2014 Football Preview: District 11-3A Division I Crowded At The Top
Despite not being comprised of programs steeped in tradition, District 11-3A Division I has the potential to be one of the most talked about in the region in 2014.
There's Teague, who's returning a 2,400-yard passer, 2,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver, along with every other starter from last season's offense.
How about Malakoff? The Tigers are on the heels of their first 11-win season since World War II. And Elkhart must find where to go next after the graduation of all-state running back and North Texas signee Jeffery Wilson.
Many questions will be answered before the year's all said and done, but here's a sample of what to expect this fall.
District 11-3A Division I Preview
- Chris Box, LB, Sr., Elkhart
- Marcus Dowell, RB, Sr., Malakoff
- Keenan Hargest, RB, Jr., Eustace
- Thomas Hyde, OL, Sr., Eustace
- Hoss Jones, LB, Sr., Palestine Westwood
- John Love, RB, Sr., Teague
- Zack McFarland, OL, Sr., Elkhart
- Aaron Mitchell, WR, Sr., Teague
- Austin Skinner, QB, Sr., Teague
- Stephen Wolfe, QB, Sr., Malakoff
- Oct. 17 -- Malakoff at Elkhart
- Oct. 24 -- Teague at Malakoff
- Oct. 24 -- Eustace at Palestine Westwood
- Nov. 7 -- Elkhart at Teague
1. Teague Lions
Coach: Donnie Osbourne
2013 finish: 7-4 (2A D-I bi-district finalist)
Returning starters: 11 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Austin Skinner, Sr., 6-0, 185 (168 of 282, 2,472 yards, 29 TDs, 9 INTs; 36 carries, 60 yards, 5 TDs)
- RB John Love, Sr., 5-9, 170 (217 carries, 2,117 yards, 24 TDs; 14 catches, 339 yards, 4 TDs)
- WR Aaron Mitchell, Sr., 5-10, 165 (64 catches, 1,189 yards, 17 TDs)
- WR Mikkail Shepherd, Jr., 6-0, 170 (23 catches, 312 yards, 4 TDs; 2 carries, 70 yards, 2 TDs)
- LB Dylan Crawford, Jr., (120 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovery, 1 PBU)
- RB/LB Zaccheus Bell, Jr. (27 carries, 226 yards, 2 TDs; 101 tackles, 12 for loss, 3 forced fumbles, 2 INTs
- LB Joshua Mulkey, Sr. (79 tackles, 17 for loss, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 4 recoveries, 1 PBU)
- DB Terry Hines, Jr. (30 tackles, 1 for loss, 3 INTs, 1 PBU, 2 fumble recoveries)
2014 outlook: The question may become not how Teague's offense will be stopped, but how it will be contained. The Lions, fresh off a seven-win season and playoff berth, return all 11 offensive starters from last season, including as productive a trio of playmakers as any school in the state. Between quarterback Austin Skinner, running back John Love and receiver Aaron Mitchell, Teague peppered opponents with an average of 45.8 points and 451.2 yards per game in 2013. Expect those numbers to continue this fall, or perhaps rise even higher. Teague has some work to do on the defensive side with just four returning starters, but if it's a race to 40 points, the smart money's on the Lions more often than not.
2. Malakoff Tigers
Coach: Jamie Driskell
2013 finish: 11-2 (2A D-I regional semifinalist)
Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- RB/LB Marcus Dowell, Sr., 6-1, 205 (1,015 rushing yards, 22 TDs; 69 tackles)
- QB Stephen Wolfe, Sr., 5-10, 185 (1,172 passing yards, 14 TDs, 2 INTs in six games)
- TE Braylon Cable, Sr., 5-10, 180 (29 catches, 361 yards, 5 TDs)
- OL/DL Colton Barker, Jr., 5-10, 260 (43 tackles, 14 for loss)
- DB Jared Givens, Sr., 5-8, 175 (3 INTs)
- OL Emanuel Gonzalez, Sr.
- RB/LB Dylan Grim, Jr.
- LB Omar Gonzalez, Sr.
Offense: After dealing with numerous setbacks on offense in 2012, Malakoff knew that if could stay healthy it could make a deep push into the playoffs. The Tigers lost their starting quarterback midway through the year, but still managed to play three rounds deep and average 48.8 points per game last season. The fewest amount of points Malakoff scored in a game in 2013 was 27, which it did twice in both of the Tigers' losses. The Tigers nearly matched eventual regional champion New Boston score-for-score before dropping a 34-27 decision in the regional semis. Malakoff brings back six starters from last year's juggernaut, including a man sixth-year coach Jamie Driskell is hoping remains healthy throughout.
Quarterback Stephen Wolfe was having a fine start to his junior season before an injury kept the talented signal-caller out of action for his team' final seven games. Obviously the QB's health will continue to be a major concern throughout the course of the next few months, but Malakoff is more than just a one-man show on offense. Senior running back Marcus Dowell appears poised to improve upon his 1,100-yard year from a season ago, while tight end Braylon Cable might become Wolfe's No. 1 target in the passing game.
Defense: Malakoff's defense was often overlooked last season, despite holding opponents to only 15.8 points per game. Just three teams out of 13 managed to put up more than two touchdowns in a game on the Tigers' 'D' a year ago. There will be challenges in replacing six starters off last season's team, but Malakoff will return the services of a couple impact defenders.
Dowell played both ways last year, and his play from the linebacker position could have a huge effect on how Malakoff's defense fares this season. Dowell won't be alone in the middle of the defense as fellow linebackers Dylan Grim and Omar Gonzalez are back to make Malakoff a formidable unit at the second level. Colton Barker is a monster on the front line, evidenced by his 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2013, while defensive back Jared Givens looks to build upon his three-interception junior campaign.
2014 outlook: Malakoff has reached the playoffs in each of Driskell's five seasons at the helm, and the odds are stacked in the Tigers' favor once again this year. Last season's 11-win total was the most since World War II, so fans are curious to see what this rising program has in store for an encore. Key losses on both sides of the ball will have an effect on the 2014 season, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that the playmakers Malakoff does have returning will keep the Tigers in the hunt for a district title all season long.
3. Elkhart Elks
Coach: Sam Wells
2013 finish: 7-4 (2A D-I bi-district finalist)
Returning starters: 8 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
- OL Zack MacFarland, Sr., 6-2, 300
- LB Chris Box, Sr., 5-10, 180 (121 tackles, 8 for loss, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries)
- WR Cullen Adams, Sr., 5-10, 185 (16 catches, 243 yards, 1 TD)
- RB/DB Zack Gray, Jr., 5-10, 190 (61 carries, 199 yards, 2 TDs; 13 catches, 236 yards, 3 TDs; 23 tackles, 7 for loss, 2 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, 1 PBU)
- LB Cameron Wilson, Sr., 5-11, 195 (76 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 1 INT, 2 blocked kicks)
- DL Rowdy Upchurch, Jr. (36 tackles, 1 for loss, 2 fumble recoveries)
- OL Mason Huffines, Sr.
- DB Alex Flores, Jr. (43 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 fumble recovery)
Offense: How do you replace Jeffery Wilson? We're about to find out. The North Texas true freshman running back enjoyed a remarkable career in Elkhart, which finished last season with the workhorse gaining an East Texas-best 2,749 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns. His numbers equated into 68.4 percent of the Elks' offense in 2013, so while Elkhart does return the bulk of its offensive starters from a year ago, replacing Wilson's production will be a chore for third-year head coach Sam Wells.
Eight players with starting experience return to the offense, which should smooth the transition. Junior Zack Gray, who played exclusively at receiver and defensive back as a sophomore, is expected to move into the backfield and become Elkhart's featured back. And while he may not be a player of Wilson's caliber, the coaches are hopeful he can contribute heavily to the offense moving forward. Cullen Adams is a solid target in the passing game, while the O-line duo of Zack McFarland and Mason Huffines should have no trouble opening up holes for the backs or protecting the quarterback.
Defense: Wilson was a defensive standout as well for Elkhart, which also must replace last season's leading tackler Gaje Smock, who nearly eclipsed the 200-tackle barrier in 2013. Still, Elkhart has seven defenders with starting experience and should have enough to improve upon last season's defensive scoring average of 32 points per game.
With Smock now gone, the defense now belongs to senior linebacker Chris Box, who was a star in his own right on the field last season. He'll team with promising junior Cameron Wilson to form what should be a solid linebacking corps in 2014. Rowdy Upchurch is back after a productive sophomore season and will be the anchor to Elkhart's defensive line. The secondary, which will be important in a district featuring quality quarterbacks like Teague's Austin Skinner and Malakoff's Stephen Wolfe, will be led by the duo of Gray and Alex Flores, who burst onto the scene last season as a sophomore.
2014 outlook: Elkhart reached the playoffs last year for the first time since 2004, and everyone within the community is anxious to see how the Elks will respond to success and deal with the loss of the all-stater Wilson. Even without the talented back, Elkhart's offense won't be the team's primary focus of concern. The defense must improve its performance from a season ago to adequately follow up last year's team success. The Elks' offense, while solid, doesn't appear to match the depth or skill level of Teague or Malakoff, so much of the pressure will be placed on a defense that struggled with consistency a season ago.
4. Eustace Bulldogs
Coach: Heath Ragle
2013 finish: 5-6 (2A D-I bi-district finalist)
Returning starters: 4 offensive, 3 defensive
Players to watch
- OL Thomas Hyde, Sr., 6-0, 290
- RB Keenan Hargest, Jr. (620 rushing yards, 4 TDs)
- DL Zach Hughes, Sr., 5-10, 225 (92 tackles)
- QB Brandon Morgan, Sr.
- OL D.J. Wisdom, Sr.
- DB Daniel Hester, Sr.
- RB Lance Rogers, Jr., 5-7, 160
- DB Justin Griffin, Jr.
Offense: In a run-oriented offense like the one in Eustace, you can never have enough running backs or offensive linemen. Building depth at those positions is a primary area of focus every year for the Bulldogs' program, and after a slew of post-graduation losses at RB and OL, second-year coach Heath Ragle and his staff are scrambling to find replacements. Eustace only averaged 19.9 points per game in 2013, and with seven new starters on offense expected this season, the early going may be rough.
There are a couple of holders from last year's team that may be leaned on heavily at the outset -- running back Keenan Hargest and lineman Thomas Hyde. Hargest, a piece in Eustace's RB-by-committee system in 2013, managed more than 600 yards on the ground a season ago and could find himself as the team's featured back this year. Hyde's size alone makes him a tough matchup for D-linemen, but it's his strength and quickness that separate him from the pack. D.J. Wisdom is another solid O-lineman, which gives the Eustace staff a couple of building blocks to work with up front. Finding depth in the backfield is paramount, and quarterback Brandon Morgan and running back Lance Rogers are intriguing compliments to Hargest.
Defense: Graduation also hit the defensive side of the ball hard, as just three starters return from 2013's defense that limited foes to a respectable 21.5 points per game. With an offense not designed to be explosive, but efficient enough to keep possessions away from the other team, the onus will be on a defense full of players relatively new to the Friday night experience to keep Eustace competitive in games against foes with more potent offensive attacks.
Senior defensive lineman Zach Hughes will anchor Eustace's 'D' up front after a banner junior season, while Daniel Hester and Justin Griffin are capable defenders in the secondary. But Ragle and his new staff will need plenty more where that came from if Eustace hopes to replicate last season's defensive performance.
2014 outlook: Eustace has reached the playoffs in each of the last six seasons, but has just one winning record over that same time span. Only Kemp and Malakoff remain on the schedule as the Bulldogs will play eight new programs in 2014. Between the eight, they were a cumulative 44-42 a season ago, which may provide Eustace with an opportunity to improve upon its five-game win total from 2013.
5. Palestine Westwood Panthers
Coach: Kevin Hayes
2013 finish: 1-9
Returning starters: 4 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
- LB Hoss Jones, Sr., 5-10, 190
- RB Ryan Cernoch, Sr., 5-11, 180 (19 of 53, 275 yards, 1 TD, 6 INTs; 59 carries, 86 yards, 2 TDs)
- QB Colton Frazier, Sr., 6-0, 180
- RB D.J. Hicks, Jr., 5-6, 150 (84 carries, 525 yards, 4 TDs; 4 catches, 76 yards, 1 TD)
- RB Kaigan Baker, Jr. (53 carries, 212 yards, 2 TDs)
- LB Micah Ellerbee, Sr., 6-2, 175
- DL Malik Benson, Soph.
- OL Wes Carnley, Jr.
Offense: Obviously with a 1-9 season, there are not too many positives on which to reflect. The offense struggled mightily last year as you'd expect, managing only 14.8 points per game in 2013. And even that number is skewed. Take away Westwood's lone victory -- a 54-48 defeat of Huntington -- and the Panthers scored just 10.4 per game. There are only four returning starters back on that side of the ball, which could be a good or bad thing for first-year coach Kevin Hayes. Either the less-experienced newcomers compound last season's offensive woes, or the fresh faces inject life into an offense that was stagnant for most of the year.
And while they did not all start last season, there are a collection of players that saw the field in 2013 that the new coaching staff hopes to build around. Junior running back D.J. Hicks is small, but can be dangerous in the open field. The featured back may end up being senior Ryan Cernoch, whose numbers were not impressive as a junior, but whose big body and running style could more closely fit the new staff's offensive schemes. Kaigan Baker is another back who saw some time last year and may figure heavily into the offensive game plan. Westwood will have some holes to shore up front after its top lineman Korbin Boles transferred across town to Palestine High.
Defense: The defense also fell on hard times in 2013, allowing an average of 45 points per game to opponents. All 10 teams on Westwood's schedule last year scored at least 29 points, and four topped the 50-point plateau. The Panthers will be just as inexperienced on the defensive side of the ball with just four players with starting experience returning.
Senior linebacker Hoss Jones is Westwood's top defender, but it will take more than one man to completely re-shape the Panthers' defense. Micah Ellerbee is also back at linebacker, and the duo of he and Jones could develop into something the new coaching staff can build around. Malik Benson is only a sophomore, but coaches are high on his ability and are excited to see what he can do on the field when given a chance.
2014 outlook: Since back-to-back playoff appearances in 2006 and 2007, the Westwood program has fallen on hard times. The Panthers are just 12-38 over the previous five seasons, but a new coaching staff has the community hoping a return to the postseason is in the near future. With so much inexperience, coupled with the always-difficult adjustments to first-year staffs, it may be a bit of reach to expect the Panthers to seriously challenge for the postseason in 2014.
6. Kemp Yellowjackets
Coach: Brandon Hankins
2013 finish: 2-8
Returning starters: N/A
Players to watch
- OL Maverick McDowell, Sr., 6-3, 215
- WR Cal Hukill, Sr.
- DL Klayton Kent, Sr., 6-1, 180
- RB/DB David Dennis, Sr., 5-9, 170
- DL Dwight Ringwood, Sr., 6-0, 190
2014 outlook: The Greg Anderson era lasted seven years in Kemp, but only yielded a record of 16-55. In steps Brandon Hankins, who was promoted from within the program, to try and turn the 'Jackets' program into a consistent winner. It will be a challenge, however, as Kemp has not had consecutive playoff teams since 1996-97. Drastically changing the culture of a program is perhaps the most difficult job in coaching, and that will certainly be the story -- one way or another -- of the Hankins administration.