The Rusk Eagles missed out on the playoffs last season, finishing in fifth place, one spot out of the fourth and final postseason slot out of District 7-4A Division II. Moving up in the standings won't be easy, but Rusk returns plenty of firepower.

The duo of quarterback Jake Hugghins and receiver Isiah Francis could develop into the best QB/WR tandem in the league, and several other Rusk standouts will be entering their third season as starters.

But Fairfield, Mexia, Waco Connally, and Lorena, all of which finished ahead of Rusk last season, constitutes a formidable gauntlet the Eagles must contend with down the stretch in order for the program to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

District 7-4A Division II Preview

Rusk QB Jake Hugghins. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

PLAYMAKERS

  • RB/DB Charles Oliver, Sr., Fairfield
  • QB Haisan Myers, Sr., Fairfield
  • QB Jaylen Gipson, Jr., Mexia
  • LB Tyrik Ray, Sr., Mexia
  • LB Jamaica Doyle, Sr., Waco Connally
  • OL Chiddy Nwaeze, Sr., Waco Connally
  • WR Isiah Francis, Sr., Rusk
  • QB Jake Hugghins, Jr., Rusk
  • DB Zach Grimm, Sr., Lorena
  • RB/WR Jacob Spivey, Jr., Lorena

 

TOP GAMES

  • Mexia at Waco La Vega, Sept. 18
  • Rusk at Athens, Sept. 18
  • Fairfield at China Spring, Sept. 25
  • Rusk at Lorena, Oct. 16
  • Mexia at Fairfield, Oct. 30

 

1. Fairfield Eagles

  • Coach: John Bachtel
  • 2014 finish: 9-3 (4A Division II area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 9 offensive, 5 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • DB/RB Charles Oliver, Sr., 6-2, 185
  • QB Haisan Myers, Sr.
  • LB Jarrett Carpenter, Sr., 6-5, 195
  • RB Dominic Brackens, Sr., 5-10, 170
  • WR Cam Hicks, 6-1, 180

 

2015 outlook: It's hard to believe now, but Fairfield entered the current decade on the heels of a 1-9 season. Fast forward to the mid-2010's, and the Eagles are annually considered favorites for district championships, and occasionally pegged for lengthy playoff runs. Fairfield has compiled a 51-11 record the last five seasons, which included a state championship appearance in 2013. Fourth-year head coach John Bachtel will once again be stocked with a roster that can seriously challenge for the district's top prize. Fairfield brings back 14 starters, including nine from an offense that averaged more than 35 points per game. Haisan Myers is back to direct the offense after passing for more than 1,800 yards as a junior, while the returning backfield duo of Charles Oliver and Dominic Brackens teamed for more than 1,700 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns in 2014. The defense may need some work with less than half of its starters returning, but everything will center around athletic and rangy linebacker Jarrett Carpenter.

 

2. Mexia Blackcats

  • Coach: Lamonte Chambers
  • 2014 finish: 7-4 (4A Division II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 5 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • QB Jaylen Gipson, Jr., 6-2, 195
  • LB Tyrik Ray, Sr., 5-11, 215
  • RB Matron Gerald, Sr., 5-9, 160
  • DL Demetri Freeman, Sr., 6-1, 285
  • WR Avery Williams, Sr., 6-2, 185

 

2015 outlook: Mexia has come a long way since head coach Lamonte Chambers' first season on the job, a debut campaign that yielded an 0-10 record in 2012. But all the third-year boss has done since is get his team to the postseason, albeit with a combined record of 11-11. The second phase of Chambers' reclamation project was completed last season, as the Blackcats overtook reigning state finalist Fairfield for the district championship. The final step in Mexia's road to recovery is success in the playoffs, which could begin as early as this season. Armed with 12 returning starters, including standout dual-threat quarterback Jaylen Gipson, Mexia appears well on its way. The offense has seven starters back from a unit that averaged nearly 40 points per game, and registered two games of more than 60 points. The defense, which allowed more than 31 points a game on average, kept Mexia from being great last season. Senior defensive lineman Demetri Freeman and senior linebacker Tyrik Ray will lead the charge in 2015.

 

3. Waco Connally Cadets

  • Coach: Shane Anderson
  • 2014 finish: 7-5 (4A Division II area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • LB Jamaica Doyle, Sr., 5-11, 185
  • OL Chiddy Nwaeze, Sr., 5-10, 300
  • DL Tyler Pullen, Sr., 5-10, 260
  • RB Adrian Johnson, Sr., 5-10, 200
  • ATH Ronnie Briscoe, Jr., 5-8, 150

 

2015 outlook: Following an impressive five years under Mike Rabe, which included consecutive area-round finishes in 2013 and 2014, Waco Connally is going in a different direction at head coach. The new man in charge is former Hewitt Midway defensive assistant Shane Anderson, who will attempt to extend the Cadets' positive momentum developed by the previous regime. Connally lost a few playmakers from a season ago, but plenty of holdovers are in place to keep the engine moving forward. Senior running back Adrian Johnson and junior ATH Ronnie Briscoe should represent the bulk of Connally's offensive production, while the defense will be led by the duo of senior lineman Tyler Pullen and senior linebacker Jamaica Doyle, who hope to improve on the Cadets' 2014 defensive scoring average of 39.2 points.

 

4. Rusk Eagles

Rusk's Isiah Francis (left), Leo Rosales (center), and Jack Patton. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Ted Patton
  • 2014 finish: 4-6
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 7 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • WR Isiah Francis, Sr., 5-7, 155
  • QB Jake Hugghins, Jr., 6-1, 180
  • OL Bryce Hoffman, Sr., 6-1, 280
  • WR Jonathan Rojo, Sr., 5-8, 160
  • DB Jack Patton, Jr.
  • DL Tyrell Glenn, Sr.
  • WR Parker Millsap, Soph.
  • DB Leo Rosales, Sr.

 

Rusk RB Isiah Francis. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Following a rough 2013 season that featured several underclassmen making their varsity debuts, Rusk made steady progress last year, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Despite playing a challenging non-district schedule that featured three playoff teams and a district slate filled with perennial postseason patrons, the Eagles held their own offensively. Rusk averaged more than 32 points per game a season ago, and with seven returning starters -- most of them at the skill positions -- eighth-year head coach Ted Patton must feel awfully good about his offense's chance of scoring at an even higher clip in 2015. Quarterback Jake Hugghins shined a sophomore, finishing last season with more than 2,500 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. His favorite target, senior receiver Isiah Francis, will be welcomed back to the fold following a 60-catch, 1,000-yard campaign. And lineman Bryce Hoffman, a multi-year starter, is expected to provide veteran leadership for the offensive line.

Rusk DB Jack Patton. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Rusk may need another big season on offense, because the Eagles' defense was the team's most glaring weakness in 2014. If you're looking for a reason as to why Rusk was excluded from the playoff party a season ago, search no further than the defensive side of the ball. Rusk allowed opposing offenses an average of more than 45 points per game. In fact, even in two of the Eagles' four wins, Rusk foes put up 42 and 46 points, respectively. And while more high-scoring shootouts are to expected for the Eagles this fall, Patton is hopeful that with seven returning starters, his defense can at least make life easier on the offense by occasionally stringing together stops. The secondary combo of junior Jack Patton and senior Leo Rosales, often the last line of resistance in the defensive backfield, will be asked to keep opponents' explosive plays to a minimum. Strong play on the defense line, anchored by senior Tyrell Glenn, could soften the burden on Rusk's secondary.

2015 outlook: Rusk snapped a four-year playoff drought in 2011, and even picked up a victory in the playoffs, breeding newfound optimism in the future of the program. But a rebuilding project beginning in 2012 has stymied progress, as the Eagles are a combined 11-19 the last three years. It seems as if the hopefulness from a few seasons ago is waning, and this year's group represents an opportunity for Coach Patton and his staff to rekindle the fires. With the most returning starters in the district, including two bona fide playmakers on offense, it is certainly not out of the question that Rusk could once again find itself in the postseason come November. A three-week stretch in non-district against Crockett, Henderson, and Athens, should reveal what type of chances the Eagles have once 7-4A Division II play gets going.

 

5. Lorena Leopards

  • Coach: Ray Biles
  • 2014 finish: 4-7 (4A Division II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 3 offensive, 7 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • DB Zach Grimm, Sr., 5-9, 160
  • RB/WR Jacob Spivey, Jr., 5-11, 185
  • LB Blake Mitchell, Sr., 5-11, 200
  • DL Matt Moseley, Sr., 6-0, 190
  • WR Colby Reed, Sr., 6-2, 205

 

2015 outlook: It wasn't always pretty, but last season's Lorena squad extended the program's streak of consecutive playoff appearances to seven. The Leopards, however, finished with just four wins, their lowest single-season output since 2007. Work must be done on the offensive side of the ball, where just three starters return. Lorena managed a mediocre 26.7 points per game a year ago, so head coach Ray BIles is hoping that an influx of youth can inject some life into the offense. One such underclassman could be junior ATH Jacob Spivey, who will likely be utilized in a variety of ways. Senior wideout Colby Reed will rely on his size and strength to bully smaller defensive backs in the district. The defense, however, is where the Leopards have a serious chance of making significant strides. Lorena yielded a respectable 26 points per game, playing primarily with sophomores and juniors. With senior defenders like lineman Matt Moseley, linebacker Blake Mitchell and defensive back Zach Grimm leading the way, the Leopards' 'D' could be their saving grace.

 

6. Groesbeck Goats

  • Coach: Bruce McDonald
  • 2014 finish: 1-9
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive

 

Players to watch
  • LB John O'Kelley, Sr., 6-3, 210
  • WR Jaylon Medlock, Sr., 5-10, 150
  • DB Jarrius Washington, Sr., 6-2, 175
  • QB Mitchell Waller, Jr., 6-2, 170
  • WR Chandler Boyd, Jr., 5-10, 150

 

2015 outlook: It was a season to forget for Groesbeck, which stumbled to a 1-9 finish, the program's worst since 2009. First-year head coach Bruce McDonald has his hands full, but his primary goal from the outset is to change the Goats' culture of losing. He has a solid returning nucleus of starters to build around, including senior linebacker and senior defensive back Jarrius Washington, and senior wideout Jaylon Medlock, but the Goats' gap separating them from the rest of the district was rather large in 2014. Groesbeck was outscored by an average margin of more than 37 points a season ago, which suggests it could be another year or two before the Goats are ready to challenge for the playoffs, especially considering the usual unfamiliarity with a new coaching staff.