanta, which should give the coaching staff a good barometer of what to expect once district play begins. The Leopards begin 7-4A D-I action against arguably their two biggest challengers -- Paris and Pittsburg.

 

3. Paris Wildcats

Coach: Steven Hohenberger

2013 finish: 6-5 (3A D-I bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 4 offensive, 3 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB Quez Allen, Jr., 6-3, 212 (2,400 total yards)
  • LB Jordan Williams, Sr., 6-1, 220 (143 tackles, 6 sacks)
  • WR K.D. Scott, Sr., 6-2, 185 (300 receiving yards)
  • RB Dren Rollerson, Jr., 5-8, 190 (600 rushing yards, 11 TDs)
  • OL Jax Dangerfield, Sr., 6-2, 300
  • OL RIley Coker, Sr., 6-2, 275
  • RB/DB Trey Barry, Sr., 5-10, 160
  • TE/DL Kendall Alexander, Sr., 5-11, 210

 

2014 outlook: Paris got off to a dreadful 1-4 start to the 2013 season, but came together to dominate down the stretch for an undefeated run through district. The Wildcats outscored league opponents -- including Liberty-Eylau and Paris -- by an average of 29.2 points per game. Quarterback Quez Allen was the driving force behind Paris' offense as a sophomore a season ago, and that shouldn't change very much as the talented signal-caller enters his junior year. Allen will have a couple of quality compliments surrounding him in junior running back Dren Rollerson and senior receiver K.D. Scott. The defense completely turned things around during the second half of last season, holding teams to an average of 13.7 points per game -- that after the Wildcats' 'D' was torched in non-district to the tune of 38.4 a game. Linebacker Jordan Williams anchors a defense that will return three starters off last year's unit, while D-lineman Kendall Alexander and defensive back Trey Barry carry valuable experience into the 2014 season.

 

4. Princeton Panthers

Coach: Lee Wilkins

2013 finish: 10-2 (3A D-I area finalist)

Returning starters: 4 offensive, 7 defensive

Players to watch

  • DL Derek Templeman, Sr., 6-0, 270 (32 tackles, 4 for loss, 6 QB pressures)
  • LB Jeremy Beaird, Sr., 6-1, 175 (76 tackles, 10 for loss, 4 sacks, 6 QB pressures, 5 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, 1 PBU)
  • WR Brandon Talley, Jr., 6-4, 190 (16 catches, 256 yards, 4 TDs)
  • OL Logan Roberts, Sr., 6-0, 200
  • DB Rudy Garza, Sr., 5-8, 165 (35 tackles, 1 for loss, 3 INTs, 9 PBU)
  • QB Colt Collins, Jr.
  • LB Jake Bowland, Sr., 5-11, 165 (47 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 fumble recovery)
  • DL Dylan Templeman, Soph., 6-2, 200 (32 tackles, 8 for loss, 4 sacks, 5 QB pressures)

 

2014 outlook: Princeton won 10 games a season ago, but wholesale changes on offense could force the Panthers to take a step back this year. Princeton has four returning starters back on an offense that averaged 41.8 points per game in 2013, but lost to graduation are quarterback Jourdan Blake (2,474 total yards, 36 touchdowns), running back Trey Jackson (1,799 yards, 22 touchdowns) and receiver Jakari Dillard (45 catches, 717 yards, 10 touchdowns). That trio accounted for roughly 90 percent of Princeton's offense a season ago. What the Panthers figure to hang their hats on this season is a defense that returns seven starters from a unit that allowed only 17.5 points per game. The D-line sibling duo of Derek and Dylan Templeman will be a tough matchup for most offensive lines in the district, while linebackers Jeremy Beaird and Jake Bowland are active both against the pass and the run.

 

5. Paris North Lamar Panthers

Coach: Tim Billings

2013 finish: 2-8

Returning starters: 5 offensive, 9 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Keitron Reed, Sr., 5-7, 150 (1,550 rushing yards, 15 TDs)
  • LB Cameron Avery, Sr., 5-10, 160
  • LB Jonathan Edwards, Sr., 6-2, 190
  • OL Cody Berry, Sr., 6-2, 225
  • WR Micah Booker, Sr., 5-10, 170
  • DL Tyler Trammel, Sr., 6-0, 230
  • LB Hunter Reeves, Jr.
  • QB Tyler Anthony, Sr., 6-4, 170

 

2014 outlook: North Lamar's offense struggled to move the ball for most of last season, finishing with a scoring average of 22.3 points per game. However, there were only two games in which the Panthers failed to score more than one touchdown. A big reason North Lamar was able to generate enough offense to remain competitive at times was the season running back Keitron Reed had in 2013. Reed, a small but elusive back, is the district's leading returning rusher, so the North Lamar offense figures to run through him this fall. Finding other players to join the fun will be a challenge for the Panthers, who have a new head coach for the first time since 1997. Tim Billings, who was the defensive line coach at Memphis, takes over for Tommy Felty, who led North Lamar to an 85-95 record in 17 seasons. Billings will have an uphill challenge in year one, but good things could be on the way under a coach will college experience.

 

6. Quinlan Ford Panthers

Coach: Todd Wallace

2013 finish: 5-5

Returning starters: 3 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • OL/LB Tanner Renfro, Sr., 5-9, 230
  • TE Logan Lane, Sr., 6-2, 215
  • DB James West, Sr., 5-9, 160 (72 tackles)
  • LB Brandon Melton, Jr., 5-7, 200
  • LB Gavin Ellis, Sr., 5-10, 160
  • OL Dakota Pitts, Sr., 5-10, 235
  • DB Trevor Stanford, Sr., 5-9, 150
  • RB Justin Parker, Jr., 5-9, 150

 

2014 outlook: Quinlan Ford won its first three games of last season and its district opener, but failed to capitalize on the momentum by dropping the final three games of the regular season to miss out on the playoffs. And with only eight returning starters back in the mix, the Panthers must get help from newcomers right off the bat. But this is now the third year the program will be under the direction of coach Todd Wallace, which at the vey least, should provide continuity. One thing Ford will have to learn this season is a whole new set of district foes. Pittsburg, Liberty-Eylau, Paris, Princeton and Paris North Lamar were a cumulative 29-27 last season, which included just two combined postseason wins. That in and of itself should give the Panthers confidence, knowing none of its new district competitors were head-and-shoulders above the pack.