Last season, White Oak nearly reached the pinnacle of high school football in the state of Texas: playing for the state championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, the Roman Colosseum of its time.

But a rough second half against eventual state champion Cameron Yoe in the semifinals ended what was one of the best seasons in White Oak history. But the success came at a price.

Head coach Gerry Stanford left for Class 6A Flower Mound Marcus, and the Roughnecks were left with just three total starters from last season.

One good thing for White Oak: perennial power Tatum, which was responsible for the Roughnecks' only regular-season loss a year ago, is no longer a district opponent.

District 8-3A Division I Preview

Jefferson OL Ryan Cox. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)
PLAYMAKERS
  • Austin Anderson, OL, Jr., Mineola
  • Riley Anderson, OL, Jr., Mineola
  • Eric Contreras, RB, Sr., Harmony
  • Ryan Cox, OL, Sr., Jefferson
  • Jeremiah Crawford, QB, Soph., Mineola
  • Casey Gilbreath, DL, Sr., Mineola
  • Ty Lafayette, WR, Sr., Jefferson
  • Kemerick Luster, OL, Sr., Jefferson
  • Jake Pullen, DB, Sr., White Oak
  • Zach Rowe, LB, Jr., White Oak
  • Landon Simmons, DL, Jr., Jefferson
  • Sam Smith, LB, Sr., Sabine

 

TOP GAMES
  • Oct. 10 -- Mineola at White Oak
  • Oct. 17 -- Mineola at Harmony
  • Oct. 24 -- Jefferson at Mineola
  • Nov. 7 -- Jefferson at White Oak

 

1. White Oak Roughnecks

White Oak LB Josh Hampton. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Kris Iske

2013 finish: 13-2 (2A D-I state semifinalist)

Returning starters: 0 offensive, 3 defensive

Players to watch

  • DB Jake Pullen, Sr., 6-3, 165 (218 tackles, 3 INTs, 12 PBU, 5 forced fumbles)
  • RB/LB Zach Rowe, Jr., 6-0, 180 (162 rushing yards, 2 TDs)
  • PK Jack Rogers, Sr., 5-11, 170
  • WR Dax Davis, Jr.
  • WR Gavin Senterfit, Jr.
  • OL Logan Rowe, Soph.
  • LB Josh Hampton, Sr.

 

Offense: A complete overhaul is needed on offense after the Roughnecks graduated all 11 starters from last season's record-setting unit. Gone is quarterback Dylan Gale, who passed for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns. Riley Lakin, who led White Oak with 1,800 rushing yards and 25 TDs, is also departed. White Oak must also replace the production of its top two receivers -- Gabe Michael and Jansen McCurdy, who finished with 1,600 receiving yards and 20 scores. It was an offense as balanced as it was potent and one that averaged 39.9 points per game. But now, the Roughnecks must start all over again.

White Oak OL Zach Rowe. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

The first order of business will be finding some to fill the shoes of Gale at quarterback, and once that's been accomplished, discovering a handful of backs and receivers to compliment him in the spread offense. While those are all crucial pieces to the puzzle, the offense will go nowhere without a solid offensive line up front. The 'Necks' O-line was the backbone of the team a season ago, allowing plenty of time for Gale to survey the field and take shots deep down the field to McCurdy. The men up front also paved the way for Lakin to find lanes and keep opposing defense honest with a strong running game. Receivers Dax Davis and Gavin Senterfit -- both juniors -- are two players to keep an eye on this fall, while sophomore offensive lineman Logan Rowe has captured the attention of the White Oak coaching staff.

Defense: Teams don't advance as far in the playoffs as White Oak did in 2013 without a strong defense, and that's exactly what the Roughnecks possessed a season ago. White Oak surrendered just 13.6 points per game all season, allowing more than two touchdowns in a game just four times in 15 games. Take away games against Tatum and Newton, and the 'Necks' 'D' held opponents to just 9.7 a game. While graduation took its toll on that side of the ball as well, there are a couple of returning playmakers the Roughnecks hope to build around this year.

One player White Oak did not lose over the offseason is senior safety Jake Pullen, who put together one of the best seasons of any defender in all of East Texas in 2013. Pullen easily surpassed the 200-tackle plateau, broke up a dozen passes and was instrumental in forcing turnovers. White Oak will need another huge season from Pullen in order to replicate last year's performance. Linebackers Zach Rowe and Michael Hampton must provide strong leadership to a defense that's replacing eight starters and is in dire need of continuity.

2014 outlook: Everything is new in White Oak leading into the new football season. Expectations are perhaps higher than they've ever been following last year's 13-win campaign, which tied the school record for most wins in a season. A new coaching staff is place after former boss Gerry Stanford accepted the head coaching position at Class 6A Flower Mound Marcus during the offseason, which led to the promotion of assistant Kris Iske. And finally, most of the players are new. With just three total starters returning -- none on offense -- there are more questions surrounding a defending state semifinalist than what is ordinarily the case.

But on the bright side, White Oak is a brand-new district that does not feature longtime nemesis Tatum, which handed the 'Necks their only loss of the regular season. And the rest of the district -- Mineola, Jefferson, Harmony, Sabine and Quitman -- combined to go just 19-33 a season ago with no playoff wins. Recent history among the programs in the league also favors White Oak. Winning the district is an attainable goal for the 'Necks, but once the playoffs begin, it could be a rough go. The neighboring district -- 7-3A D-I -- features state-ranked New Boston and Daingerfield, while the rest of Region II is comprised by the likes of Pottsboro, Scurry-Rosser, who both won at least 11 games in 2013.

 

2. Mineola Yellowjackets

Mineola QB Jeremiah Crawford. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Joe Drennon

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

Returning starters: 7 offensive, 9 defensive

Players to watch

  • OL Austin Anderson, Jr., 6-4, 280
  • OL Riley Anderson, Jr., 6-5, 265
  • DL Casey Gilbreath, Sr., 6-2, 215
  • QB Jeremiah Crawford, Soph.
  • DL Trevor Keener, Sr., 6-4, 260
  • OL Dalton Dupont, Sr., 6-4, 235
  • RB/DB Chantz Perkins, Soph.
  • LB Shane Burge, Sr.

 

Mineola OL Austin Anderson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Mineola averaged a mediocre 24.3 points per game in 2013, but that may be changing moving forward with nine offensive starters returning to action this fall. The 'Jackets were young last year, and still will be again this season, but the offense will have youth with experience -- a big difference. Mineola is big up front, potentially explosive at the quarterback position and solid in the backfield and at wide receiver. The personnel suggests a much better offensive showing this season.

Mineola OL Riley Anderson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

It all starts with what looks like the best offensive line, by a mile, in the district. Twins Austin and Riley Anderson are attracting the attention of colleges coaches, while senior Dalton Dupont brings size and leadership to the equation, tying the entire group together. Quarterback Jeremiah Crawford is not very big, but there's no teaching his raw athletic ability, which makes him a dynamic, two-way threat behind center. The fact that he's small for QB standards is less of an issue with MIneola because of the 'Jackets immense size on the O-line; Crawford, on most occasions, will have the freedom and protection to do what he does best: make plays in the open field.

Defense: Mineola's defense was shaky at times a season ago, allowing opponents an average of 34.7 points per game. It was much worse in games against the top teams on the Yellowjackets' schedule -- White Oak, Van, Canton, Athens and Gilmer. Those were all losses with Mineola surrendering an average of 52.8 a game. Obviously, those numbers must improve no matter who Mineola's opponents are. And with nine returning starters on defense, seventh-year coach Joe Drennon expects a much-better showing.

Mineola DL Casey Gilbreath. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Just like the offense, the defense's biggest strength will on the line. Casey Gilbreath and Trevor Keener will work in tandem to stuff the run and get after the quarterback this season. Sophomore defensive back Chantz Perkins, who may see some action at running back, is wise beyond his years and should thrive in his second full season in the secondary. Linebacker Shane Burge is a solid hole-plugger, whose main job will be to stop anyone who happens to be lucky enough to get through Mineola's tough D-line.

2014 outlook: Mineola has had its biggest success of late playing down a class, which is essentially what's taking place over the next couple of seasons. Realignment took the 'Jackets away from what is now Class 4A and placed them with teams who were competing at the 2A level a season ago. The last time Mineola was a 2A program was 2010 and 2011, which yielded back-to-back playoff appearances and a combined record of 17-6.

This season, Mineola only has one current 4A school on the schedule -- Wills Point, which was 3-8 last season. The other four non-district games are against Elysian Fields, Winnsboro, Lone Oak and Paul Pewitt, who were a cumulative 24-19 in 2013. And while White Oak is putting a brand-new product on the field this season, there's still a 43-point gap from last year that needs to be closed if Mineola hopes to entertain thoughts of a district championship.

 

3. Jefferson Bulldogs

Jefferson WR Ty Lafayette. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Derek Simmons

2013 finish: 4-6

Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • OL Ryan Cox, Sr., 6-6, 301
  • WR Ty Lafayette, Sr., 5-7, 140 (36 catches, 417 yards, 6 TDs)
  • DL Landon Simmons, Jr., 5-11, 240 (40 tackles, 3 sacks)
  • OL Kemerick Luster, Sr., 6-4, 300
  • QB P.J. Laster, Sr., 6-0, 190
  • WR Zhymell Bowie, Sr., 5-9, 170
  • RB Javon Smith, Jr.
  • LB Brody Price, Sr., 5-8, 175

 

Jefferson QB P.J. Laster. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: It was a struggle for Jefferson's offense last season, putting up just 18.7 points per game on average in 2013. Even in their four wins, the Bulldogs only averaged 25 points a game -- subpar for today's standards. However, there is legitimate cause for optimism heading into the new season. With more than half of the starters back, including the team's most versatile athlete, there is every reason to believe that Jefferson's offense will look much better in 2014.

Senior receiver Ty Lafayette may lack traditional size for a wideout, but don't let that fool you. He's one of the most difficult players in the district to bring down in the open field, and probably one of the fastest. When he's not doing damage against opposing cornerbacks and safeties, he's more than capable of taking a handoff and rushing for serious positive yardage. With two 300-pound offensive linemen -- Ryan Cox and Kemerick Luster -- also in the fold, explosive plays for Jefferson should be on the rise. The diminutive Lafayette doesn't need much of a crease in which to accelerate, and once he gets beyond the second level, there aren't too many defenders capable of chasing him down.

Jefferson WR Zhymell Bowie. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Jefferson's struggles on defense weren't nearly as pronounced as they were on the other side of the ball. For the most part, the Bulldogs' 'D' kept their team in every game they played last season, holding opponents to a respectable 25 points per game. And with six starters back on that side of the ball, it's not out of the question to assume Jefferson could improve upon those numbers this fall.

Lafayette is a solid defender from the secondary in addition to his offensive exploits, but the defense will be anchored by senior D-lineman Landon Simmons, who used his size and aggressiveness to enjoy breakout success as a junior last season. Backing him up is a linebacking corps that features Brody Price, whom the coaches are expecting big things from for his senior season.

2014 outlook: Jefferson stands an excellent chance of reaching the playoffs based solely on the process of elimination. The Bulldogs finished one spot out of the postseason in their district a season ago, but two of the teams ahead of them -- Tatum and Troup -- are no longer league competitors. But that may be besides the point; Jefferson should field a quality football team this fall, a team that probably could've made the postseason out of that district last year. The 12 returning starters, hungry for a shot at the playoffs, should be the driving force behind a team that remains in the postseason hunt all season long.

 

4. Harmony Eagles

Harmony OL Daniel Logan. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Tim Russell

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

Returning starters: 1 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Eric Contreras, Sr., 5-9, 165 (63 carries, 484 yards, 7 TDs; 2 catches, 54 yards, 1 TD)
  • DL Landon Wigington, Sr., 6-0, 200 (53 tackles, 9 for loss, 3 sacks, 5 QB pressurs, 1 forced fumble, 2 PBU)
  • OL Daniel Logan, Sr., 6-4, 285
  • OL Branson Davis, 6-1, 220
  • WR Andy Lloyd, Jr., 5-10, 170
  • LB Zach Smith, Sr., 5-11, 200 (53 tackles, 12 for loss, 3 sacks, 4 QB pressures, 2 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 2 PBU)
  • DL Joe Hill, Sr., 5-10, 220 (48 tackles, 9 for loss, 2 sacks, 1 QB pressure, 1 fumble recovery)
  • LB Zac Thompson, Jr., 5-7, 130 (30 tackles, 8 for loss, 4 sacks, 6 QB pressures, 1 forced fumble, 2 recoveries, 1 blocked kick)

 

Harmony WR Andy Lloyd. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Harmony's offense was almost as depleted as White Oak's by graduation as the Eagles bring back just one starter on that side of the ball from 2013. Harmony was hoping to have its starting quarterback from a season ago, promising 2016 prospect Michael Ross, return but the signal-caller transferred out of the school district during the offseason. That left an already challenging rebuilding process even more daunting. The Eagles put up 32.5 points per game last season, which in large part, helped Harmony reach the playoffs out of a rough and tumble district.

One player longtime coach Tim Russell is excited to have back is running back Eric Contreras, who should see his production rise exponentially after picking up solid yardage as one of many weapons out of the backfield. The rest of the skill positions will be filled by newcomers to Friday night, one of those players being junior receiver Andy Lloyd, who the coaches are excited to see perform this season. The offensive line has promise as well with players like Daniel Logan and Branson Davis in the mix.

Harmony LB Zach Smith. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Harmony's defense was pretty solid all the way around in 2013, holding opponents to a scoring average of 22.4 points per game. There will be some newcomers to that side of this ball as well, as seven starters were lost to graduation, but the ones the Eagles have coming back are expected to have big seasons.

Senior D-lineman Eric Wigington will anchor what figures to be a strong defensive front after enjoying breakthrough success as a junior. His teammate on the line, Joe Hill, is another solid-looking playmaker, anxious to be pick up where he left off last season. The linebackers will be in good shape as well with the return of Zach Smith and Zac Thompson, who between them accounted for seven sacks and 20 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The secondary has a lot of question marks, but there will be five weeks of non-district games to sufficiently answer them.

2014 outlook: There's no doubt that Harmony will be challenged because of all the new faces experiencing varsity action for the first time. But Russell has been in charge of the program for five years now, so there should be no doubt among the players what is expected of them. White Oak and Mineola appear to have a strong hold on the top two spots in the district at the outset, which means Harmony must come out on top at least twice against the trio of Jefferson, Sabine and Quitman in order to return to the playoffs.

 

5. Sabine Cardinals

Sabine LB Sam Smith. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Coach: Mark Comfort

2013 finish: 1-9

Returning starters: 5 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • LB Sam Smith, Sr., 5-9, 190
  • RB Tyler Mustin, Sr., 6-0, 195
  • QB Tanner Sharp, Sr., 6-1, 190
  • LB Grant Key, Sr., 5-10, 205
  • DL Bo Bates, Jr., 6-0, 235
  • DB Jordan Stegman, Jr., 6-3, 175
  • RB Anthony Swanson, Jr.
  • DB Caden Clifford, Jr.

 

Offense: Things weren't very smooth for Sabine on offense last season, as the Cardinals ended up finishing with a scoring average of 20.5 points per game. In half of its games, Sabine failed to score more than two touchdowns, which will put even the best of teams in danger of losing with regularity. However, Sabine has five offensive returning starters, and several newcomers the coaching staff is expecting big things from in 2014.

Senior running back Tyler Mustin has the potential for a big season after showing glimpses of his ability as a junior. His size, lateral movement and acceleration make him a dangerous threat to defenses -- one that will likely command extra attention from defenders. Quarterback Tanner Sharp has been in the program for three years, and the team will no doubt count on his leadership skills going forward. Another player to keep an eye on this season is junior running back Anthony Swanson, who has all the tools to become a successful option out of the backfield.

Defense: Sabine's defense surrendered 38 points per game a season ago, so there's obviously work to be done on that side of the ball. More than half of the defenders with starting experience are back, which should lend itself to a natural progression of improvement.

Senior linebacker Sam Smith is the heart and soul of the defense, and it will be his responsibility to make sure the rest of his defensive teammates follow his lead. Smith will be joined at linebacker by Grant Key, whose physical presence will make opposing backs and receivers think twice about running his direction. Junior Bo Bates gives the Cardinals good size on the defensive front, which will be a big key in a district that features several plus-sized offensive linemen. The back end of the defense expects to get a boost from the return of junior Jordan Stegman and Caden Clifford, who will team to form what has the potential to be a very solid secondary.

2014 outlook: There is generally a lot of optimism surrounding the Sabine program, despite its lack of recent success. The Cardinals are coming off a one-win season, which ended on a nine-game losing streak, and haven't had a winning season since 2002 or made the playoffs in 29 years. But the early returns through two weeks of preseason workouts have been positive, leading some to believe this could be the year Sabine surprises. In a district that no longer features perennial power Tatum and consists of a defending state semifinalist like White Oak that has to basically rebuild its roster, the windows of opportunity may have begun the process of opening up for programs like Sabine.

 

6. Quitman Bulldogs

Coach: John Woodard

2013 finish: 2-8

Returning starters: 7 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR Rosendo Preciado, Sr., 5-8, 145 (13 catches, 186 yards, 1 TD; 26 carries, 254 yards, 4 TDs)
  • QB/DB Cameron Peek, Jr., 6-0, 170
  • TE/DL Rowdy Teaff, Jr., 6-3, 185
  • OL Victor Ramirez, Sr.
  • RB Isaiah Hearn, Soph.
  • LB Brad Hamrick, Sr., 5-10, 185 (82 tackles, 5 for loss, 2 QB pressures, 1 fumble recovery)

 

Offense: Not much went right for Quitman on offense last season, as the Bulldogs managed to put up just 18 points per game in 2013. Quitman failed to score more than two touchdowns in a game on five occasions a season ago, which typically won't yield too many positive outcomes in the win-loss department. But despite all of that, there is a glimmer of hope with the return of seven offensive starters.

Much of the experience lies with the offensive line, which returns senior Victor Ramirez, who may be the Bulldogs' top overall performer on offense. A new quarterback and running back must be found, as well as a couple of receivers, but Quitman thinks it may have found a good one in senior wideout Rosendo Preciado, who figures to increase his 2013 production by a wide margin. Cameron Peek, the younger brother of former Quitman standout Colton Peek, appears to be the choice at quarterback. And if football skills are genetic, Bulldog fans will be pleased with their new man behind center.

Defense: Despite the offensive woes, the Quitman defense hung in there fairly well last season by allowing opponents to score just 24.2 points per game on average. Only three teams scored more than 39 points on the Quitman defense a year ago -- Troup, Lone Oak and Malakoff, who were all playoff participants. There are five returning starters from the defense, so if the veterans can mesh well with the newcomers, the Bulldogs' 'D' may actually get a little better moving forward.

Junior defensive lineman Rowdy Teaff (the name alone impressive) learned the ropes last season as a sophomore, and the coaching staff is excited to see how much he's developed over the offseason. Quitman also has high expectations for linebacker Brad Hamrick, who looks to follow his solid junior season with an even better senior campaign.

2014 outlook: Like many programs breaking in new coaching staffs, there will be a period of adjustment. First-year coach John Woodard, who comes from Warren, is hoping to instill a winning attitude again in Quitman. From 2002-07, Quitman made the playoffs five times and compiled a record of 52-16. But since '08, the Bulldogs have reached the postseason only once and are a cumulative 20-41. So, priority No. 1 for the new coaching staff will be trying to get the players in the habit of practicing and playing like a winning program.