On the surface, District 11-2A Division I appears to be Alto's to lose. But by investigating the ins and outs of the district's 2015 outlooks, that may not necessarily be the case.

Sure, Alto returns all-state quarterback Keenen Johnson, who electrified high school stadiums across East Texas as a junior. But only four other players with starting experience return from Alto's 2014 state quarterfinalist.

Carlisle looks to be the Yellowjackets' main competition for district bragging rights. The Indians are coming off a 10-3 campaign, and have exactly half of their starters back in 2015.

The rest of the district is full of intrigue.

Kerens must replace several offensive skill-position players, Cayuga will be without its most dynamic player from a year ago, Grapeland will be led by a longtime coaching veteran, and Cross Roads is anxious to end a lengthy playoff drought.

District 11-2A Division I Preview

Carlisle WR/LB Rico Pereles. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

PLAYMAKERS

  • QB Keenen Johnson, Sr., Alto
  • LB Craig Collins, Sr., Alto
  • WR/LB Rico Pereles, Sr., Carlisle
  • QB Collin Gray, Sr., Carlisle
  • OL Hunter Green, Sr., Kerens
  • OL Josh Ingram, Soph., Cayuga
  • WR Jaques Faulk, Sr., Grapeland
  • WR Riley Chapman, Jr., Grapeland
  • OL Luis Alvarado, Sr., Alto
  • WR Dalton Sanders, Sr., Carlisle

 

TOP GAMES

  • Crockett at Alto, Aug. 28
  • Carlisle at Alto, Oct. 16
  • Cayuga at Cross Roads, Oct. 16
  • Carlisle at Kerens, Nov. 6
  • Grapeland at Cayuga, Nov. 6

 

1. Alto Yellowjackets

Alto QB Keenen Johnson. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Paul Gould
  • 2014 finish: 11-1 (2A Division I state quarterfinalist)
  • Returning starters: 2 offensive, 3 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB Keenen Johnson, Sr., 6-0, 185
  • LB Craig Collins, Sr., 5-10, 170
  • OL Luis Alvarado, Sr., 6-0, 260
  • DL Ra'Dedrick Woodson, Soph., 5-8, 250
  • DB Cam'Ron Matthews, Jr., 5-10, 175
  • LB Mikkah Hackett, Jr., 5-11, 180
  • WR Jayren Whitaker, Soph., 6-1, 170
  • DL Eduardo Rangel, Sr., 5-9, 215

 

Alto WR Cam'Ron Matthews. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Ordinarily, when a team has just a couple of starters returning on offense, the coach naturally expects a few hiccups moving forward. But when one of them happens to be a player the caliber of quarterback Keenen Johnson, everyone seems to be put at ease. All Johnson did in his first season calling the shots in the Alto offense was post more than 4,000 total yards and engineer 52 touchdowns in helping the 'Jackets put up an average of nearly 52 points per game. His exploits helped Alto roll through the regular season unblemished and advance to the state quarterfinal round of the playoffs for the third consecutive year. Johnson, whose athleticism may be best served on defense at the next level, has had an active offseason as well after picking up FBS offers from both Louisiana-Lafayette and SMU. It may be unrealistic to expect Alto to run through its 2015 opponents at the same clip as last season, but with Johnson, don't expect the numbers to take a drastic drop.

Alto LB Craig Collins. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Much like the offense, the Alto defense will be full of newcomers this fall. With only three starters from that side of the ball returning, it could be a challenge for the 'Jackets to improve on their scoring defense average of 16.2 points per game. But just as Alto's offense returns a dynamic playmaker, the defensive side is similarly positioned with the return of all-state outside linebacker Craig Collins. As an underclassmen playing with a host of seasoned defensive stalwarts, Collins emerged from their shadows and put together one of the most productive 2014 seasons of any defender in East Texas. The under-sized, but lightning-quick linebacker finished his junior year with 157 tackles with an East Texas-leading 56 stops behind the line of scrimmage, to go along with 11 sacks, eight forced fumbles, and five recoveries. While Johnson deserves most of the credit for Alto's incredible offensive prowess in 2014, Collins is worthy of some of that praise as well with his ferocious play on the defensive side.

2015 outlook: The numbers say five returning starters is cause for rebuilding. And while that's true at most places, Alto has developed into one of the few programs that simply reloads year-in and year-out. Beginning with the 'Jackets' back-to-back state championships at the end of the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Alto is a staggering 91-22 with at least one playoff win for nine consecutive years. The 'Jackets could have company atop the district with Carlisle, which brings back much more experience from last season's 10-win team, but history has proven that it's never a safe bet to go against Alto.

 

2. Carlisle Indians

Carlisle FB Cainan Wimberly (left) and OL Caleb Wimberly. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Rocky Baker
  • 2014 finish: 10-3 (2A Division I regional semifinalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • WR/LB Rico Pereles, Sr., 5-10, 190
  • QB Collin Gray, Sr., 6-1, 180
  • WR Dalton Sanders, Sr., 6-3, 180
  • RB Michael Savalla, Sr., 5-9, 165
  • FB Cainan Wimberly, Sr., 6-0, 195
  • OL Caleb Wimberly, Sr., 5-10, 235
  • WR Dustin Perry, Jr., 5-8, 165
  • OL Josh Stevens, Sr., 5-10, 240

 

Carlisle QB Collin Gray. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: In 2014, Carlisle's offense was solid, posting an average of more than 32 points per game. And with six offensive starters returning this fall, the Indians are in prime position to become even more explosive. It all starts with quarterback Collin Gray, whose steady leadership and decision-making guided Carlisle to its deepest run in the playoffs since 2006. But Gray isn't the only impact performer coming back. Senior Rico Pereles is a two-way monster, who does a little bit of everything on the offensive end. He finished his junior season with 658 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 23.5 yards per catch, to go along with almost 300 rushing yards. Senior wideout Dalton Sanders, whose 6-foot-3 frame is difficult to match in one-on-one situations, is another weapon in the passing game. Senior running back Michael Savalla and senior fullback Cainan Wimberly ignite a rushing attack that was especially potent in 2014. A few holes must be filled on the offensive line, but the skill positions are in big supply for Carlisle.

Carlisle FB/LB Cainan Wimberly. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The offense may have stolen some of the headlines, but the Indians' defense was a key component of Carlisle's run to the third round of the playoffs. Carlisle held opponents to just 18 points per game, which included four games in which foes mustered seven points or less. Five starters return to the defensive side, so there is work to be done in replacing some of 2014's standouts. Pereles is a physical specimen at linebacker, while most of Carlisle's other offensive playmakers double as excellent defenders. Despite the great overall success of the Indians' defense a season ago, there remains room for improvement. In Carlisle's three losses last year, the Indians allowed an average of 40.3 points, which must come down significantly if the Tribe hopes to keep up appearances this season.

2015 outlook: Following a six-point setback to Union Grove in last year's season opener, Carlisle righted the ship with a five-game winning streak before suffering its only district loss of 2014 to league champion Alto. The Indians once again responded by reeling off five consecutive wins before meeting their match against eventual regional champ Centerville in the regional semis. If there is one thing Carlisle learned it was how to respond to in-season adversity -- both at the beginning and the middle of its campaign. With half of last year's starters returning to the fold, expect some of that experience to rub off in 2015. Ever since the end of last season, Indians players have been pointing to their Oct. 16 rematch with Alto. The pivotal Week 7 clash has all the makings for a thriller worthy of deciding a district championship.

 

3. Kerens Bobcats

  • Coach: Terrell Harris
  • 2014 finish: 7-4 (Class 2A Division I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
  • OL Hunter Green, Sr., 6-4, 260
  • OL Bryer Duke, Sr., 5-9, 220
  • DB Donterias Bryant, Sr., 5-9, 170
  • DL Brody Hollingsworth, Sr.
  • DB Samuel Williams, Sr.

 

2015 outlook: For more than two decades, Kerens has developed into one of the most consistent small-school programs in the state. While the trophy case remains void of a state championship during that time frame, the Bobcats have ascended to almost every other conceivable peak. Since 1992, Kernes has produced a record of 173-87-1 -- a .665 winning percentage -- with 19 playoff appearances. However, the Bobcats have not enjoyed a double-digit win season in 10 years. But just like every new season, opportunities exist to begin re-writing history. Kerens returns 13 starters from last season's third-place finisher from 11-2A Division I, but replacing a bevy of skill-position players on the offensive side will be priority No. 1 for head coach Terrell Harris in 2015.

 

4. Cayuga Wildcats

  • Coach: Cody Mohan
  • 2014 finish: 3-7
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
  • OL Josh Ingram, Soph., 6-7, 310
  • QB Tristan Croft, Sr., 6-0, 180
  • OL Jayce Harris, Sr., 6-1, 235
  • WR Tristan Davis, Jr., 5-11, 155
  • TE Colt Laugherty, Sr., 5-10, 165
  • OL Kolby Cooper, Jr., 6-4, 305
  • WR Lane Brogdon, Sr., 6-0, 185
  • OL Bryson Shaw, Sr., 6-0, 280

 

Offense: The 2015 season ought to be a interesting one for the Cayuga offense, which returns seven starters. Most of the starting experience rests with an usually large front line for schools the size of Cayuga. The Wildcats have three lineman in excess of 280 pounds, and two who eclipse 300, including mammoth sophomore tackle Josh Ingram. A coach will never complain about that kind of size and experience on the O-line, but questions remain about Cayuga's skill positions. Running back Keshawn Jackson departs after the four-year varsity member finished his career with more than 1,750 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior; and that came in only eight games. Jackson was the catalyst for Cayuga's offense, which averaged 30 points per game in 2014. And until another playmaker(s) emerge, the Wildcats' offense will be a work in progress.

Defense: Cayuga's defense should be in much better shape to being the season with seven quality starters returning from 2014. The Wildcats had their moments on the defensive side of the ball a season ago, but still allowed opponents to average 28 points per game. Cayuga's defensive shortcomings were especially exposed in the Wildcats' four district losses, as Cayuga surrendered an average of 39 points. But as inconsistent as Cayuga was on defense in 2014, the Wildcats came very close to reaching the playoffs. A four-point loss to Kerens in the district opener and a one-point defeat at the hands of Grapeland in the season finale cost the Wildcats a shot at redeeming their average regular season with a run in the postseason.

2015 outlook: A lot has changed since Cayuga's state championship winning season of 2009. For starters, the Wildcats will be led by their third different head coach in six years with Cody Mohan, and their second in as many seasons. The results on the field have been different as well. Cayuga won a total of 11 playoff games in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, but the Wildcats have only two wins in the postseason in the previous five years. Time will tell if Cayuga ever recaptures the form it exhibited at the end of the last decade, but 14 returning starters and brand-new head coach could be a good place to start.

 

5. Grapeland Sandies

  • Coach: Wayne Mahaffey
  • 2014 finish: 3-7
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 9 defensive
Players to watch
  • WR Jaques Faulk, Sr., 5-7, 150
  • WR Riley Chapman, Jr., 5-7, 145
  • WR Rodney Davis, Jr., 5-10, 165
  • DL Ashton Henry, Soph., 6-1, 180
  • RB Jermorris Davis, Sr.
  • LB Kaleb Leonard, Sr., 5-10, 165
  • OL Cameron Riess, Jr., 5-7, 165
  • LB P.J. Lewis, Sr.

 

Offense: Despite having just three wins to show for it, the Grapeland offense was at times explosive and very fun to watch. And with eight of those starters coming back, expect even more fireworks from the Sandies in 2015. First-year coach Wayne Mahaffey arrived on the scene in Grapeland to find his new squad stocked full of playmakers on the offensive end. The receiving corps, while undersized, goes three-deep with the trio of senior Jaques Faulk and juniors Riley Chapman and Rodney Davis back in the fold. Those three combined for more than 1,500 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, and Davis' yards-per-catch average of 32.1 is sure to make defenses think twice about single-covering him whether split wide or in the slot. In addition to those three weapons in the passing game, Grapeland returns the bulk of its offensive line, anchored by junior Cameron Riess. However, a big question looms for the Sandies: who will start at quarterback? If the answer comes quick, expect Grapeland to light up opposing defenses this fall.

Defense: The defensive side of the ball was a major issue for Grapeland a season ago as the Sandies surrendered an average of more than 45 points per game. The fewest points Grapeland allowed in a game last year was 30, while the Sandies were torched for at least 59 on three separate occasions. With the return of nine defensive starters, Mahaffey is hoping to see significant improvement on that side of the ball in 2015. Sophomore Ashton Henry is expected to anchor the Grapeland front, while linebackers Kaleb Leonard and P.J. Lewis will be counted upon for mid-level support. But there will need to be others that markedly improve their individual games moving forward if Grapeland is to entertain ideas of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

2015 outlook: Mahaffey, a long-time coaching veteran whose recent stops include head coaching jobs at Rusk and Hamshire-Fannett along with an assistant post at TAPPS power Bullard Brook Hill, expects to win wherever he goes. Despite registering just three wins all of last season, Grapeland was able to post a 2-3 mark in district, which would almost guarantee them a playoff spot in 2015 with the Class 2A classification expanding to four playoff teams per district this fall. If Grapeland can find a quarterback to lead its potentially explosive offense, and the defense makes a sizable leap forward, the Sandies stand an excellent chance of representing 11-2A Division I in the postseason.

 

6. Cross Roads Bobcats

Cross Roads RB Tyler Johnson (left) and OL/LB Will Van Dusen. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Jim Bradford
  • 2014 finish: 2-8
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB Aaron Arden, Sr., 6-0, 170
  • LB LaTrae Chaney, Sr., 6-1, 215
  • OL Luke Carnes, Sr., 6-2, 230
  • OL Justin Disotel, Sr., 6-0, 225
  • WR Taylor McKenzie, Jr., 6-1, 175
  • RB Tyler Johnson, Jr., 5-9, 165
  • OL Brandon Wilson, Soph.
  • LB Skyler Himes, Sr.

 

Cross Roads OL Luke Carnes. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: For the most part, the 2014 season was one to forget for the Cross Roads offense. The Bobcats put up less than 20 points per game a year ago, which begins to tell the story of their overall struggles. Head coach Jim Bradford is hopeful that with a solid nucleus of impact performers returning on offense that Cross Roads can make a gigantic leap this season. Senior quarterback Aaron Arden, who started all 10 games as a junior, is a good place to start. And junior receiver Taylor McKenzie gives Cross Roads a potentially dangerous combination in the passing game. Luke Carnes and Justin Disotel are expected provide quality senior leadership on the offensive line, while junior running back Tyler Johnson figures to receive the bulk of the carries out of the backfield.

Cross Roads LB Skyler Himes. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Cross Roads' 2-8 season in 2014 wasn't just a product of an underperforming offense. The Bobcats' defense had its struggles as well, allowing opponents to average nearly 45 points per game. Twice, Cross Roads scored 30 points in losses -- 54-30 to Moody in the season opener, and 48-34 to Grapeland late in district play. Just like the offense, Cross Roads brings back eight starters on the defensive side of the ball. Senior linebackers LaTrae Chaney and Skyler Himes are two of the Bobcats' top defenders, and a lot will be expected from the duo if the Bobcats hope to snap a 12-year playoff drought. The offense should be much improved, so if the defense follows suit, Cross Roads could find itself in the postseason mix down the stretch in league play.

2015 outlook: So far, the Jim Bradford era has yielded just five wins in two years. But, Cross Roads brings back more returning playmakers in 2015 than it has leading up to either of Bradford's first two seasons on the job. Much like Grapeland, Cross Roads' playoff chances hinge on improved play on both sides of the ball. A tough non-district schedule featuring perennial postseason entrants Moody, Overton, and Mount Enterprise should give everyone a good idea of what to expect from Cross Roads once the all-important district play begins. Cross Roads' two biggest obstacles for nailing down the final playoff spot from 11-2A Division I figure to be rival Cayuga and Grapeland. Those two games are almost must-wins for the Bobcats.