2015 Football Preview: The Usual Suspects Figure To Fight It Out In Tradition-Rich 9-4A Division I
How many districts in Texas can match seven state championships since 2004? Well, there is at least one, and it resides in East Texas.
Between District 9-4A DIvision I heavyweights Carthage, Kilgore, Chapel Hill, and Henderson, the combined playoff record of that foursome since 2007 is a ridiculous 71-19 (.789).
What does the collective winning factory have in store for 2015?
District 9-4A Division I Preview
- TE/DL Jarrod McLin, Sr., Carthage
- WR Marquise Guinn, Sr., Carthage
- QB Jarod Blissett, Sr., Carthage
- OL/DL Jeremy West, Sr., Chapel HIll
- WR/LB Reggie King, Sr., Chapel Hill
- RB/DB Ja'Braylon Franklin, Sr., Chapel Hill
- WR Trestan Ebner, Jr., Henderson
- WR/DB LaKendrick Vanzandt, Jr., Henderson
- OL Raini Dorman, Jr. Henderson
- RB Ja'Quorius Smith, Sr., Kilgore
- LB Mason Shelton, Sr., Kilgore
- OL Korbin Boles, Sr., Palestine
- OL Jake Neal, Jr., Palestine
- QB Wyatt Rinehart, Jr., Brownsboro
- ATH Tamrick Pace, Sr., Brownsboro
- Atlanta at Henderson, Aug. 28
- Chapel Hill vs. Whitehouse (at Tyler), Sept. 3
- Henderson at Atlanta, Sept. 4
- Gladewater at Carthage, Sept. 18
- Carthage vs. Gilmer, Sept. 26
- Kilgore at Palestine, Oct. 9
- Henderson at Chapel Hill, Oct. 30
- Chapel Hill at Carthage, Nov. 6
1. Carthage Bulldogs
- Coach: Scott Surratt
- 2014 result: 6-6 (4A Division I area finalist)
- Returning starters: 8 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
- TE/DL Jarrod McLin, Sr., 6-3, 215
- WR/TE Marquise Guinn, Sr., 6-4, 220
- QB Jarod Blissett, Sr., 6-1, 200
- WR Jakeldric Jackson, Sr., 5-9, 160
- OL Cagan Baldree, Sr., 6-4, 250
- RB Ravodney Hardy, Sr.
- ATH Hunter Townsend, Soph., 5-11, 185
- LB Mykel Gates, Soph., 5-11, 215
- FB Brewster Griffith, Jr.
- OL Brandon Carlson, Sr., 5-11, 260
Offense: The Carthage offense experienced a downturn in 2014, some of that because of injuries, while the majority of the reasoning had to do with inexperience. The Bulldogs graduated the bulk of a record-setting offense that led Carthage to its fourth state championship in six years. Carthage managed just 24.4 points per game a season ago, compared to the 45.1 figure it posted in 2013. While health is always an area of concern for every team, and it is again for Carthage, the Bulldogs' offense expects much better results this season. With eight returning starters, including senior quarterback Jarod Blissett, senior receiver Jakeldric Jackson, a slew of running backs, and a seasoned offensive line, don't count on Carthage's offensive struggles to carry over into 2015. The Bulldogs will get another boost on the offensive side of the ball as senior Marquise Guinn returns to the field after missing the entire 2014 campaign. Guinn started at tight end as a sophomore, catching a touchdown in Carthage's state title game win over Kilgore, but will split out wide as a receiver this season. Guinn's size (6-4, 220) and agility could make him a difficult cover for opposing defensive backs. Sophomore ATH Hunter Townsend is a potential X-factor for the Carthage offense with his ability to line up at several different positions, including quarterback.
Defense: Last season did not start off particularly well for Carthage's defense, which allowed an uncharacteristically high 38.7 points through its first six games, which incidentally resulted in a 1-5 start to the year -- the Bulldogs' worst since 2001. But as the year progressed, so did Carthage's defense. In their final six games of the year, the Bulldogs yielded an average of only 11.7 points, which included two shutouts -- one coming in the playoffs. Carthage is returning seven defensive starters to the field, which could equate into better overall success. Senior defensive end Jarrod McLin is the star of the defense. His tall frame, coupled with speed and quickness, make him a problem for opposing offensive tackles. After showing promise as a sophomore during Carthage's run to state, McLin carried over that success with a fine junior campaign. Already the owner of scholarship offers from Louisiana-Lafayette and UTSA, his recruitment could pick up with another solid year as a senior. Sophomore Mykel Gates is a physical specimen at outside linebacker, but suffered through a myriad of injury issues a season ago.
2015 outlook: Carthage finished 6-6 last year, the worst season of Bulldogs head coach Scott Surratt's eight-year tenure. And while most programs would kill for an "off year" that includes a playoff win, expectations are simply higher in Carthage, which has posted a gleaming 94-21 record since 2007 -- an astonishing 31-4 in the playoffs. By all accounts, however, last season's mediocre results appear to be a brief hiccup in the Bulldogs' winning machine. The odds suggest that Carthage won't have the same injury misfortune as last year, a problem that had the Bulldogs' five-deep in their backfield by the time the regular season ended. In addition, with 15 of 22 starters returning, Carthage has a wealth of experience to lean on, which could make all the difference in the world in a district that features seven state championships since 2004.
2. Chapel Hill Bulldogs
- Coach: Thomas Sitton
- 2014 result: 6-6 (4A Division I area finalist)
- Returning starters: 5 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- OL/DL Jeremy West, Sr., 6-3, 300
- WR/LB Reggie King, Sr., 5-11, 220
- RB/DB Ja'Braylon Franklin, Sr., 5-8, 160
- WR/DB Deundre Phillips, Sr., 5-8, 180
- QB Konnor Hitchcock, Sr., 5-9, 175
- DL Andrew Dawson, Sr., 6-2, 250
- RB/DB Kenyotta Henderson, Sr., 5-8, 180
- WR Zack Walters, Sr., 6-2, 200
- RB Ladarian Hudson, Jr., 5-11, 180
- K/P Austyn Fendrick, Sr., 6-2, 190
Offense: The Chapel Hill offense took a step back on offense in 2014, but it wasn't a very big one. The Bulldogs put up more than 42 points in their run to the state quarterfinals the year before, and followed that up with an average of 38.5 last season. Most of the Bulldogs' offensive skill-position players return, but there is work to be done on the offensive line, which returns just one starter -- senior tackle and Northwestern State commit Jeremy West. Seventh-year head coach Thomas Sitton expressed optimism concerning the newcomers up front, and if that group can come together, the Bulldogs have the potential to be one of East Texas' most explosive offenses in 2015. Returning to the field are 2,000-yard passer Konnor Hitchcock, and a receiving corps that features three senior veterans in Reggie King, Deundre Phillips, and Zack Walters. The running backs, typically the bread and butter for Chapel Hill, have their sights set on another big year with 1,000-yard back Ja'Braylon Franklin, along with junior Ladarian Hudson, one of a couple of standout underclassmen.
Defense: If there's been one thing that's kept Chapel Hill from recapturing its state championship form of 2011, it's been the defense. Last year, the Bulldogs surrendered an average of more than 36 points per game, which followed a season in which Chapel Hill yielded opponents an average of 33.1. The Bulldogs have rode their offense to great success in each of the last two seasons, but in order for Chapel Hill to take the next step by competing for a state title, better play on the defensive side of the ball is a must. During the offseason, longtime Chapel Hill defensive coordinator Jason Holman left to fill the same position at Lufkin. Sitton promoted Wes Schminkey to replace Holman, but said that he would have an enhanced role in defensive prep and in-game calls. With six defensive starters back, Chapel Hill has a few standouts to build around in the coming months. Senior defensive lineman Andrew Dawson is recovering from offseason knee surgery, but is expected to be ready for the beginning of the season. He'll be backed by a physical and rangy linebacking corps, anchored by King and junior Kaleb Golden. The Bulldogs' secondary will be a strength with seniors Kenyotta Henderson, Phillips, and Franklin all playing a significant role.
2015 outlook: The last time Chapel Hill had this much returning talent, it advanced four rounds deep in the playoffs two years ago. That team followed a 3-7 performance from the previous year, while this year's group has a taste of playoff success to draw from moving forward. The Bulldogs also got a first-hand look at eventual state champion and this season's preseason No. 1 Navasota in the second round of the playoffs, which could prove beneficial if the two were to meet again in the postseason. But before thinking about the playoffs, Chapel Hill must first withstand a tough non-district and district schedule, which is full of potential road blocks. The Bulldogs play three 5A programs in non-district -- Lindale, Whitehouse, and Port Neches-Groves -- and a couple of talented 4A squads in Paris and Tatum. In district, Chapel Hill will get both Kilgore and Henderson at home, but must travel to Carthage in the regular-season finale, a game which could decide the 9-4A Division I title.
3. Henderson Lions
- Coach: Phil Castles
- 2014 result: 11-3 (4A Division I state quarterfinalist)
- Returning starters: 3 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
- WR Trestan Ebner, Jr., 5-11, 175
- RB/DB La'Kendrick Vanzandt, Jr., 6-1, 185
- OL Raini Dorman, Jr., 6-2, 245
- DB Austin Daughtry, Sr., 5-10, 160
- QB/DB Matthew Childers, Jr., 6-4, 180
- OL Weston Thomas, Jr., 5-11, 250
- LB Cadarius Caldwell, Sr., 5-8, 180
- DL Jaxon Goode, Sr., 6-1, 220
- DB Justin Rojas, Sr.
- LB Keaton Hand, Jr., 5-10, 195
Offense: Henderson's 2014 offense may not have been described as "flashy," but it certainly got the job done. The Lions put up a district-best average of 39.6 points per game, which was ignited mostly by the play of quarterback Zane Boles, who has since graduated. Boles helped the Lions capture their first outright district title in more than a dozen years, and finished his career with 1,627 passing yards and 16 touchdowns to go with another 1,185 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground as a senior. Boles and last season's starting running back Randy Davis may be gone, but the Lions are bringing back a couple of supreme offensive playmakers in junior receiver Trestan Ebner and junior running back LaKendrick Vanzandt, who are both Division I-caliber recruits. Ebner already has scholarship offers from Kansas and SMU, while Vanzandt's prowess as a defensive back has caught the attention of multiple college programs already. The Henderson offensive line was hit hard by graduation, but the Lions return a coupe of good ones to build around in juniors Raini Dorman and Weston Thomas.
Defense: The Lions' defense was largely overshadowed by the team's offensive exploits a season ago, but third-year head coach Phil Castles will tell you it was the defensive side of the ball where his team became a true force to be reckoned with. Henderson allowed less than 13 points per game in district, and while the playoff scoring defense average was 29.8, the Lions' "D" kept Henderson close for three quarters in its quarterfinal loss to eventual state champ Navasota. That game also represented the only time all season that Navasota's lethal QB-WR combo of Shelton Eppler and Tren'Davian Dickson did not hook for a touchdown. Eppler finished the year with a state-record 71 touchdown passes, while Dickson -- a recent Texas commit -- set a national record with 39 scoring receptions. Henderson returns just four starters from last year's defense, but has a handful of standouts with valuable experience under their belts. Senior Jaxon Goode looks to anchor the defensive line, while senior Cadarius Caldwell and junior Keaton Hand will fill at linebacker. Vanzandt and Austin Daughtry will be instrumental in how Henderson defends the pass.
2015 outlook: Henderson has reached at least the state-quarterfinal round of the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, turning the Lions' program into threats for deep postseason runs on an annual basis. Henderson did lose quite a bit of talent off 2014's district championship team, but don't expect the Lions to dip below .500 like they did in 2013, a year after losing similar numbers to graduation. There is still plenty of talent to be found on the Henderson roster, enough to perhaps make another run a league title. The biggest concerns heading into the new season are the quarterback spot, and offensive and defensive line play. The Lions are presented with a solid non-district schedule to sort most of that out. Henderson opens with Athens, a regional semifinalist in 2014, followed by games against defending quarterfinalist Atlanta, Rusk, 3A Division II state finalist Newton, and perennially powerful Daingerfield. Henderson gets Carthage at home in the district opener, but has two tough ones at Chapel Hill and at home vs. Kilgore to close out the regular season.
4. Kilgore Bulldogs
- Coach: Mike Wood
- 2014 result: 4-7 (4A Division I bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 3 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
- RB Ja'Quorius Smith, Sr., 5-9, 180
- LB Mason Shelton, Sr., 5-9, 200
- WR/DB Jonathan Shepherd, Soph., 6-3, 180
- RB Caylon Williams, Sr.
- DB Chris Toombs, Sr., 5-11, 185
- DL Kevin Tinney, Jr., 5-10, 215
- DB Terrell Shelton, Jr., 5-9, 150
- OL Chris Powe, Sr., 6-0, 300
- OL Benji Peralez, Jr., 6-0, 280
- DL Ken Fagans, Sr., 6-3, 215
Offense: It was an up-and-down season for the Kilgore offense in 2014, some of it brought on by a rash of injuries at both quarterback and running back. The Bulldogs finished the year with an average of 25 points per game, but there were some weeks when scoring became a real challenge. Kilgore netted just 13 points in a triple-overtime loss to Texas High in non-district, was limited to a single touchdown in a district loss to Carthage, and managed only six points in a first-round playoff defeat to Jasper. The toughest part of the offensive struggles was the fact that most of the Bulldogs' starters on that side of the ball were seniors, and now with only three returning offensive starters back, Kilgore could face another uphill battle. Kilgore does return senior running back Ja'Quorius Smith, who performed well when starting tailback and Houston signee Kevrin Justice missed time because of injury. But there are holes almost everywhere else, which must be addressed, if Kilgore is to seriously challenge the offensively explosive rosters of Carthage, Chapel Hill, and Henderson.
Defense: Kilgore's defense played well for the most part, considering the circumstances. Playing without the heart and soul of the Bulldogs' defense for the previous two seasons -- linemen LaDarrin Anthony and D.Q. Scott -- Kilgore managed to hold opponents to an average of only 23 points per game. If the Bulldogs face similar offensive struggles in 2015, more of the same will be required from a Kilgore defense, which brings back just four starters. Most of the heavy-lifting on the defensive side of the ball will be left to defensive linemen Kevin Tinney and Ken Fagans, linebacker Mason Shelton, and a secondary that includes standouts like senior Chris Toombs and sophomore Jonathan Shepherd.
2015 outlook: It was hard to predict Kilgore's one-year tumble from 13-win state finalist to last year's four-win, first-round playoff exit. And with several more players saying goodbye to Kilgore in the offseason through graduation, there's even more uncertainty about the 2015 Bulldogs. One thing is for sure: Kilgore will not change its identity, especially on offense. Kilgore believes it has the backs in Smith and Caylon Williams to execute its grind-it-out offensive game plan, but there are definitely question marks about the offensive line, which has always been a strength of the truly great Kilgore teams. No matter the year, the defense played in Kilgore is usually among East Texas' best, so we shouldn't expect that to change any time soon. If the Bulldogs' O-line comes together and Kilgore can remain healthy, especially in the backfield, Kilgore could certainly make a push for one of the top two spots in the district. However, Kilgore's roster may not be deep enough to withstand another significant blow in the injury department.
5. Palestine Wildcats
- Coach: Robby Clark
- 2014 result: 1-9
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- OL Korbin Boles, Sr., 6-2, 315
- OL Jake Neal, Jr., 6-4, 270
- RB Devonte Mims, Sr., 6-2, 200
- WR Devin Lomax, Sr.
- LB Marcus Cook, Sr., 5-11, 200
- WR Jhamone Milton, Sr.
- LB Callum Parkes, Sr.
- DL Travis Hart, Sr.
- OL Jesus Garcia-Castillo, Soph.
- WR Irric Deyon, Jr., 5-8, 160
Offense: There weren't very many bright spots during Palestine's 1-9 campaign a season ago, and the offense certainly wasn't one of them. The Wildcats averaged only 15.5 points per game in 2014, which does not equal too many wins these days. Some of the struggles can be attributed to youth, while a lot of it had to do with unfamiliarity under a new coaching staff. While the latter hasn't changed with the arrival Robby Clark -- Palestine's second head coach in as many seasons -- the Wildcats do have some talent to build around on offense this year. The strength for Palestine is most noticeably up front with the offensive line, which is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, group in the district. Senior Korbin Boles is a legitimate college prospect, while junior Jake Neal's height gives him an excellent frame to grow into. A new quarterback will be taking the snaps following the graduation of three-year starter Gee Clark, but senior running back Devonte Mims and senior receiver Devin Lomax give Palestine a potentially potent one-two combination on offense.
Defense: It wasn't too much fun playing for Palestine's defense in 2014. The Wildcats yielded an average of almost 43 points per game to opposing offenses, which coupled with a struggling offense, meant Palestine was not competitive most weeks. One of the big keys in year one for Clark and his staff will be to uncover some defensive talent, something that obviously eluded the Wildcats last season. Palestine will use its six returing defensive starters along with a mixture of newcomers to attempt to find a workable combination. The Wildcats will be counting on the senior leadership of lineman Travis Hart and linebackers Marcus Cook and Callum Parkes to help get the ship turned around.
2015 outlook: The silver lining to last season's bitter disappointment for Palestine: there's nowhere to go but up. While never advancing beyond the second round of the playoffs under head coach Lance Angel from 2010-13, Palestine teams were generally competitive, which made 2014's one-win season a shocker. The Wildcats program has long been stocked with talented athletes, so repeated struggles should not become the norm at Palestine. With a head coach like Clark, who's served as an assistant at top-notch programs like Austin Westlake, Brownwood, Cedar Hill, and Odessa Permian, the Palestine program could be making some very significant strides in the coming years. And while the 2015 season might be too soon to start talking district championships, keep an eye on the Wildcats' district opener at home against Kilgore -- a game that could end up having serious postseason implications come November.
6. Brownsboro Bears
- Coach: Jason Hooker
- 2014 result: 1-9
- Returning starters: 7 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Wyatt Rinehart, Jr., 6-3, 195
- ATH Tamrick Pace, Sr., 6-2, 190
- DB Xavier Richardson, Sr., 5-10, 160
- LB Caleb Seale, Sr.
- WR Jamal Bell, Jr., 6-1, 175
- ATH Kenneth Woods, Soph., 6-3, 205
- OL Nick Wright, Sr., 5-11, 230
- LB Mardarion Chivers, Jr.
- OL Tanner Clark, Sr.
- DB Bryant King, Sr.
Offense: Brownsboro's 2014 offense could aptly be described as "sporadic." Sure, the Bears showed glimpses of excellence during the early portion of last year. But there were times, most notably during district, that Brownsboro was challenged to find the end zone. For the season, Brownsboro averaged just 19 points per game, but there was plenty of youth to be found between the lines. Starting quarterback Wyatt Rinehart was only a sophomore and just getting his feet wet running an offense on Friday nights. With a strong offseason and a couple of playmakers returning to his side, there's every indication that Rinehart and the Brownsboro offense can make some substantial leaps in production this year. Senior Tamrick Pace is an offensive coordinator's dream. His versatility and short-end bursts of speed will allow him to fill a variety of roles on offense, from receiver and running back to a handful of snaps from behind center.
Defense: No matter how much the offense improves, if Brownsboro doesn't greatly improve its level of play on the defensive side of the ball, the Bears will struggle getting to where they want to go. Brownsboro allowed more than 45 points per game a year ago, and was outscored by an average of 33.8 points during district play. Third-year head coach Jason Hooker will have six returning starters to work with in 2015, perhaps none more valuable than senior safety Xavier Richardson. Brownsboro allowed an alarming number of explosive plays a year ago, and with Richardson often times representing the Bears' last line of defense, much of Brownsboro's improvement rests with him. But there will be others that must step up as well. Linebackers Caleb Seale and Mardarion Chivers will be counted to close gaps and fill running lanes, while Coach Hooker and his staff is hoping to find a few players who can rush the quarterback from the defensive line.
2015 outlook: It's true that Brownsboro lacks the pedigree that other programs in the district possess, and it's also accurate to say the Bears are not perennially as stacked with talent as some of the other schools in the district. But tradition and athleticism are not always the end-all when it comes to defining success. Brownsboro returns the second-most starters of any team in the district, and that level of experience could help the Bears execute at a much higher level than in recent years. Hooker's system has been in place for three years now, so most of the players should have a fairly firm grasp on the staff's schemes and principles. It would be a surprise to see Brownsboro reach the playoffs, which would be their first postseason trip since 2010, but a little bit of confidence can go a long way on the football field.