Van safety Cooper Bledsoe is being asked to double dip and play running back as a senior. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

There are seven teams in District 8-4A Division I. Six qualified for the postseason a year ago. One did so at the Class 5A level.

Only four will make it out of the league this year.

The core of the district is Athens, Crandall, Kaufman, Mabank and Van. Those teams stayed together with Terrell being thrown in from the 5A level and Brownsboro hopping in from an ultra physical district that also featured Carthage, Chapel Hill and Kilgore.

We know what Kaufman is capable of. It dominated district competition last year other than Athens and Van. And it still decisively beat Van.

Kaufman brings back a slight majority of their 2015 team. Are they scary enough to be ranked ahead of a Terrell team that went three rounds deep in the 5A Division II playoffs a year ago?

Is Terrell ranked No. 1?

What about Van? It might have the pieces in place to make a good run.

Brownsboro was one of East Texas' most pleasant surprises last year. Do we see them sustaining momentum now that star Tamrick Pace is with Stephen F. Austin?

Athens had to overhaul its offense, but that group will be complemented by a great defense. Is it in position to contend?

The District 8-4A Division I picks are here.

Athens LB Noah Bush begins his senior year with offers from Air Force and Army. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

District 8-4A Division I Preview

PLAYMAKERS

  • WR Isaiah Allred, Sr., Van
  • ATH Jamal Bell, Sr., Brownsboro
  • DB/RB Cooper Bledsoe, Sr., Van
  • LB Noah Bush, Sr., Athens
  • QB Michael Dearman, Sr., Crandall
  • LB/FB Maalik Hall, Sr., Athens
  • OL Daylon Hickmon, Sr., Terrell
  • DL/OL Jacob Felts, Jr., Mabank
  • QB/WR Jefferson Fritz, Sr., Kaufman
  • QB/DB Xavius Fulton, Jr., Athens
  • QB Klayton Henderson, Sr., Terrell
  • DL Jackson Lawley, Sr., Crandall
  • LB/RB Devyn Morris, Sr., Kaufman
  • QB Garrett Moseley, Sr., Van
  • WR Dre Prox, Jr., Kaufman
  • LB Sam Reeves, Sr., Van
  • OL Markell Ringo, Jr., Terrell
  • RB/LB Kevon Thompson, Jr., Brownsboro
  • OL Austin Weatherly, Sr., Kaufman

TOP GAMES

  • Terrell at Kaufman, Sept. 23
  • Van at Athens, Sept. 30
  • Mabank at Brownsboro, Sept. 30
  • Terrell at Athens, Oct. 14
  • Kaufman at Van, Oct. 28
  • Crandall at Brownsboro, Oct. 28
  • Brownsboro at Athens, Nov. 4
  • Van at Terrell, Nov. 4

1. Terrell Tigers

  • Coach: Mike Shields
  • 2015 finish: 11-2 (5A D-II regional semifinalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB Klayton Henderson, Sr., 6-0, 175
  • OL Daylon Hickmon, Sr., 6-3, 315
  • OL Markell Ringo, Jr., 6-0, 275
  • RB/LB Elijah McQueen, Sr., 5-10, 175
  • LB Kiki Morris, Sr., 6-0, 190

2016 outlook: Terrell joins the district off a third round playoff appearance at the 5A Division II level last season. The year was the program's best since about an era Hollywood star Jamie Foxx played quarterback for the school.

Head coach Mike Shield's group is about half-and-half with 11 starters from the successful team returning for duty. Naturally, the higher performing half mostly graduated off.

But there is a lot of promise around the returners, especially offensively. Retaining quarterback Klayton Henderson off a 16-touchdown junior campaign is a big deal, and he'll work behind at least two of the district's best offensive linemen.

Offensive tackle Daylon Hickmon checks in at 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds. Fellow tackle Markell Ringo isn't far off at 6-foot and 275 pounds.

Running back Elijah McQueen had a good season behind some leading depth and should be able to handle the heavier load he is about to undertake.

Six starters are back on defense.

Kiki Morris has great size for the linebacker spot. Defensive tackle Rockmond Leach (5-11, 170) is small yet plays much bigger than his size off the edge to round out the top flight of Terrell players.

When you've been a successful 5A team and get dropped to 4A Division I, you're obviously going to be optimistic about your chances to win your new district.

District 8-4A Division I is going to be a tough one for any team to win, but Terrell has deep playoff experience to lean on. None of the other teams in the district received much playoff experience other than Kaufman at the 4A Division I level.

2. Kaufman Lions

  • Coach: Jeramy Burleson
  • 2015 finish: 11-2 (4A D-I regional semifinalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB/WR Jefferson Fritz, Sr., 5-11, 185
  • OL Austin Weatherly, Sr., 6-3, 285
  • WR Dre Prox, Jr., 5-10, 165
  • LB/RB Devyn Morris, Jr., 6-2, 230
  • DB/RB Kelton Kersh, Sr., 5-11, 185
  • DB/QB Tre Collier, Sr., 6-0, 160

2016 outlook: Kaufman offensive coordinator Jeramy Burleson takes over for departed head coach Craig Barker. Barker signed on with Tatum during the offseason.

This Kaufman team will be yet another to benefit from the string of Fritz family members at quarterback. Jefferson Fritz takes the reigns under center after catching for more than 1,600 combined yards the past two seasons -- a testament to his athleticism.

Austin Weatherly won't be the biggest offensive lineman in the league thanks to the addition of Daylon Hickmon of Terrell into the mix, but he's probably the most valuable. He's very athletic for his size of 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds and will probably be win a spot on the first-team all-district squad for a second year in a row.

Dre Prox headlines the receivers. A group of other players will rotate in and out of receiver spots with some starting within the secondary as well.

Five returning starters on offense isn't exactly a truthful number when you factor in the rotation's experience.

Seven players are back from a defense that allowed about 20 points per game last year through 13 contests en route to the District 8-4A Division I crown and a third-round trip into the playoffs.

With 13 starters back in total, it's not hard to see Kaufman getting back to the regional level of competition. Within the district, however, Terrell presents the most obvious challenge.

3. Van Vandals

Van WR Isaiah Allred. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Jared Moffatt
  • 2015 finish: 6-5 (4A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 3 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
  • DB/RB Cooper Bledsoe, Sr., 6-0, 175
  • LB Sam Reeves, Sr., 5-11, 220
  • WR Isaiah Allred, Sr., 6-3, 195
  • QB Garrett Moseley, Jr., 5-11, 175
  • WR/DB Connor Houston, Sr., 5-11, 175
  • MLB/RB/H-back Brax Thompson, Jr., 6-1, 190
  • OL Caleb York, Sr., 5-9, 235
Van QB Garrett Moseley. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Van has to overhaul its offensive personnel and offensive philosophy now that it is fully removed from the days of great running backs in Aphonso Thomas and Matt Savis. Thomas shouldered the load just fine solo last season, after Savis graduated, and is now contending for playing time as a true freshman at SMU.

Head coach Jared Moffatt is an offensive guy. Expect to see the Vandals shift back to a lean on the passing game with a really deep rotation of receivers.

Isaiah Allred, a 6-foot-3 senior, headlines the receiving group. He started last season and then made some big strides ahead of his senior year in pursuit of playing beyond the high school level. So far, he has firm interest from NCAA Division II schools.

There are two wild cards on offense. One is athletic receiver Connor Houston exploding onto scene as a senior. The other is decorated safety Cooper Bledsoe taking on a bigger role by toting the majority of carries at running back.

Quarterback Garrett Moseley returns for his junior year as a known quantity. He threw for more than 1,300 yards in 11 games last season and might be part of the answer to Van's run game questions after going for about 600 yards on the ground last season.

Van has to nearly completely rebuild its offensive line, but Caleb York is a nice starting block that proved himself last season at center. The Vandals' offensive line has turned over twice the past two seasons and there never has been a noticeable drop off.

Van ATH Cooper Bledsoe. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Eight starters are back to a unit that averaged a solid 28 points against through all 11 games played last season. But there were some things that could improve.

It's never great when a safety leads a team in tackles. Cooper Bledsoe had to make 157 takedowns last season.

Sam Reeves is in charge of what should be a better front, based on experience. He made 137 tackles a year ago at his linebacker spot.

Van has a somewhat deep set of defensive backs that should make it competitive with any high-flying offense it faces. That's important because Bledsoe needs to be spared some minutes on defense if he's going to be the face of the running game.

2016 outlook: This could be your dark horse to win the district.

The Vandals lack a lot of proven playmakers on offense and their defense could afford to become tougher up front this season compared to last, but Van always fields athleticism at its skill positions and generally makes it work up front along the offensive line.

Really good non-district games against Mineola, Princeton and Lindale should be able to tell you what you need to know about the team before it enters league competition.

4. Athens Hornets

Athens LB/RB Maalik Hall. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Paul Essary
  • 2015 finish: 8-4 (4A D-I area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 2 offensive, 9 defensive
Players to watch
  • LB Noah Bush, Sr., 6-2, 225
  • QB/DB Xavius Fulton, Jr., 5-10, 175
  • LB/RB Maalik Hall, Sr., 6-0, 184
  • DL Ross Boyd, Sr., 6-3, 255
  • DL Shemar Willis, Sr., 5-11, 225
Athens QB Xavius Fulton. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: A great run with Logan Fuller finally ended last season with a second consecutive loss to Kennedale in the area round of the 4A Division I playoffs.

The bowling ball back was one of the most disappointing non-pickups by colleges on National Signing Day, but he did find a home with Tyler Junior College and has two shots over the next two years to show the value he can add to a team -- particularly a run-heavy team.

Athens' offense is a huge question here in the preseason due to Fuller's absence off a 1,799-yard senior campaign. Travon Fuller also is gone and off to Texas A&M as a defensive back.

The Hornets love to utilize power run sets like the Slot-T and the should be getting an upgrade, in terms of athleticism, with Xavier Fulton emerging under center. Big running back Maalik Hall might step away from full-time work as a linebacker to be the centerpiece to the ground-and-pound offense.

A lot of other backs should benefit from head coach Paul Essary's scheme, but they have to wait to see how effective they'll be with a virtually all-new line.

Athens DL Shemar Willis. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Athens' defensive unit should be the district's best as a product of the physical offense it works against and simply because of the star power it possesses.

Senior linebacker Noah Bush has been rewarded for his on-field performance as well as his academic record with offers from Air Force any Army. He made a team-best 120 tackles last season and looks the part of a linebacker.

Maalik Hall is back after a really good year at linebacker as well. He made 58 tackles and helped keep opposing gains minimal along with Bush.

The Hornets' defensive line also is going to be fierce. Ross Boyd and Shemar Willis have great size at their positions, and there's depth to rotate linemen in and out.

Athens fields enough athletes year-to-year under head coach Paul Essary that the loss to Travon Fuller in the secondary should not be catastrophic. The backfield also will benefit from a great defensive front.

2016 outlook: The season will go with the offense. It the Hornets develop a strong offensive line and several players that can run the rock toward old running back Logan Fuller's numbers, they won't miss a beat.

Athens has a great defense, but they're going to need some support. You just can't afford to entirely bank on the defense stopping the high-octane offenses of Terrell, Kaufman and Van drive-after-drive.

Expect the team to pull it together for a playoff run.

5. Brownsboro Bears

Brownsboro ATH Jamal Bell. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Jason Hooker
  • 2015 finish: 5-6 (4A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 4 offensive, 9 defensive
Players to watch
  • ATH Jamal Bell, Sr., 6-2, 180
  • RB/LB Kevon Thompson, Jr., 6-1, 190
  • OL/DL Stephen Whittle, Sr., 6-1, 225
  • DL/RB Kenneth Woods, Sr., 6-4, 233
  • DL/OL Hunter Brackett, Soph., 6-1, 205
Brownsboro RB Kevon Thompson. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Brownsboro definitely is going to miss the services of all-around athlete Tamrick Pace, who now plays collegiately for Stephen F. Austin.

Pace played quarterback and running back at various times in games for the Bears last season. He hit the 1,300-yard mark running and threw for a team-best 806 yards. And he got there in just nine games played due to injuries early in the season.

The cupboard isn't bare. Receiver Jamal Bell is back after a 720-yard and nine-touchdown junior campaign.

Bell also can player quarterback if he needs to.

Kevon Thompson is another bright spot. He ran for 710 yards and three scores behind Pace last year.

Brownsboro does have some work to do at other positions. Only four players return from last season's pleasantly surprising team.

Defense: Rare for a playoff team, Brownsboro's defense did not receive consistent support last season. That resulted in a minus-63-point margin in total scoring to points given up.

Nine starters are back from a defense that averaged an OK 32 points against per game.

The Bears defense should benefit from another offseason in the weight room and also because their new district opponents play a dramatically different brand of football than their old league.

Brownsboro had to slam it out with teams like Carthage, Henderson and Kilgore last season. This year, the projected top flight of teams all rely on athleticism in the open field -- with exception to Athens.

 

2016 outlook: The Bears are going to contend for the playoffs for a second consecutive season if the offense finds some players that can make up Tamrick Pace's contributions.

But it's a lot easier said than done.

Regardless, Brownsboro is a gritty team that plays a physical brand. Finesse players are not going to enjoy running up against the Bears.

6. Crandall Pirates

  • Coach: Joe Cary
  • 2015 finish: 6-5 (4A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB Michael Dearman, Sr., 6-2, 180
  • DL Jackson Lawley, Sr., 6-2, 220
  • OL Matthew Lunsford, Sr., 6-3, 280
  • DB Adam Kirk, Jr., 5-10, 173

2016 outlook: Crandall is tied with the least amount of collective experience alongside Mabank with 10 returning starters off a team that went 6-5 last year and reached the bi-district round of the 4A Division I playoffs.

Quarterback Michael Dearman, defensive end Jackson Lawley, offensive tackle Matthew Lunsford and defensive back Adam Kirk were all big parts of the squad last season. They all return.

While Crandall lacks overall experience, its losses were evenly distributed. Five offensive players and five defensive players return and should soften whatever learning curve there is for 12 new starters.

Crandall's offense averaged 25 points per game last season while the defense gave up an average of 26.5 points. That's what holds the team back.

Dearman, with a final offseason under his belt, might have an answer to get this team into playoff contention for a second straight season.

7. Mabank Panthers

  • Coach: Mikey Thompson
  • 2015 finish: 2-7
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • DL/OL Jacob Felts, Sr., 6-1, 260
  • OL/DL Brandon Pierce, Sr., 6-0, 220
  • OL/DL Noel Rojo, Sr., 5-10, 254

2016 outlook: Mabank might be turning a corner under second-year head coach Mikey Thompson. The school's developmental teams had good seasons and some of those guys are now new faces on the varsity team.

However, the program was non-competitive in varsity district play last season against the likes of Athens, Crandall, Kaufman and Van in straight weeks and brought back just 10 starters.

The district is somewhat tougher this year.