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2014 Football Preview: Defending State Semifinalist Waskom Leads Deep District 8-3A D-II

Waskom RB Kevin Johnson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

There won’t be too many districts anywhere in East Texas deeper or more talented than District 8-3A Division II. It’s incredibly strong at the top and potent in the middle with potential for surprise at the bottom.

Waskom is the obvious choice for district favorite after its run to the Class 2A Division II state semifinals. The Wildcats bring back all four 1,000-yard rushers from a season ago, along with several impact players on defense.

Arp, armed with perhaps the best running back and defensive linemen in the district, won’t be too far behind Waskom. Meanwhile, Frankston, New Diana and Troup are all playoff teams from a year ago. And Elysian Fields, Winona and West Rusk are teams expected to show significant improvement after being forced to play a number of underclassmen in 2013.

It was tough to rank these teams in order of projected finish or narrow a list of playmakers to less than 30 names, but here goes:

District 8-3A Division II Preview

Frankston WR Kendrick Rogers. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)
PLAYMAKERS
  • Jobie Ainsworth, QB, Sr., New Diana
  • Chan Amie, LB, Jr., Waskom
  • Dillon Benton, FB, Sr., Waskom
  • Corey Brister, OL, Jr., West Rusk
  • Caden Bruton, DL, Sr., Frankston
  • Ozzie Buckner, QB, Sr., Frankston
  • Trace Carter, QB, Sr., Waskom
  • Marquis Davis, DL, Sr., Troup
  • Kalik Hines, LB, Sr., Arp
  • Logan Hughes, QB, Soph., Elysian Fields
  • Tyrone Hunt, OL/DL, Sr., Arp
  • June Bug Johnson, RB, Sr., Waskom
  • Kevin Johnson, RB/DB, Sr., Waskom
  • Marcalas Johnson, RB, Sr., Arp
  • Marcus Kincade, RB/DB, Sr., Winona
  • Mike Reason, LB, Jr., Waskom
  • Kendrick Rogers, WR, Jr., Frankston
  • Dee Starling, QB, Jr., West Rusk
  • Eric Stephens, DB, Jr., Waskom
  • D’Luis West, RB, Sr., Troup

 

TOP GAMES
  • Sept. 26 — New Diana at Troup
  • Oct. 3 — Troup at Elysian Fields
  • Oct. 3 — Waskom at Frankston
  • Oct. 10 — Arp at Waskom
  • Oct. 10 — Elysian Fields at New Diana
  • Oct. 17 — Troup at Arp
  • Nov. 7 — Arp at Frankston

 

1. Waskom Wildcats

Waskom RB June Bug Johnson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Whitney Keeling

2013 finish: 14-1 (2A D-II state semifinalist)

Returning starters: 6 offensive, 7 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB/DB Kevin Johnson, Sr., 5-10, 160 (131 carries, 1,860 yards, 26 TDs; 137 tackles)
  • RB June Bug Johnson, Sr., 5-7, 135 (122 carries, 1,384 yards, 17 TDs)
  • QB Trace Carter, Sr., 6-3, 175 (19 of 41, 545 yards, 8 TDs, 4 INTs; 154 carries, 1,036 yards, 14 TDs)
  • FB Dillon Benton, Sr., 5-10, 170 (110 carries, 1,196 yards, 16 TDs)
  • LB Mike Reason, Jr., 5-9, 170 (191 tackles, 17 for loss, 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles)
  • DB Eric Stephens, Jr., 5-6, 140 (4 INTs)
  • LB Chan Amie, Jr., 5-11, 160
  • OL Kyle Adams, Sr., 6-4, 285
  • OL John Lumpkin, Sr., 6-0, 205
  • DB Keilon Johnson, Jr., 5-8, 140

 

Waskom QB Trace Carter. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: There’s no mystery behind what Waskom is trying accomplish on offense. With four ball carriers that all eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark a season ago, the agenda seems to be pretty clear. Between running backs Kevin Johnson and June Bug Johnson, fullback Dillon Benton and quarterback Trace Carter, Waskom is blessed with perhaps the most productive rushing backfield in the entire state. The Wildcats, despite not being the biggest team on the field most of the time, rely on their running game to score points and break the will of opposing defenses.

Waskom FB Dillon Benton. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

No one expects fifth-year head coach Whitney Keeling to drastically shift in offensive philosophy, but it is worth noting what the Wildcats were up to over the summer. For the first time in the school’s history, Waskom participated in 7-on-7, and not only did the Wildcats give the new experiment a try; the Wildcats excelled. Waskom was a surprise qualifier to the state 7-on-7 tournament in College Station last month, and even did enough on the first day in pool play to advance to the championship round.

That all being said, don’t anticipate Waskom to air it out very much once the real football season arrives. Why would it? Between the fearsome foursome out of the backfield, Waskom engineered 5,476 yards and 73 touchdowns on the ground — reaching an astounding 10.6 yards per carry. While Carter may attempt more passes than the 41 he put up in 2013, Waskom breads its butter with running the football, to the tune of 51 points per game a season ago.

Defense: With a school enrollment of only 255 students, as you would expect, several of Waskom’s offensive stars are asked to play on the other side of the ball. Kevin Johnson, who has an offer FCS Northwestern State as a defensive back, racked up 137 tackles as a junior.

Waskom LB Mike Reason. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

But the real standout of Waskom’s defense is junior linebacker Mike Reason, who led the Wildcats with 191 tackles in his sophomore campaign. The undersized but physical man in the middle of Waskom’s defense also provided 17 tackles for loss, seven sacks and four forced fumbles. Chan Amie, following an impressive sophomore season in his own right, joins Reason to form a solid 1-2 punch at the linebacker spot. While not blessed with size, defensive backs Eric Stephens and Keilon Johnson usually know where the ball is and will be solid compliments to the defensive prowess of Kevin Johnson.

Waskom’s only soft spot on the defense may be a small and inexperienced defensive line, but there are enough seasoned playmakers behind it to make up for that and then some. The Wildcats allowed 22 points per game a season ago, which is good for today’s standards, but not great. The defense ran into a buzz saw in its season-ending 69-33 state semifinal loss to state power Refugio, but with seven starters returning, the Waskom defense as a whole should be improved — especially at the second and third levels.

2014 outlook: Only five years removed from an 0-10 season, Waskom finds itself in a position it never has before: the hunted. Not only are the Wildcats heavy favorites to capture the District 8-3A Division II championship, it is the feeling of many across the state that this is Waskom’s year to reach and possibly win the program’s first-ever state title. It won’t be easy, but accomplishing greatness never is.

A strong non-district schedule that features Center, Paul Pewitt and Hughes Springs should provide enough of a test for Waskom as it enters what should be a tough, seven-week stretch of league play. However, the schedule sets ups well. After opening 8-3A D-II at home vs. rival Elysian Fields and on the road at Frankston, three of Waskom’s next four games are at home — Arp, West Rusk and Troup.

Once the playoffs arrive, the competition in Region III may include the likes of Leonard, S&S Consolidated, Cooper and Hughes Springs — all of which won at least 10 games in 2013. Region I, aside from defending 2A D-II state champion Cisco, appears to be much less challenging. While nothing is ever guaranteed, with the amount of talent returning to the field following a 14-1 season, Waskom seems as safe a bet as any to at least reach Arlington’s AT&T Stadium in December for the state championship game.

2. Arp Tigers

Arp RB Marcalas Johnson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Dale Irwin

2013 finish: 7-5 (2A D-II area finalist)

Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Marcalas Johnson, Sr., 5-9, 180 (234 carries, 1,838 yards, 25 TDs; 6 catches, 34 yards, 1 TD)
  • OL/DL Tyrone Hunt, Sr., 6-4, 230 (47 tackles, 8 for loss, 5 sacks, 3 QB pressures)
  • LB Kalik Hines, Sr., 5-10, 200 (102 tackles, 2 for loss)
  • WR/DB Thomas Reese, Jr. (23 catches, 547 yards, 9 TDs; 48 tackles, 1 for loss, 3 INTs, 1 PBU)
  • OL Tristan Bowins, Sr.
  • LB Isaiah Baker, Jr. (74 tackles, 3 for loss, 1 sack, 3 forced fumbles)
  • QB Justin Johnson, Jr. (21 of 44, 231 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT; 32 carries, 83 yards, 2 TDs)
  • DB Jakeithon Medlock, Jr. (36 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU)

 

Arp OL/DL Tyrone Hunt. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Unlike Waskom, Arp preferred to keep the ball in one man’s hands last season. Senior running back Marcalas Johnson, who’s been torching opposing defenses since his sophomore season, returns as one of East Texas’ very best backs and figures to pick up where he left off in 2013. Johnson accounted for 54 percent of Arp’s total yardage and almost 60 percent of the Tigers’ offensive touchdowns. The one-dimensional approach helped Arp average 31.4 points per game a season ago, but there is evidence to suggest Johnson won’t be alone when it comes to offensive production this fall.

Quarterback Justin Johnson was forced into action as a sophomore, playing behind the now-graduated Chase Bonner for most of the season. But when he was in the game, Arp’s offense featured a new dimension: a quarterback with superior playmaking ability with his legs. Last year’s numbers may not accurately demonstrate Johnson’s effect on the offense, but with an entire camp full of first-team reps, fans should expect to see a more versatile offensive attack. Receiver Thomas Reese is a game-changer. As a sophomore, he averaged almost 24 yards per catch and nine of his 23 receptions were good for touchdowns. The offensive line should be in good shape as well with the return of Tyrone Hunt, who doubles as a menacing defensive end, and Tristan Bowins.

Arp LB Kalik Hines. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Arp’s defense was solid all season long, holding opponents to a respectable 21.6 points per game. As mentioned above, Hunt will be a force to be reckoned with for opposing offensive linemen. Last season, the big, quick and athletic en finished with 13 stops behind the line of scrimmage — five of which were sacks.

The Tigers’ linebacking corps could be one of the area’s best in 2013 with both Kalik Hines and Isaiah Barker back. The two combined for 176 tackles and forced three fumbles a season ago. Reese is just as big a playmaker on defense as he is on offense, evidenced by his superb play at safety as a sophomore. Add Jakeithon Medlock to the mix, and not only does Arp have a top-notch secondary, but a well-rounded and experienced defense altogether.

2014 outlook: Arp has developed a reputation as one of East Texas’ most consistently successful small-school programs. Since head coach Dale Irwin took over the program prior to the 20013 season, the Tigers are 88-43. Arp has been ever better in the last seven years, collecting four double-digit win seasons with state-quarterfinal appearances in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Capturing a district championship this season will be tough with Waskom eager to build upon its unprecedented success of a year ago, but the league title still figures to come down to Arp’s matchup with Waskom — Oct. 10 at Waskom. And if football has taught us anything it’s that anything and everything is possible any given Friday night.

 

3. Frankston Indians

Frankston QB Ozzie Buckner. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Matt Nally

2013 finish: 4-7 (2A D-II bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 9 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR Kendrick Rogers, Jr., 6-5, 180 (47 catches, 727 yards, 5 TDs)
  • QB Ozzie Buckner, Sr., 6-0, 185 (152 of 240, 2,207 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs; 92 carries, 729 yards, 6 TDs)
  • DL Caden Bruton, Sr., 6-3, 200 (95 tackles, 28 for loss, 4.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 PBU, 3 blocked kicks, 1 defensive TD)
  • RB Oran Jenkins, Sr., 5-6, 165 (58 carries, 428 yards, 4 TDs; 21 catches, 381 yards, 6 TDs)
  • WR Justice Bean, Jr., 5-10, 165 (34 catches, 577 yards, 3 TDs; 20 carries, 106 yards)
  • OL/DL Chris Thompson, Jr., 6-2, 245
  • OL/DL John Ross, Sr., 6-2, 240
  • WR Waylon Morris, Sr. (19 catches, 214 yards, 1 TD)

 

Offense: Frankston’s offense was a work in progress last season, made up largely of underclassmen still trying to figure out what Friday nights were all about. All in all, the Indians’ offense performed well, averaging more than 25 points per game in 2013. And with nine starters back on that side of the ball, the expectations for this group are sky high — especially with the QB-WR combo third-year coach Matt Nally has returning.

Frankston RB Oran Jenkins. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Quarterback Ozzie Buckner made the engine go last season, putting up just less than 3,000 total yards of offense with 23 combined touchdowns. Buckner will work to improve on his completion percentage, but when plays break down upfield, he’s more than capable of taking off and picking up huge chunks of yards with this legs. The senior signal-caller will have one of the very best receivers in the area to work with in junior Kendrick Rogers, who emerged as Frankston’s No. 1 option in the passing game as a sophomore. Rogers’ size makes him a mismatch for virtually all defensive backs, and with a full varsity season now under his belt, look for the talented playmaker — owner of North Texas and SMU offers — to begin making a serious impact in East Texas.

While not as big, Justice Bean is a solid secondary option in the receiving corps for Buckner, while running back Oran Jenkins can do damage as a ball-carrier or as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

Frankston DL Caden Bruton. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Frankston should be in good hands as well on this side of the ball. Defensive lineman Caden Bruton had a monster junior season, making 28 stops behind the line of scrimmage, forcing three fumbles and blocking a trio of kicks. Bruton’s not the biggest down-lineman, but his compact frame and off-the-edge quickness is to tough to combat in one-on-one situations at the 3A level.

The Indians have a few more holes to fill on defense than they do on offense, but with a solid corps of returning starters, it’s not unreasonable to expect Frankston to improve upon its defensive scoring average of 26.9 points per game.

2014 outlook: Frankston fought through a difficult district last year to make the playoffs, and with 15 combined starters returning, the Indians appear poised to make another run at the postseason. Realignment didn’t do the Indians any favors by placing them in an eight-team district full of proven programs, but there is enough firepower in Frankston to keep the Indians in the hunt and in good position to qualify for the playoffs.

 

4. New Diana Eagles

New Diana QB Jobie Ainsworth. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Brett Ratliff

2013 finish: 7-4 (2A D-II bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 7 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB Jobie Ainsworth, Sr. (62 of 127, 1,190 yards, 15 TDs, 5 INTs; 89 carries, 579 yards, 10 TDs)
  • RB/LB Cameron Taylor, Sr., 6-0, 195 (30 carries, 153 yards; 56 tackles, 7 for loss, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 4 recoveries)
  • OL/DL Trey Villareal, Sr., 6-2, 320 (47 tackles, 9 for loss, 1 sack)
  • DL Dillion Hall, Sr. (12 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack)
  • WR/LB Tyler Morgan, Sr. (4 catches, 87 yards, 2 TDs; 34 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 INTs, 1 forced fumble)
  • LB Cody Holland, Jr. (110 tackles, 26 for loss, 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries)
  • DL Skylar Simpson, Jr. (71 tackles, 13 for loss, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 3 recoveries, 1 defensive TD)
  • OL Chris Dells, Sr., 6-0, 210

 

New Diana RB/LB Cameron Taylor. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Garrett Barton and K.J. Jeffery, in large measure, were New Diana’s offense in 2013, accounting for most of New Diana’s yards and touchdowns. They’re gone, but third-year coach Brett Ratliff likes what he has coming back. The Eagles put up more than 34 points per game last season, and the coach believes there’s more from where that come from this fall.

New Diana does return its quarterback Jobie Ainsworth, who accounted for 1,800 total yards and 25 touchdowns as a junior. That in and of itself should be enough to settle some of the New Diana coaching staff’s concerns. Cameron Taylor is a promising running back, who played sparingly on that side of the ball in 2013, but whose bruising running style could be just what the Eagles need in a replacement for Barton. He’ll run behind a large offensive lineman, Trey Villareal, who will serve as a massive wall of protection and unrelenting force of aggression.

Defense: The Eagles defense was inconsistent all season long in 2013, surrendering 28.5 points per game. But there’s reason to believe those numbers could be on their way down with six returning starters in place, many of them impact performers from a season ago.

New Diana LB Cody Holland. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Cody Holland recorded more than 100 tackles as a sophomore with a team-best 26 stops behind the line of scrimmage, including a half-dozen sacks. Taylor had a productive season at linebacker as well, and the coaching staff is also expecting big things from Tyler Morgan. If everything goes according to plan, New Diana will have one of the best linebacking trios in the district on the field. Villareal, Dillon Hall and Skylar Simpson form a solid D-line corps, and time will tell how the secondary shapes up with a couple of new faces roaming the defensive backfield.

2014 outlook: New Diana navigated through a difficult district, which featured the likes of Waskom, Hughes Springs and Paul Pewitt, in order to claim a playoff spot last season. So, the Eagles are no stranger to having to scratch and claw in order to reach the goal of extending their season well into November. After Waskom and Arp, a battle for the final two playoff spots should ensue from a whole host of teams used to making trips to the postseason. New Diana must take care of business in games vs. Frankston, Troup, Elysian Fields, Winona and West Rusk.

 

5. Troup Tigers

Troup RB D’Luis West. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Dennis Alexander

2013 finish: 6-5 (2A D-I bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 5 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB D’Luis West, Sr., 5-8, 210
  • FB/DL Marquis Davis, Sr., 5-10, 240 (35 tackles, 2 sacks)
  • LB Brett Martin, Sr. (65 tackles, 6 for loss)
  • LB Brandt Palmer, Jr.
  • OL Charlie Rowden, Sr.
  • DL Nate Jenkinson, Sr.
  • WR Dustin Perry, Soph.
  • DL Matt Scruggs, Sr.

 

Offense: It was a difficult offseason for Troup after star quarterback and Baylor commit Blake Lynch and running back Marcus Kincade transferred out of the district. A team that was already having to replace several playmakers that graduated in the spring now must scramble to find replacements before the season gets going. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now concerning the offense, and the weeks leading up to the season opener will answer several of those questions.

Running back D’Luis West, a promising college prospect, should assume the role of workhorse. And his body type and running style are ideal to withstand 20-plus carries on a weekly basis. Fullback Marquis Davis, who weights well over 200 pounds, should be a solid short-yardage option and compliment to West. Receivers Hitachi Lydia and Brandon Hearon have graduated, so finding adequate pass-catchers and a capable quarterback will be big priorities for Troup this month.

Troup’s Marquis Davis sprints for a 33-yard touchdown reception during a 21-14 overtime loss to Bullard Brook Hill on June 17, 2013, in 7-on-7 football action at Bullard’s Panther Stadium. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Troup allowed more than 25 points per game in 2013, and the defense might get tested even more this season after losing five key starters on that side of the ball. However, the Tigers do bring back a handful of players who saw meaningful action on the field a season ago.

Davis is a tough matchup up front for opposing offensive linemen, and with the addition of fellow D-linemen Nate Jenkinson and Matt Scruggs, Troup’s first level of defense has serious potential. Brett Martin and Brandt Palmer are back at linebacker, but the Tigers’ secondary will be in need of some re-tooling if Troup seeks more than marginal improvement from last year’s defense.

2014 outlook: While the unexpected personnel losses may have fazed most head coaches and their programs, East Texas coaching icon Dennis Alexander has certainly seen a thing or two in his five decades on the sideline. Alexander is the state’s third-winningest coach all-time, so he’s perhaps more equipped to handle unforeseen obstacles that pop up from time to time. With that being said, it will certainly be a dogfight if Troup wants to get back to the playoffs. The depth of the district would be difficult for most programs to overcome.

 

6. Elysian Fields Yellow Jackets

Elysian Fields quarterback Logan Hughes (11) looks for a receiver during a Sept. 6, 2013, home loss to Jefferson. (Jeff Stapleton, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Scott Ford

2013 finish: 3-7

Returning starters: 11 offensive, 9 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB Logan Hughes, Soph., 6-1, 180 (2,300 passing yards, 26 TDs)
  • RB Jacoby Owens, Jr.
  • DL Reese Matthews, Jr.
  • WR Dylan Parker, Soph.
  • DL Anthony Stevenson, Sr.
  • LB Cameron Martin, Jr.
  • OL Luke Rice, Jr.
  • DB Tramell Hudson, Sr.

 

Offense: It was a season full of growing pains for Elysian Fields last year, but that was to be expected on a team full of several freshman and sophomore starters and a brand-new coaching staff. The ‘Jackets still managed to put up 24 points per game in 2013, and with all 11 starters back on offense, second-year coach Scott Ford is hopeful that unit will be much improved.

Waskom’s June Bug Johnson (5) shakes off Elysian Fields’ Tramell Hudson during Waskom’s 60-13 road win at Jacket Stadium on Oct. 19, 2013. (Jeff Stapleton, ETSN.fm)

Must of the optimism surrounding Elysian Fields’ offense in 2014 is quarterback Logan Hughes, who burst onto the scene as a freshman. In his first year of high school, Hughes accounted for 230 yards of offense per game on his own — not too bad for a 14-year old making his Friday night debut under the bright lights of East Texas football stadiums. With every single one of his fellow starters returning, there’s no telling how big of a jump this Yellow Jackets offense can make going forward.

Defense: The defense took a hit with the departure of linebacker Tanner Norman, who went over 200 tackles in only 10 games last season. But just like the offense, several newcomers to varsity football got their feet wet in 2013 and are posed for breakout seasons this fall.

Reese Matthews and Anthony Stevenson will be key men up front, linebacker Cameron Martin is hoping to duplicate his successful sophomore campaign and defensive back Tramell Hudson rounds out what should be a much-improved defense. The ‘Jackets allowed 36 points per game a year ago, but with nine defensive starters back, expect that number to take a nose-dive by the end of the 2014 season.

2014 outlook: A year after reaching the state semifinals, Ford knew he’d have his work cut out after most of those players were lost to graduation. EF struggled to a 3-7 season — its worst since 1992 — but now that the players have been in the new system for more than year, things should be much smoother this time around. Elysian Fields should challenge for playoff spot, but with the amount of teams in the district with more recent success, the ‘Jackets must show marked improvement across the board in order to get back to the postseason.

 

7. Winona Wildcats

Winona RB/LB David Odom. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Keylon Kincade

2013 finish: 4-6

Returning starters: 8 offensive, 7 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB/DB Marcus Kincade, Sr., 6-0, 170
  • RB/LB David Odom, Sr.
  • TE/HB Chase Boyd, Soph.
  • QB Joe Marsh, Jr. (315 passing yards, 2 TDs)
  • WR/DB Braxton Kincade, Soph.
  • LB DeUndre Wheeler, Soph.
  • OL/DL Kyle Boyd, Jr., 5-9, 230
  • DE LaDarion Jefferson, Fr.

 

Offense: Expect wholesale changes. That’s what typically happens when a new coaching staff takes over a program, especially one coming off a disappointing four-win season. New coach Keylon Kincade, the former Troup and SMU star who was briefly a member of the Dallas Cowboys, has made one thing clear: no one’s job is safe. Winona could use as many as three freshmen this season on offense, which could lend itself to a fair share of inconsistent play, but the new staff is committed to changing the way the Wildcats have done things in the past.

Winona WR/DB Braxton Kincade. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Winona’s offense will get an immediate upgrade in the backfield with running back Marcus Kincade, a talented two-way star who transferred in from Troup over the summer. Aside from Kincade, the rest of the offense may be a work in progress with several new faces. Quarterback Joe Marsh is a holdover, and will look to take the next step in the development process after getting a feel for the QB position a season ago. Sophomore receiver Braxton Kincade and H-back Chase Boyd could give Winona a shot in the arm with their playmaking ability down the field.

Winona DL LaDarion Jefferson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Winona could be even younger on this side of the ball. Freshman defensive end LaDarion Jefferson is one to watch. Despite not playing a down of football on the varsity level, or attending one high school class for that matter, Jefferson already looks the part of a star in the making. Marcus Kincade is a physical player at safety and will bring some much-needed intimidation to the Winona defense, which allowed 34.4 points per game in 2013.

Senior David Odom and sophomore DeUndre Wheeler will be counted upon to bring steady play from the linebacker spot, while Kyle Boyd will likely pull double duty between the O-line and D-line.

2014 outlook: The Keylon Kincade hire came midway through the summer, so there won’t be much time for the new coaching staff to familiarize itself with the playoffs. And that could be an issue considering how many young players Winona is expecting contributions from this season. But make no mistake, there is some serious talent much of East Texas hasn’t seen yet on the way. Winona will be an interesting team to watch grow over the next several months because big things could be in the Wildcats’ future if all goes well this year.

 

8. West Rusk Raiders

West Rusk QB Dee Starling. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: John Frazier

2013 result: 2-8

Returning starters: 9 offensive, 8 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB Dee Starling, Jr., 6-2, 185 (2 of 6, 19 yards in 2 games)
  • OL Corey Brister, Jr., 6-2, 282
  • RB Nick Ballard, Jr., 5-11, 205 (90 carries, 466 yards, 1 TD)
  • DL Brandon Dupree, Sr., 6-1, 230 (54 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 1 QB pressure, 1 PBU)
  • OL/DL Joe Wright, Jr., 5-11, 210
  • WR/DB Steven Wright, Sr., 5-10, 170 (2 catches, 40 yards; 23 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
  • LB Jacob Smith, Sr.
  • WR/DB D.J. Hicks, Jr., 5-10, 150 (15 tackles, 2 INTs, 5 PBU)

 

West Rusk OL Corey Brister. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: No one is quite sure what to expect from the West Rusk offense in 2014. Sure, there are nine offensive starters back, but the Raiders lost their biggest piece — quarterback George Anthony, who rolled up more than 2,000 rushing yards a season ago. West Rusk’s other senior starter from 2013 — Dakota McCoy — was the Raiders’ leading receiver, so finding replacements for those two will be a big priority this month for eighth-year head coach John Frazier.

The return of Dee Starling, who began last season as the starting quarterback, missed all but two games in 2013 because of injury. He’s back now, and if he can re-capture the promise he showed West Rusk coaches before the injury, the Raiders’ offense may headed in the right direction. Running back Nick Ballard is expected to receive a heavy workload out of the backfield, while Steven Wright and D.J. Hicks could emerge as key pass-catching threats downfield. One spot where West Rusk shouldn’t be hurting is on the offensive line, where the Raiders welcome back Corey Brister, who’s started every game since his freshman year.

West Rusk LB Joe Wright. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: West Rusk had its fair share of difficult on the defensive side of the ball last season, surrendering an average of more than 31 points per game. But another man who missed significant time in 2013 because of injury — linebacker Jacob Smith — is anxious to get back onto the field for his final season of high school ball.

Brandon Dupree is another intriguing figure on the West Rusk defensive line, which could be the Raiders’ biggest strength of the defense. Hicks has great two-way potential, and could be a star in the secondary this year.

2014 outlook: Even with a player the caliber of Anthony, West Rusk managed just two wins last season. Part of that was a product of competing in a difficult district, and it was partly because of so many underclassmen being forced into action. The good news for Coach Frazier and Co. is that all of those young players got plenty of valuable experience and should be much improved going forward, even if the district remains one of the toughest in the region.

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Register on ETSN.fm - East Texas Sports Network quickly by logging in with your Facebook account. It's just as secure, and no password to remember!