The Rusk Eagles suffered through their worst season under seventh-year head coach Ted Patton in 2013. And how are they treated? By being placed in a six-team district comprised of five playoffs teams from a year ago.

Rusk, which finished 2-8 overall and 0-4 in district last season, lost Palestine but gained a pair of nine-win teams -- Waco Connally and Lorena -- to go along with defending state finalist Fairfield, Mexia and Groesbeck.

With 14 returning starters, the numbers say Rusk will be improved. But how much better?

District 7-4A Division II Preview

PLAYMAKERS
  • Kristian Brown, QB, Sr., Waco Connally
  • James Davis, ATH, Sr., Waco Connally
  • Isaiah Francis, RB, Jr., Rusk
  • Jacob Fox, QB, Sr., Groesbeck
  • Demetri Freeman, DL, Jr., Mexia
  • Josh Gallegos, DL, Sr., Fairfield
  • Dedrick Garner, DL, Sr., Fairfield
  • Colby Minze, WR, Sr., Fairfield
  • Jaime Rocha, DB, Sr., Groesbeck
  • Josh Terrell, RB, Sr., Waco Connally

 

TOP GAMES
  • Oct. 10 -- Fairfield at Waco Connally
  • Oct. 31 -- Waco Connally at Lorena
  • Nov. 7 -- Lorena at Fairfield
  • Nov. 7 -- Mexia at Groesbeck

 

1. Fairfield Eagles

Coach: John Bachtel

2013 finish: 15-1 (3A D-II state finalist)

Returning starters: 2 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • DL Josh Gallegos, Sr., 6-4, 235 (51 tackles, 8 for loss, 3 sacks, 8 QB pressures, 3 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries)
  • DL Dedrick Garner, Sr. (97 tackles, 24 for loss, 13 sacks, 15 QB pressures, 4 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, 7 PBU)
  • WR Colby Minze, Sr. (28 catches, 423 yards, 3 TDs
  • LB Devin Eggins, Sr. (202 tackles, 20 for loss, 7 sacks, 12 QB pressures, 3 forced fumbles, 6 recoveries, 2 PBU)
  • ATH Chance Carroll, Sr., 6-0, 190 (3-of-4, 58 yards; 10 carries, 65 yards, 2 TDs; 2 catches, 66 yards, 1 TD; 64 tackles, 2 for loss, 3 INTs, 12 PBU, 2 forced fumbles)
  • WR Cameron Hicks, Jr. (28 catches, 462 yards, 10 TDs)
  • DB Charles Oliver, Jr. (34 tackles, 2 for loss, 2 INTs, 9 PBU)
  • RB Dominic Brackens, Jr. (120 carries, 829 yards, 12 TDs)

 

2014 outlook: It won't be easy to duplicate Fairfield's historic run to the state championship game last year, but third-year coach John Bachtel will give it a try anyway. The Eagles lost one of the state's most productive running backs, Larry Rose, to graduation, leaving a massive void in Fairfield's backfield. Gone too are quarterback Jacob Gallegos and leading receiver Chris Lide, so finding adequate replacements to an offense that averaged 492 yards and a staggering 55.8 points per game will be a challenge. While the offense may take a step back, there are a handful of impact performers from the defense returning, including the D-line duo of Dedrick Garner and Josh Gallegos, who between them racked up 16 sacks a year ago.

Fairfield, basely sheerly on what the program has accomplished in the last four seasons -- 42-8 overall record -- should be considered the preseason favorite to win the district. The new 7-4A D-II figures to be much stronger than the one Fairfield occupied last season, as five of the six teams reached the postseason in 2013. A strong non-district schedule, which features games against Madisonville, Kaufman, Palestine, Robinson and China Spring, should aptly prepare the Eagles for life in the new district. Beyond that, Fairfield will undoubtedly have its hands full with other Region II challengers like Gilmer, Gladewater, Tatum and Coldspring-Oakhurst in the playoffs.

 

2. Waco Connally Cadets

Coach: Mike Rabe

2013 finish: 9-3 (3A D-II area finalist)

Returning starters: 7 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Josh Terrell, Sr., 5-10, 170 (144 carries, 1,507 yards, 17 TDs; 4 catches, 86 yards)
  • ATH James Davis, Sr., 5-9, 150 (69 carries, 631 yards, 7 TDs; 65 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1 sack)
  • QB Kristian Brown, Sr., 5-9, 175 (49 of 105, 1,045 yards, 12 TDs, 1 iNT; 124 carries, 1,211 yards, 10 TDs)
  • LB Ty McAdams, Sr., 6-1, 180 (70 tackles, 9 for loss, 4 sacks, 1 fumble recovery)
  • DB Dyondre Walker, Jr. (38 tackles, 1 for loss, 4 forced fumble, 4 recoveries, 1 INT, 3 PBU)
  • WR Israel Williams, Sr., 6-0, 165 (17 catches, 470 yards, 7 TDs)
  • OL Gene Sterling, Sr., 6-5, 300
  • OL Chiddy Nwaeze, Jr., 5-10, 280

 

2014 outlook: With half its starters returning from a nine-win team, Waco Connally just might present the biggest challenge to Fairfield's district supremacy. Armed with one of the top running backs in the region -- senior Josh Terrell -- and a multi-dimensional quarterback like Kristian Brown, the Cadets appear primed for a legitimate run at the district crown and perhaps even a playoff win or two. Aside of Terrell and Brown, Connally also has electric athlete James Davis, whose presence will be felt on both offense and defense. The offensive line will be a strength with the return of the sizable duo of Gene Sterling and Chiddy Nwaeze. The defense will be a big question mark, however, as only four starters return from a unit that allowed opponents to post 33.9 points per game in 2013.

 

3. Lorena Leopards

Coach: Ray Biles

2013 finish: 9-2 (3A D-II bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 3 offensive, 3 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Andrew Marrero, Sr., 5-5, 160 (41 carries, 309 yards, 6 TDs; 33 catches, 419 yards, 5 TDs)
  • QB Jared Poteet, Sr., 5-9, 160 (9 of 15, 127 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs; 47 carries, 516 yards, 3 TDs; 20 catches, 303 yards, 2 TDs)
  • OL Cody George, Sr., 6-2, 225
  • LB Mason Mays, Sr. (82 tackles, 5 for loss, 1 QB pressure, 2 forced fumbles, 1 recovery, 2 INTs, 2 PBU)
  • DB Zach Grimm, Jr. (62 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 6 PBU)
  • DB Trace Mays, Sr. (60 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 INTs, 3 PBU)
  • LB Blake Mitchell, Jr., 5-9, 200 (46 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 PBU)
  • DL Lana Michna, Jr. (31 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 fumble recovery)

 

2014 outlook: Lorena was another team that won nine games a season ago, however, most of its 2013 starters were lost to graduation. Senior Andrew Marrero will get a shot to become the Leopards' featured back after solid work both as a ball carrier and pass catcher as a junior. The new quarterback figures to be Jared Poteet, who played sparingly at the position a year ago but contributed to the offense in a multitude of ways. Lorena will be thin on both the offensive and defensive lines, which poses a serious threat to the Leopards becoming a viable district championship contender, but the 'D' looks to be in good shape otherwise. Linebackers Mason Mays and Blake Mitchell both enjoyed fine seasons a year ago, while the DB tandem of Zach Grimm and Trace Mays will anchor what has the makings to be a very solid secondary.

 

4. Mexia Blackcats

Coach: Lamonte Chambers

2013 finish: 4-7 (3A D-I bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 4 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • DL Demetri Freeman, Jr., 6-0, 300
  • DL Alberto Carrillo, Sr., 5-10, 180
  • OL RIcky Reyes, Sr.
  • DL Arkeil Winn, Sr.
  • LB Tyrik Ray, Jr., 5-10, 195
  • QB Jaylen Gipson, Soph., 6-2, 185 (403 rushing yards)
  • WR Ronald Jackson, Sr., 5-9, 145
  • WR Draeshaun Hanna, Sr.

 

2014 outlook: The win-loss record may not have been pretty, but Mexia was able to extend its season by reaching the playoffs after a two-year hiatus. And with a healthy nucleus of returning starters, the Blackcats are hoping that making the postseason becomes a habit once again. There is work to be done on the offensive side of the ball where there are just four players back with starting experience, but the coaching staff is intrigued to see what sophomore Jaylen Gipson can do at quarterback this year. Gipson rushed more than 400 yards as a freshman in limited action, and Mexia is banking on the sophomore to contribute mightily to the offense this season. But where the Blackcats are strongest is on the defensive line, which returns junior tackle Demetri Freeman and seniors Alberto Carrillo and Arkeil Winn.

 

5. Groesbeck Goats

Coach: Bruce McDonald

2013 finish: 4-7 (3A D-II bi-district finalist)

Returning starters: 5 offensive, 8 defensive

Players to watch

  • DB Jaime Rocha, Sr., 6-2, 175 (95 tackles, 3 INTs)
  • QB Jacob Fox, Sr., 6-0, 185 (898 passing yards, 229 rushing yards, 11 total TDs in 4 games)
  • LB Logan Nowak, Sr., 6-2, 185 (76 tackles, 5 for loss)
  • DL Ty Chiglo, Sr., 5-9, 205 (45 tackles, 4 for loss)
  • WR Jaylon Medlock, Jr., 5-10, 150 (846 total yards, 5 TDs)
  • DB Trishawn Townes, Sr., 5-9, 155
  • DL John O'Kelley, Jr., 6-2, 195
  • WR/DB Sabrian Jones, Soph., 5-8, 140

 

2014 outlook: Groesbeck has never made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, so history is stacked against the Goats reaching the postseason this year. However, Groesbeck has 13 returning starters from last year's bi-district finalist, which first-year coach Bruce McDonald is hoping leads to an unprecedented run of success. Quarterback Jacob Fox put up great numbers in only four games last year, leaving many to wonder what he could do with a full season. Junior receiver Jaylon Medlock is a game-breaker in the open field, and will likely develop into Groesbeck's top offensive threat. The Goats are experienced on defense, which will be led by defensive back Jaime Garcia, who made plays from all over the field as a junior.

 

6. Rusk Eagles

Rusk's Sean Bixler (left), Isaiah Francis (center) and Bryce Hoffman. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Ted Patton

2013 finish: 2-8

Returning starters: 7 offensive, 7 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Isaiah Francis, Jr., 5-7, 155 (575 rushing yards)
  • RB Drew Dorsey, Sr. (311 rushing yards)
  • RB D.J Glenn, Sr., 5-8, 155 (503 rushing yards)
  • DL Austin McKinney, Sr. (52 tackles)
  • DL/LB Sean Bixler, Sr., 6-2, 190 (45 tackles)
  • OL Bryce Hoffman, Jr., 6-1, 255
  • OL Tyler Wilbanks, Sr., 5-7, 200
  • DB James Johnson, Sr., 5-8, 160

 

Rusk OL Bryce Hoffman. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Rusk's offense never got on track last season. The Eagles struggled to move the ball all season long, averaging a lowly 10.8 points per game in 2013. After struggling to a 2-4 start out of the gate, Rusk's offense fell completely off the map in district when it registered a total of 13 points in four games. The Eagles are extremely ground-oriented, so when teams jumped ahead early in games, Rusk found it difficult to come back with an offense not accustomed to taking shots down the field in the passing game. Rusk must run the ball effectively in order to put points on the board.

The Eagles have seven starters returning to the offense, which should make things go a little smoother. The trio of Isaiah Francis, D.J. Glenn and Drew Dorsey combined to rush for nearly 1,400 yards, so there is at least proven commodities out of Rusk's backfield this season. The offensive line also returns a pair of standouts in senior Tyler Wilbanks and junior Bryce Hoffman, which could make running the ball a tad more effective in 2014.

Rusk DL/LB Sean Bixler. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Rusk's defense allowed an average of 35.3 points per game a season ago, so there's plenty of work to be done on that side of the ball as well. The Eagles' 'D' was strong at the outset last season, surrendering just 38 total points in the first three games. But things got much worse over the final seven, with opponents putting up an average of 45 points a game. The key this season will be maintaing consistent defensive play throughout the 10-game schedule.

Just like on offense, there are seven defensive starters back. D-line mates Austin McKinney and Sean Bixler were key components last year and should be again this fall. Defensive back James Johnson also had a big impact out of the secondary last year, and with a few more defenders anxious to erase the memory of 2013's rough finish, Rusk has the chance to field a fairly strong defense in 2014.

2014 outlook: Rusk reached the playoffs in six consecutive seasons from 2001-2006, but ever since, the Eagles have been subpar at best. Since 2007, Rusk has just one playoff win and sports an overall record of 25-47, leaving many to wonder if the Eagles have seen their best days. The UIL didn't do Rusk any favors during realignment, putting the Eagles in a six-team district with five teams that reached the playoffs last season. On the bright side, Rusk was extremely young a year ago and played a brutal schedule, which featured Athens, Carthage, Fairfield and Palestine. This year's more seasoned group still has a few daunting schools on its schedule, but perhaps the lessons learned from 2013 will begin to pay dividends this fall.