District 7-3A Division II appears to be a league of the haves and have-nots entering the 2015 season. Three teams clearly stand atop the league hierarchy, while the other three teams figure to battle it out for the final playoff spot.

Hughes Springs, Hooks, and Paul Pewitt all have sights set on a district championship, while Linden-Kildare, DeKalb, and Queen City hope to break through to the postseason.

District 7-3A Division II Preview

Hughes Springs DL Colton Crawley. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

PLAYMAKERS

  • QB Malik Chism, Sr., Hughes Springs
  • FB Gabe Dubose, Jr., Hughes Springs
  • WR Montrell Estell, Jr., Hooks
  • RB Reshawn Parker, Sr., Hooks
  • RB/LB Lamon Hillis, Sr., Paul Pewitt
  • DL Tray Hillis, Sr., Paul Pewitt
  • QB Curt Wells, Sr., Linden-Kildare
  • RB Gavin Flowers, Jr., DeKalb
  • LB Brandon Russell, Sr., Queen City
  • DL Colton Crawley, Sr., Hughes Springs

 

TOP GAMES

  • Waskom at Hughes Springs, Sept. 11
  • Mineola at Paul Pewitt, Sept. 25
  • Hooks at Hughes Springs, Oct. 16
  • Linden-Kildare at DeKalb, Oct. 16
  • Paul Pewitt at Hooks, Nov. 6

 

1. Hughes Springs Mustangs

Hughes Springs' Malik Chism (left) and Austin King. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Chris Edwards
  • 2014 finish: 8-4 (3A Division II area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 4 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • QB Malik Chism, Sr., 5-11, 160
  • FB Gabe Dubose, Jr., 5-7, 175
  • DL Colton Crawley, Sr., 6-0, 210
  • TE Austin King, Sr., 6-4, 185
  • OL Juan Dorantes, Sr.
  • DB Deidrick Hill, Soph.
  • LB Austin Watkins, Sr.
  • OL A.J Garcia, Sr.

 

Hughes Springs FB Gabe Dubose. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Hughes Springs put together an impressive and productive run on the offensive side of the ball in 2014. The Mustangs averaged slightly more than 30 points per game, and with six returning offensive starters, expectations are high once again for the Hughes Springs attack. Senior quarterback Malik Chism is the Mustangs' triggerman, and while he is not asked to put the ball in the air too often in Hughes Springs' Slot-T offense, he displays an excellent ability to make plays on the run. The combination of Chism and junior fullback Gabe Dubose should do most of the heavy lifting out of the Hughes Springs backfield. Dubose led the way with more than 1,500 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, while Chism too exceeded the 1,000-yard mark with nine rushing touchdowns. The offensive line figures to be in excellent shape as well with the return of seniors Juan Dorantes and A.J. Garcia.

Hughes Springs OL/DL Noah Palmertree. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The Hughes Springs defense had its ups and downs as a unit a season ago. Overall, the Mustangs surrendered an average of more than 25 points per game to opposing offenses. But in Hughes Springs' four losses to Arp, Waskom, Jefferson, and Howe, the defense allowed 36 points per game on average. With just four returning starters back on the defensive side, there could be a few early-season missteps. Head coach Chris Edwards has three players at each of the three levels on the defense to build around in 2015. The defensive line will be anchored by the strength of senior Colton Crawley, while the linebacking corps is expected to be led by senior Austin Watkins, and the secondary play should be highlighted by Deidrick Hill, a sophomore who showed significant promise for this career.

2015 outlook: An unexpected and uncharacteristic three-game losing streak, which sent Hughes Springs to a disappointing 1-3 start to the 2014 season, quickly got turned in the right direction. The Mustangs responded by winning their next seven games, averaging more than 47 points per game in the process. Edwards will be entering his ninth season as Mustangs head coach, and during his tenure, Hughes Springs has become one of East Texas' most consistent programs. Since 2007, the Mustangs have compiled an overall record of 63-30, which includes seven playoff appearances and two seasons of 10 wins or more. With a handful of returning impact performers on each side of the ball, Hughes Springs stands an excellent chance of maintaining the level of success it's achieved for the better part of a decade.

 

2. Hooks Hornets

  • Coach: Chris Birdwell
  • 2014 finish: 8-3 (3A Division II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 4 offensive, 5 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • WR Montrell Estell, Jr., 6-3, 180
  • RB Reshawn Parker, Sr., 6-2, 210
  • LB Malik Estell, Jr., 6-1, 175
  • LB Jordan Soper, Jr., 6-0, 190
  • LB Seth Mahar, Jr., 5-11, 180
  • DB Rodney Cooper, Sr., 6-0, 160
  • OL Landon Shelton, Sr., 6-0, 220
  • DL Ishmael Threadgill, Jr.

 

Offense: Hooks averaged right at 29 points per game a season ago, and that could be just the tip of the iceberg for the Hornets' 2015 campaign. Hooks only returns four offensive starters, but the Hornets quite possibly possess what could be the district's top one-two combination on offense. Junior receiver Montrell Estell is a legitimate Division I football recruit, who can both stretch the field and overpower smaller defensive backs, especially in the red zone. Senior running back Reshawn Parker had a highly productive junior season with nearly 1,000 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, and more could be in store for the big, bruising back in the coming months. The offensive line will need to be re-tooled, and depth at the skill positions could be an issue early in the season. But if Hooks can get a few playmakers aside from Estell and Parker, the Hornets could be as explosive as they come on offense this fall.

Defense: Hooks had its fair share of struggles on the defensive side of the ball in 2014. For the season, the Hornets allowed opposing offenses an average of more than 25 points per game, but the performance was much worse in Hooks' three losses to Hughes Springs, Paul Pewitt, and Arp. In those three games, the Hornets gave up 42 points per game on average. If Hooks has hopes of challenging for the district championship, more consistent defensive play must be found. There are five returning starters on defense for Hooks, so there will need to be a few newcomers step up. The linebacking corps is arguably the strength on the defensive side with standouts Malik Estell, Jordan Soper, and Seth Mahar returning to the fold. The defensive line will be anchored by junior Ishmael Threadgill, while the secondary will be patrolled by senior Rodney Cooper.

2015 outlook: Hooks got off to a 6-0 start and won eight of its first nine games of the 2014 season, but faded down the stretch with consecutive losses in the regular-season finale and bi-district playoff contest. Despite the disappointing finish, Hooks still managed its most wins in a season since 2006. The positive momentum created by last year's successful strides is something for new head coach Chris Birdwell and his staff to build upon this fall. Hughes Springs and Paul Pewitt figure to be Hooks' biggest obstacles to capturing a district title, but if the ball bounces the Hornets' way, it would not be surprising to see Hooks celebrate a league crown before entering the playoffs.

 

3. Paul Pewitt Brahmas

  • Coach: Ryan Gentry
  • 2014 finish: 3-8 (3A Division II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 10 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • RB/LB Lamon Hillis, Sr., 5-9, 215
  • DL Tray Hillis, Sr., 5-7, 220
  • OL Clayton Sims, Sr., 5-7, 180
  • DL Matthew Anderson, Sr., 6-1, 180
  • DB Kolby Statton, Sr., 5-11, 150
  • DB Trabon Betts, Jr., 5-9, 170
  • DL Roy Ibarra, Jr., 6-1, 260
  • DB Tyran Betts, Sr., 5-9, 200

 

Offense: It was a struggle for the Paul Pewitt offense a season ago. Despite making another postseason appearance, the Brahmas managed just a little more than 16 points per game in 2014. But the offensive play steadily improved as the year progressed. Paul Pewitt began the season with five consecutive losses, in which the Brahmas averaged a measly 6.2 points per game. Paul Pewitt never really broke loose with its offense, but did turn things around somewhat, averaging more than 24 points per game in its final six weeks of the season. The Brahmas have five returning starters back on the offensive side of the ball, but there will be several new faces at the skill positions. Senior Lamon Hillis, who saw limited action at running back in 2014, should see his role in the offense increases moving forward. Paul Pewitt also returns one of its top linemen from last year in senior Clayton Sims.

Defense: Paul Pewitt had some difficulties stopping opposing offenses in 2014, allowing right at 34 points per game. But with 10 of the 11 starters coming back, first-year head coach Ryan Gentry is expecting a much better collective performance this season. Part of the defense's struggles from a year ago could be attributed to Paul Pewitt's murder's row of non-district opponents Arp, Waskom, Jefferson, New Boston, and Mineola, who combined to average 49.2 points per game. And while the defense didn't solve all of its problems after that, the Brahmas did get much better on that side of the ball down the stretch. In Paul Pewitt's final six games, opponents put up 21.3 points per game. Among the long list of defensive standouts returning are Lamon Hillis, senior defensive lineman Tray Hillis, senior defensive lineman Matthew Anderson, senior defensive backs Kolby Stratton and Tyran Betts and junior DB Trabon Betts.

2015 outlook: Considering how last season began, it was quite remarkable how Paul Pewitt managed to turn things around in time for a playoff spot. The Brahmas were outscored by an average of 43 points per game. However, wins in its first two district games, saved Paul Pewitt's season. There should be no doubt that the Brahmas' defense will keep them in most games, but questions remain about the offense, which will be breaking almost an entirely new crop of skill-position players. If Paul Pewitt can perform well on the offensive side of the ball and become a more well-rounded operation, the Brahmas could easily challenge for the district title.

 

4. Linden-Kildare Tigers

  • Coach: Gary Schultz
  • 2014 finish: 2-9 (3A Division II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 7 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • QB Curt Wells, Sr., 6-1, 180
  • TE/LB Colby Horn, Sr., 6-2, 170
  • DL Nay'Kerian Walker, Sr., 6-2, 215
  • DB Cortez Peterson, Jr., 6-4, 170
  • LB Brendon Bell, Sr.
  • WR Marcus Jones, Jr., 5-8, 165
  • OL Tanner Mitchell, Sr.
  • DL Sha'Khari Darty, Sr.

 

Offense: For the most part, it was a struggle for Linden-Kildare to score points last season. The Tigers managed an average of a little more than 18 points per game, which must improve if L-K wishes to improve on its total of two wins from a year ago. Six offensive starters return, which could pay dividends in that endeavor. Senior quarterback Curt Wells has the potential to be one of the top signal-callers in the entire district, and is expecting a big 2015 season. Junior receiver Marcus Jones could develop into Wells' favorite target in the passing game. Senior Colby Horn is an excellent blocking tight end, and might be a factor as a pass-catcher. The offensive line is expected to be anchored by senior Tanner Mitchell. The Tigers will need to find a running back or two to compete the offensive attack, but if they do, L-K stands a good chance of becoming a much better offense this fall.

Defense: Despite racking up nine losses, Linden-Kildare's defense showed glimpses of a strong unit in the future last season. The Tigers did allow 28 points per game, a respectable figure for a team that struggled through a seven-game losing streak to begin the year. With seven returning starters on the defensive side of the ball coming back, L-K has an excellent chance of being even better in 2015. The defensive line could be considered a strength with the return of seniors Nay'Kerian Walker and Sha'Khari Darty, who are in line for very productive seasons. Horn doubles as a rangy and physical linebacker, and he'll be joined in the mid-level by fellow senior Brendon Bell. The secondary will be anchored by junior Cortez Peterson, a tall and athletic playmaker in the defensive backfield.

2015 outlook: Despite an ugly season record, Linden-Kildare was able to sneak into the playoffs as the district's fourth-place team. It was the Tigers' first postseason berth since the 2010 season, and L-K is thinking big this season, especially after hiring Gary Schultz as its next head coach. Schultz did a remarkable job rejuvenating a long-suffering Alba-Golden program, leading the Panthers to an overall record of 27-37 in his six seasons leading the way. A-G made the playoffs three times during his tenure after the program suffered through five 0-10 seasons in the seven years prior to Schultz'a arrival. If his track record translates to Linden-Kildare, the Tigers' future is bright.

 

5. DeKalb Bears

  • Coach: Eddy May
  • 2014 finish: 2-8
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 7 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • RB Gavin Flowers, Jr., 5-10, 165
  • WR/DB Jovan Forte, Sr., 6-1, 170
  • LB Ty Reed, Sr.
  • RB Kentavius Williams, Jr., 5-8, 175
  • QB Ryan Cannon, Sr., 5-11, 180

 

2015 outlook: It's been a while since DeKalb has been a relevant force. The Bears have just seven wins total in the last three seasons, but things could be headed in the right direction in year No. 2 for head coach Eddy May. DeKalb is bringing back 14 starters from last season's 2-8 team, and while two wins doesn't sound very good, two of the teams that represented the district in the playoffs in 2014 finished 3-7 and 2-8, respectively, during the regular season. Junior running back Gavin Flowers returns after having a big impact on the Bears' offense as a sophomore. Two-way standout Jovan Forte has the potential to contribute mightily to DeKalb's passing game and its defensive secondary. Junior running back Kentavius Williams, who was the projected starting running back heading into last season, suffered a season-ending injury early in the year, and is eager to make up for lost time.

 

6. Queen City Bulldogs

Queen City's R.D. Kilgore III (left) and Ryan Fincher. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Justin Burk
  • 2014 finish: 2-8
  • Returning starters: 3 offensive, 7 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • LB Brandon Russell, Sr., 5-11, 165
  • LB Trent Dial, Sr., 5-10, 185
  • ATH Jacobi Hamilton, Sr., 5-10, 160
  • DL Colby Stratton, Sr., 6-1, 215
  • DL Andrew Jones, Jr., 5-11, 250
  • DB Josh Henry, Jr., 6-0, 160
  • RB Hunter Cline, Sr.
  • DB Mason Austin, Sr.

 

Queen City RB Hunter Cline. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Queen City had its difficulties on the offensive side of the ball a season ago, averaging just a little more than 18 points per game. The Bulldogs could be facing similar challenges this season with only three offensive starters returning to the field in 2015. A lot could be on the shoulders of senior running back Hunter Cline, who figures to carry the load in the offensive backfield. Multi-purpose athlete Jacobi Hamilton is an intriguing prospect who may be used in a variety of ways. But in order for Queen City to take positive steps on offense, an abundance of playmakers will need to be found. The Bulldogs were limited to 12 points or less in a game on five separate occasions in 2014, which obviously must improve if they want to entertain the possibility of challenging for a playoff berth.

Queen City LB Trent Dial. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Queen City suffered through its fair share of struggles on defense a season ago, allowing opposing offenses more than 30 points per game. Unlike the offense, the Bulldogs' defense has considerable returning experience. Queen City enters the new season with seven returning starters on the defensive side of the ball, which should yield a better overall performance. The defensive line will be anchored by senior Colby Stratton and junior Andrew Jones, who are both quick and physical players in the trenches. At linebacker, seniors Brandon Russell and Trent Dial can be game-changers with their sideline-to-sideline pursuit and solid football instincts. The secondary also figures to be in good shape with the return of junior Josh Henry and senior Mason Austin.

2015 outlook: The Bulldogs have just one playoff appearance in their last 13 seasons, and will be going with their eighth different head coach during that time span. With so much coaching turnover in recent years, it would be a challenge for any program to achieve a consistent level of success. New head coach Justin Burk hopes to leave a positive imprint on the program as a first impression, and with 10 returning starters, Queen City does have the potential to make steady progress. It may unrealistic to expect a playoff appearance right off the bat, but as we saw in 2014, two or three wins during the regular season may be all it takes.