Things look great at the top of District 8-3A Division I.

Mineola, last year's Class 3A Division I state-runner up, inhabits the league and looks poised to make another run at glory. But White Oak is right there as well with excellent players returning on both sides of the ball.

It's the wild west after that.

Harmony, Sabine and Jefferson all show flashes of promise. We didn't pick them in that order.

Quitman went 0-10 last season but things are looking up.

Here's a surveyor course on a league that could forge some special teams come November.

White Oak linebacker Swade Smith. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

District 8-3A Division I Preview

PLAYMAKERS

  • OL/DL Austin Anderson, Sr., Mineola (committed to Texas A&M)
  • RB/LB Hunter Anderson, Sr., Harmony
  • OL/DL Riley Anderson, Sr., Mineola (committed to Texas A&M)
  • OL/DL Chris Bloyd, Sr., White Oak
  • QB/DB Jeremiah Crawford, Jr., Mineola
  • RB Dain Duncan, Sr., Sabine
  • WR/DE Bird Irving, Sr., Jefferson
  • RB/DB Chantz Perkins, Jr., Mineola
  • WR/LB Swade Smith, Sr., White Oak
  • OL/DL Grant Stanberry, Sr., Sabine
  • QB/LB Spencer Seahorn, Soph., Harmony
  • WR/DB Jordan Stegman, Sr., Sabine
  • QB/LB Brancen Varnell, Sr., Jefferson

 

TOP GAMES

  • White Oak at Mineola, Oct. 9
  • Sabine at Jefferson, Oct. 9
  • Sabine at White Oak, Oct. 16
  • Quitman at Harmony, Oct. 16
  • Sabine at Mineola, Oct. 30
  • Jefferson at Harmony, Oct. 30

 

1. Mineola Yellowjackets

Mineola senior offensive tackle and Texas A&M commitment Austin Anderson. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Joe Drennon
  • 2014 finish: 12-4 (3A D-I state finalist)
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
  • OL/DL Austin Anderson, Sr., 6-4, 280
  • OL/DL Riley Anderson, Sr., 6-5, 285
  • QB/DB Jeremiah Crawford, Jr., 5-10, 185
  • RB/DB Chantz Perkins, Jr., 5-7, 155
  • WR/DB Noah Sneed, Jr., 5-11, 185
  • RB/LB Kourtland Sinches, Jr., 5-10, 165
  • LB Michael Drennon, Soph.
  • WR/DB Aaron Stanford, Jr.

 

Mineola quarterback Jeremiah Crawford. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Mineola drove to the Class 3A Division I state championship team almost solely on its running game ability with running back Chantz Perkins and quarterback Jeremiah Crawford getting near at least 200 yards each in the latter playoff rounds. They were sophomores. Now they're juniors. The outstanding offensive line from last season is almost fully intact and highlighted by twin offensive tackles and Texas A&M commitments Austin Anderson and Riley Anderson. The Yellowjackets averaged a winnable 32 points per game last season, and the unit was not all that great until late September and arguably later. The only knock on head coach Joe Drennon's offense entering 2015, although it was very effective last season, it was one-dimensional. Crawford's arm appears to be better this season, so if a defensive standout such as Noah Sneed or Aaron Stanford can step in at the receiver position the offense will be absolutely complete.

 

Mineola DB Noah Sneed (right). (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The big questions sit within Mineola's front seven. The group has to replace three players that took the team to the next level late in the playoffs -- tackle Trevor Keener, end Casey Gilbreath and middle linebacker Juan Vargas. Granted they had 16 game opportunities, Keener and Vargas ranked first and second in total tackles last season among all East Texas players. Sophomore Michael Drennon will step in at the Mike spot, former safety Kourtland Sinches will take Michael Drennon's outside linebacker spot and the Anderson twins will help give the line some teeth as the tackles to replace Keener. That only leaves a question about who will be the edge-rushing end. Some of those problems can be circumvented with timely blitzes from Sinches at the get-go of the season. The secondary should be fine despite Sinches' departure. Cornerback Noah Sneed and safety Aaron Stanford combined for 11 interceptions last year.

2015 outlook: The Yellowjackets' run to the state championship game was shocking, especially considering an 0-3 start to the year. But that opened a window which probably won't close until after the 2016 season. Most of Mineola's key skill players are juniors. However, this season is the big year. The offensive line will need overhauling at the year's end and the team just won't run into two bona fide SEC-caliber linemen again. There are big challenges in reaching the title game for a second consecutive year. Mineola squeaked by District 5-3A Division I opponents Pilot Points and Pottsboro in consecutive weeks last year with late breaks. Both of those regional opponents return more than half their teams as well. Slipping up within the league is not out the question either. There's another contender within District 8-3A Division I being overshadowed by the Yellowjackets and an additional team out to prove last year's breakthrough was not a fluke.

2. White Oak Roughnecks

White Oak receiver Dax Davis. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Kris Iske
  • 2014 finish: 7-4 (3A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
  • WR/LB Swade Smith, Sr., 5-11, 190
  • OL/DL Chris Bloyd, Sr., 5-10, 230
  • QB/DB Cade Palmer, Sr., 6-0, 135
  • WR/LB Antonio Castiglione, Jr., 5-10, 180
  • WR Heath Hood, Soph., 5-9, 150
  • WR Dax Davis, Sr.

 

Offense: Senior quarterback Cade Palmer inherits the starting job full-time this season after throwing for 359 yards and six touchdowns last season. Most of his production came in one start. His supporting receivers are expected to perform very well, particularly Dax Davis and varsity newcomer Heath Hood. Anotonio Castiglione is another player to watch but is expected to make even more of an impact at linebacker. When you've got eight starters returning, you know you can expect consistent offensive line play. White Oak's trench players are experienced and have good size for the Class 3A Division I level. This is a unit that can pile onto opponents quickly, and the Roughnecks are likely to run away with a handful of games.

Defense: The unit will enjoy seven key contributors from last season and should be especially strong at the linebacker spots. Swade Smith accounted for 25 tackles for loss and two sacks as part of 117 total tackles as a junior. He also made two interceptions. Antonio Castiglione is another bright spot. The defensive line has a playmaker as well. Senior Chris Bloyd had nine tackles for loss and five sacks as part of 58 total tackles in the Roughnecks' 11-game campaign. All of that bodes well for 2015. The remainder of the district is predominantly run-oriented.

2015 outlook: White Oak sits right behind Mineola in the sense returning experience meets proven results. And when you've got that situation, it's likely the teams will be playing for the district championship in both side's first league game on Oct. 9. Not only are the Roughnecks talented offensively, they completely contrast Mineola. Kris Iske's crew should have opportunities to either boat race its way to the district title or mount a moderate comeback. Other than that game, White Oak will be a favorite in district games. A tough non-district slate isn't going to hurt anything either.

3. Sabine Cardinals

Sabine running back Dain Duncan. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Mark Comfort
  • 2014 finish: 6-5 (3A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB Dain Duncan, Sr., 5-10, 175
  • WR/DB Jordan Stegman, Sr., 6-3, 180
  • RB/DB Caden Clifford, Sr., 5-9, 150
  • RB/DB Tevin Roberts, Sr., 5-8, 150
  • OL/DL McKenzie Pyle, 6-3, 290
  • OL/DL Grant Stansberry, 5-9,
  • TE/LB Taylor Stidham, Sr., 5-6, 210
  • RB River Bennett, Jr.
  • RB Nicolas Inabnet, Sr.

 

Offense: Senior running back Dain Duncan has something to prove after suffering an injury in the third game of 2014, and it started at the ETSN.fm + APEC Football Recruiting Combine in which he took home the overall Offensive Most Valuable Player Award. He rushed for 300 yards before being shut down. But Sabine's offensive backfield as a whole has this team thinking playoffs once again. The offensive line will have to power the thing and, fortunately, has known commodities in McKenzie Pyle and Grant Stansberry.

Defense: Retaining four defensive starters isn't a great spot to be in with Mineola and White Oak running around, but the returning group was part of a unit that only allowed 25 points per game last season. Sabine will have to rely on some two-way starters with just 11 total returning lettermen. The athleticism is much better than what is has been in recent seasons to help in the reconstruction project.

2015 outlook: Mark Comfort has the ball rolling. The Cardinals reached the postseason for the first time since 1985 last year while the junior varsity team posted a 9-1 record. The varsity team was 1-9 in 2013. It's going to be tough sledding against Mineola and White Oak, but it's not unfathomable this team steals at least one game from the two. Furthermore, the team is well ahead of the bottom half of the district in either returning starters, proven success or both. The major goal this year will leaving a strong legacy at a program that struggled to get any traction for almost 30 years. Sabine is in great position to do that. Then who knows what happens in the postseason.

4. Jefferson Bulldogs

  • Coach: Antwain Jimmerson
  • 2014 finish: 6-5 (3A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 3 offensive, 3 defensive
Players to watch
  • WR/DL Bird Irving, Sr., 6-5, 230
  • QB/LB Brancen Varnell, Sr., 5-11, 180
  • RB Damien Hines, Jr., 5-10, 205
  • RB Javon Smith, Sr.

Offense: Depth is obviously a concern with only three starters back from a group that averaged 24.7 points per game. The good thing is head coach Antwain Jimmerson likes what he sees for the "I" part Bulldgos' I-formation. The known commodities will play quarterback, fullback and running back.

Defense: Bird Irving, all 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds of him, won't be turned away as an edge-rushing defensive end. Speed isn't an issue for him. He doubles as a receiver. Other than that, however, the Bulldogs' success on this side of the ball just depends on how the group meshes. Fortunately, Jefferson is never short on athletes.

2015 outlook: First-year coach Antwain Jimmerson steps into a really good spot, at least as far as installing what he wants. Jefferson is very short on overall experience and varsity players set in their way. Tough non-district games against New Diana, Elysian Fields, Paul Pewitt, Hughes Springs and Pleasant Grove will force the newcomers to sink or swim from the season's outset. Jimmerson does know how to win. He was a part of the Bulldogs' 1986 state championship team.

5. Harmony Eagles

Harmony linebacker Hunter Anderson. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Tim Russell
  • 2014 finish: 3-7
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB/LB Hunter Anderson, Sr., 6-1, 206
  • DB Zac Thompson, Sr., 5-7, 140
  • TE Keagan Phillips. Sr., 6-6, 225
  • WR/LB Andy Lloyd, Sr., 5-10, 170
  • RB/LB Michael Edmonson, Jr., 5-10, 142
  • OL/DL Jeremy Dawson, Jr.

 

Offense: Harmony really struggled within District 8-3A Division I last season. Each opponent held the Eagles to 10 or less points except for Sabine and winless Quitman. Sabine won its game against Harmony, 65-20. The good news is experience should help. Tim Russell will enjoy eight returning starters from the 2014 team, including a solid offensive line to build around and a handful of two-way skill players in Hunter Anderson and Andy Lloyd. Zac Thompson and Michael Edmonson also are expected to make a big impact.

Defense: The Eagles' strength last season was, far and away, its defense. The unit will have seven key contributors back for this campaign. Harmony's defense spent far too long on the field last year, but played tough in every district ball game other than Sabine at the end of the season. Hunter Anderson, a senior, should play an even bigger role than he did last season as a celebrated linebacker. Zac Thompson will give teams issues upfield in the passing game. The rest of the returners proved to be scrappy and have spent another offseason in the weight room. An 8-2 junior varsity team coming up to the varsity level probably holds more answers.

2015 outlook: It's going to be a fight, but there is some room to run in the district. Other than Mineola and White Oak, no team appears to be absolutely complete. Harmony has its share of returning athletes from last season and its lower-level teams were much more successful in 2014. In a perfect world, wins against Jefferson and Quitman ought to be enough to crack the postseason.

6. Quitman Bulldogs

  • Coach: John Woodward
  • 2014 finish: 0-10
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
  • TE/DE Rowdy Teaff, Sr., 6-2, 220
  • OL/DL Jacob Davis, Sr., 5-9, 225
  • OL/DL Francisco Ramirez, Sr.
  • QB Chase Tennyson, Sr.

 

Offense: Quitman's offense has to get better if the Bulldogs want to dance in November. The team scored 91 points all season and that caused every loss to be non-competitive. Chase Tennyson is regarded as an outstanding athlete at the quarterback spot and linemen Jacob Davis and Francisco Ramirez had good years in the trenches last season. Other players will need to step up, particularly alongside Tennyson in the backfield. You build a competitive offense directly behind a good line and then out toward the receiver spots.

Defense: The Bulldogs got put in rough spots last season in every game, but they'll also need to improve after averaging nearly 45 points given up per game. Yet this unit is the strength of the team and will benefit from eight starters back. Rowdy Teaff is an imposing defensive lineman. Joining him will be Jacob Davis who is a 5-foot-9, 225-pound overachiever.

2015 outlook: There are a lot of questions to answer this season. The offense and defense did not perform well last year. Don't expect Quitman to roll over though as 16 starters come back in total. The initial sign is there the Bulldogs will be more competitive.