By now, you know that we're really looking forward the Oct. 9 meeting between Athens and Van.

The two East Texas teams didn't have much trouble in district last season except against each other and both still have clearly defined strengths plus college-caliber players on their rosters. It looks like it could be that way again.

But Kaufman was a bit of a threat last year with a handful of excellent underclassmen and Wills Point added a TAPPS Division II All-State tight end selection from Dallas Christian during the offseason. Are they ready to take the next step?

Crandall also has quietly stockpiled it share of playmakers. And there's really nowhere for Mabank to go but up following a 1-9 record last season.

Can the Vandals and Hornets run the table? Who's got the preseason edge?

Welcome to District 8-4A Division I.

 

District 8-4A Division I Preview

Van running back Aphonso Thomas (25) and safety Cooper Bledsoe (12). (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

PLAYMAKERS

  • DB Cooper Bledsoe, Jr., Van
  • WR/DB Jordan Bryant, Sr., Crandall
  • FB/DL Tyriq Burnett, Jr., Wills Point
  • LB Noah Bush, Jr., Athens
  • RB Marques Crouch, Sr. Wills Point
  • ATH Jefferson Fritz, Jr., Kaufman
  • RB Logan Fuller, Sr., Athens
  • WR/DB Travon Fuller, Sr., Athens (committed to Texas A&M)
  • OL Clay Gandy, Sr., Van
  • RB/LB Devyn Morris, Soph., Kaufman
  • TE/LB Sloan Rodberg, Jr., Wills Point
  • TE/DL Blayne Rowe, Sr., Mabank
  • K Jozef Ruiz, Sr., Van
  • RB Aphonso Thomas, Sr., Van (committed to Nebraska)
  • DB Hunter Welch, Sr., Crandall
  • OL Josh West, Sr., Athens

TOP GAMES

  • Van at Athens, Oct. 9
  • Crandall at Kaufman, Oct. 9
  • Kaufman at Wills Point, Oct. 16
  • Athens at Kaufman, Oct.23
  • Wills Point at Van, Oct. 30
  • Van at Kaufman, Nov. 6
  • Athens at Wills Point, Nov. 6

 

1. Athens Hornets

Athens receiver and defensive back Travon Fuller. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Paul Essary
  • 2014 finish: 8-4 (4A D-I area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB Logan Fuller, Sr., 5-7, 210
  • WR/DB Travon Fuller, Sr., 6-2, 175 (committed to Texas A&M)
  • OL Josh West, Sr., 6-3, 305
  • LB Noah Bush, Jr., 6-1, 230
  • RB/DB Jeremy Bateman, Sr., 5-8, 145
  • TE Grant Hirsch, Sr.

 

Athens running back and school record-holder Logan Fuller. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: It was said 100 times during the offseason. Athens' power run game is the real deal. It's the strength of the team for multiple reasons. Firstly, the Hornets' game plan revolves around long, meticulous drives. That allows the defense plenty of time to keep fresh and forces opposing offenses to make the most of limited chances compared to going up against a high-octane offense where there are a handful of opportunities to climb back into the game with quick stops and scores. Secondly, offense is the strength of the Hornets simply because most of the returning experience is on this side of the ball. Logan Fuller, Travon Fuller and Jeremy Bateman are great athletes and a big offensive line headlined by college-caliber senior Jeremy West will be pushing for them. Logan Fuller is the absolute essential piece after rushing for 2,093 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior in just 12 games. He already owns the school record for career rushing yards, and it's fathomable he'll add on another 2,000 yards before he graduates. But don't discount Athens' passing ability. That aspect of the offense should catch defenses off guard with most resources going toward defending the run.

Athens linebacker Noah Bush. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The Hornets have brought back four returning starters from a unit that held opponents to 27 points per game last season. Travon Fuller, a Texas A&M defensive back commitment, obviously stands out on this side of the ball and should help the Hornets extend opposing drives if they can get past a tough front seven. Junior linebacker Noah Bush is a player to watch after a great day at the ETSN.fm + APEC Football Recruiting Combine in May and two stellar preseason scrimmage performances. The overall defensive line depth is another strength, which gives Athens good quality at each level. You can bank on the unit considering what it goes up against in practice.

2015 outlook: Athens is tied for third in terms of total returning starters within the district, but it has brought back its most essential pieces to form a tough offense and a competitive defense. This core had no problems within district play last season other than a 35-32 opening loss to a Van squad that finished the regular season with a perfect 10-0 record. The Vandals had to rebuild their offense during the offseason and that gives the Hornets the preseason nod. That being said taking down Van this year looks like a tough challenge. The Oct. 9 meeting could define the district race for a second year in a row.

2. Van Vandals

Van offensive lineman Clay Gandy. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Jared Moffatt
  • 2014 finish: 10-1 (4A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters:  3 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB Aphonso Thomas, Sr., 6-0, 190 (committed to Nebraska)
  • OL Clay Gandy, Sr.
  • DB Cooper Bledsoe, Jr., 6-0, 165
  • K Jozef Ruiz, Sr., 5-8, 165
  • LB Rielly Krumvieda, Sr., 6-1, 270
  • WR Kendrick Jones, Sr.
  • WR Bradley Fitzgerald, Sr.,  6-3, 185
  • ATH Brett Doring, Sr.

 

Van receiver Kendrick Jones. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Some might think it's a rebuilding year. Head coach Jared Moffatt sees it as a reloading year. Why not? Van has had a dynamic offense over the years and there are certainly athletes to replace last year's outstanding receiving corps. Kendrick Jones returns to his spot at slot and Bradley Fitzgerald could be a newcomer to watch on the outside. Aphonso Thomas, a Nebraska commitment, is a huge asset and will probably see his workload increase from his 934-yard, 12-touchdown junior campaign now that fellow running back Matt Savis has departed to start his college career at Southeastern Oklahoma State. Offensive line is the big question to answer with a need for four new starters. The quarterback spot also needs an answer, but the team worked with three good ones in the preseason. If the Vandals get it all sorted before Oct. 9, watch out.

Van linebacker Rielly Krumvieda. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Good pieces of the district's best defense, by a country mile, are back. However, the group will have to get it done without East Texas' leading tackler in 2014 at middle linebacker plus now-Northwestern State defensive end Brice Borgeson and a handful of other departed players that played great up front. Senior linebacker Rielly Krumvieda appears to have the best chance to make a name for himself in the absence of last year's strong senior class. Chase Houston and Sam Reeves also got experience at the linebacker spots during the 10-0 run. Junior safety Cooper Bledsoe leads the returners in total tackles with 112 in 2014. Secondary as a whole is the team's clear preseason strength.

2015 outlook: It's pretty much covered. Van has to fill the holes to contend for the district crown and they have five non-district games against Palestine, Spring Hill, Lindale, Brownsboro and theoretical bi-district opponent Paris North Lamar to get there. They'll head to Athens on Oct. 9 for the league opener, a game that will have a big say in the district outcome. At the present moment, Athens seems to have the most complete core. A lot can change in a month and a half though.

3. Kaufman Lions

  • Coach: Craig Barker
  • 2014 finish: 5-7 (4A D-I area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 9 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
  • ATH Jefferson Fritz, Jr., 5-10, 170
  • RB/LB Devyn Morris, Soph., 6-2, 210
  • WR/LB Alec Guy, Sr., 6-3, 195

 

2015 outlook: It's a matter of time for the Lions. The core of the team is still pretty young and it has already clinched a playoff berth and won a bi-district playoff game. If Athens didn't have Travon Fuller and Logan Fuller and Van didn't have Aphonso Thomas, athlete Jefferson Fritz would be a shoo-in for District Most Valuable Player. As a sophomore, he recorded 113 tackles, three interceptions and nearly broke 1,000 yards as a receiver. Fritz will start at quarterback this year, and he performed very well in 7-on-7. Devyn Morris and Alec Guy will join Fritz as two-way starters after some impressive numbers last season. All three players broke 100 tackles as underclassmen. If the surrounding players step up this year rather than next year, Kaufman will be for real in the district race.

4. Wills Point Tigers

  • Coach: Greg Cranfill
  • 2014 finish: 5-6 (4A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 4 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB Marques Crouch, Sr., 5-8, 185
  • FB/DL Tyriq Burnett, Jr., 6-1, 207
  • TE/LB Sloan Rodberg, Jr.
  • OL Jarod Norman, Sr.
  • QB/LB Caden Bennett, Jr.

 

2015 outlook: Here's another team that can push if its underclassmen come together rapidly. But Marques Crouch is a great place to start after running for 1,326 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior. Sloan Rodberg, a junior, is a wildcard after earning an All-State honor from TAPPS Division II as a tight end at state runner-up Dallas Christian. He was also a Division II, District II second-team all-district linebacker going up against strong offenses at Bullard Brook Hill, Tyler Bishop Gorman and Tyler Grace Community. Tyriq Burnett made 95 tackles for Wills Point as a sophomore and anchors the defensive line at nose tackle.

5. Crandall Pirates

  • Coach: Joe Dale
  • 2014 finish: 2-8
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
  • WR/DB Jordan Bryant, Sr., 6-0, 200
  • DB Hunter Welch, Sr., 5-9, 165
  • RB Coy Finch, Sr., 6-2, 180
  • QB Michael Dearman, Jr., 6-2, 180

 

2015 outlook: There's a lot to like about Crandall's offense, especially with Jordan Bryant in the fold. He averaged a little more than 10 yards per catch on 62 receptions with nine touchdowns. Michael Dearman gives the Pirates a different dynamic as a dual-threat quarterback and the running game is strengthened by a durable back in Coy Find. Bryant also will play safety to give opponents something to think about up top. Chase Welch recorded 112 tackles last season. With 14 starters back in total, Crandall must improve its numbers on both sides of the ball. It averaged 21 points per game while giving up nearly 40.

6. Mabank Panthers

  • Coach: Mikey Thompson
  • 2014 finish: 1-9
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • TE/DE Blayne Rowe, Sr., 6-1, 200
  • QB/DB Darian Hamilton, Sr., 5-10, 165
  • RB/DB Tony Ogburn, Sr., 5-11, 175

 

2015 outlook: Mabank is going through a coaching transition with former assistant Mikey Thompson taking over as the head coach. The Panthers averaged 15 points per game last year, so there's a lot of work to do on the offensive side. Defense also must up its average of 45.4 points given up per game. Five starters returning on both sides of the ball should help. The goal this season will be playing more competitively within the district.