It's not as if District 9-4A Division I, a.k.a. "the District of Doom," needed any more depth. Carthage, Kilgore, Henderson, and Chapel Hill have combined for seven state championships since 2004.

But with the addition of two 4A Division II playoff participants from 2015, the league is new and improved.

Carthage, Henderson, and Kilgore should lock down three of the playoff spots, leaving the final slot open to Center, Bullard, Chapel Hill, or Palestine.

Should be fun.

District 9-4A Division I Preview

Henderson WR/DB Trestan Ebner. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

PLAYMAKERS

  • RB Keaontay Ingram, Jr., Carthage
  • LB Mykel Gates, Jr., Carthage
  • WR/DB Trestan Ebner, Sr., Henderson
  • RB/DB Lakendrick VanZandt, Sr., Henderson
  • QB Buddy Jackson, Jr., Kilgore
  • WR Jonathan Shepherd, Jr., Kilgore
  • WR Octavius Evans, Sr., Center
  • QB Kyle Parks, Sr., Center
  • TE Major Tennison, Sr., Bullard
  • RB/DB Ladarian Hudson, Sr., Chapel Hill

 

TOP GAMES

  • Carthage vs. Gilmer, Sept. 17
  • Henderson at Carthage, Sept. 30
  • Kilgore at Henderson, Oct. 14

 

1. Carthage Bulldogs

Carthage DL Tre Gatlin. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Scott Surratt
  • 2015 finish: 11-4 (4A Division I semifinalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive

 

Players to watch

  • RB Keaontay Ingram, Jr., 5-11, 198
  • LB Mykel Gates, Jr., 6-0, 215
  • DB Mekhi Colbert, Jr.
  • OL Tanner Elliott, Sr., 6-4, 274
  • QB Kason Davis, Sr., 6-2, 180
  • DB Nic Moore, Sr., 5-11, 150
  • DL Tre Gatlin, Sr., 6-6, 210
  • WR Roderic Calloway, Sr.

 

Offense: Carthage was back in the business of competing for championships in 2015, reaching the state semifinals for the sixth time in eight seasons. And the Bulldogs did it with an offense that was much different than the ones in past years. Carthage still piled up a healthy 34.2 points per game, but most of its offensive production came from the passing game. Quarterback Jarod Blissett set the school record for single-season passing yards with more than 4,000. For most of last season, the running game was non-existent, mostly because of injury.

Carthage QB Kason Davis. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

With Blissett and 1,500-yard receiver Jakeldric Jackson now gone, Carthage may have no choice but to rely more heavily on the running game this season. Fortunately for head coach Scott Surratt, the Bulldogs have an ace up their sleeve in junior running back Keaontay Ingram. During the playoffs last year, Ingram emerged as a force out of the backfield, and could be the most important player on the Carthage offense. Senior Kason Davis takes over at quarterback, and Roderic Callaway and Dee Bowens will headline the receiving corps.

Carthage DB Nic Moore. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: While the offense will have to break in several new players at the skill positions, the Carthage defense could be in for a big season. The Bulldogs have solid depth at all three levels. Defensive end Tre Gatlin, a giant at 6-6, will give Carthage a speed rusher to help soften the blow delivered by the graduation Jarrod McLin (UTSA). The linebacking corps took a hit with the news that junior Ahmad Brown was moving out of the district, but fellow junior Mykel Gates is one of the area's top defenders. Where the Bulldogs could excel the most on the defensive side of the ball is in the secondary with the return of standout cornerbacks Mekhi Colbert and Nic Moore.

Outlook: Carthage returned to prominence last season after bowing out in the second round of the 2014 playoffs. On the way to their 4A Division I state semifinals appearance, the Bulldogs knocked off a pair of unbeatens in Stafford and Navasota, before ultimately falling to eventual state champion Waco La Vega. Coach Surratt isn't expecting Davis to put up the same type of numbers Blissett did a season ago, but there's no doubt he has the tools necessary to direct the Bulldogs' offense. If Ingram and the Carthage ground attack comes alive in 2016, the Bulldogs could be in for another big season.

 

2. Henderson Lions

Henderson WR/DB Tariq Gray. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Phil Castles
  • 2015 finish: 7-3
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR/DB Trestan Ebner, Sr., 5-11, 190 (committed to TCU)
  • RB/DB Lakendrick VanZandt, Sr., 6-1, 196 (committed to TCU)
  • ATH Matthew Childers, Sr., 6-5, 185
  • WR/DB Tariq Gray, Sr., 5-10, 184
  • QB Trae Hall, Jr., 6-3, 185
  • OL Raini Dorman, Sr., 6-2, 245
  • TE/DL Nathan Boutin, Sr., 6-1, 227
  • LB Keaton Hand, Sr., 5-10, 205

Offense: There might not be a more athletic offense in the entire district than the one in Henderson. Not only do the Lions possess a pair of TCU commitments, but several other key impact players that are potential game-changers. It all starts with senior receiver Trestan Ebner and senior running back Lakendrick VanZandt, the two aforementioned Horned Frogs pledges. Ebner can score anytime he touches the ball, while VanZandt could be one of East Texas' most versatile two-way players. Feeding them the ball will be the rotation at quarterback featuring senior Matthew Childers, who can also play some receiver, and junior Trae Hall. Henderson is in good hands with either one of those tall, and rangy playmakers. Tariq Gray and Lynn Freeney are also capable of providing significant contributions to the offensive side of the ball.

Henderson ATH Matthew Childers. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Henderson's defense was excellent all the way around in 2015, limiting opposing offense to a little more than 18 points per game on average. With more than half of those defensive starters returning, head coach Phil Castles ought to feel fairly confident about his defense this fall. Ebner, VanZandt, and Gray double as excellent defenders in the secondary, while lineman Nathan Boutin and linebacker Keaton Hand give the Lions a great chance to build upon last season's success.

Outlook: Despite going 7-3 and defeating district champion Kilgore in the regular season finale, Henderson missed out on the playoffs in 2015 because of district tiebreaking rules. The Lions took that disappointment and used it as motivation during the offseason, and should come back stronger for it. Getting back to the postseason won't be easy where five of the other six district members were playoff teams a season ago, but Henderson certainly has the talent to make a run at Carthage and Kilgore for district supremacy.

 

3. Kilgore Bulldogs

Kilgore's Cole Wood (left) and Jonathan Shepherd. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Mike Wood
  • 2015 finish: 8-4 (4A Division I area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB Buddy Jackson, Jr., 5-9, 155
  • DB Mateo Meraz, Sr.
  • OL Dylan Scarlett, Sr., 6-2, 285
  • WR Jonathan Shepherd, Jr., 6-3, 180
  • DL Kevin Tinney, Sr., 5-11, 230
  • LB Ty Wallace, Jr., 5-7, 190
  • WR Cole Wood, Sr., 6-2, 170
  • RB Melek Hamilton, Sr., 5-5, 160

Offense: After years of subscribing to the run-first approach on offense, the Kilgore Bulldogs appear to be willing to open it up a little bit more in 2016. And the biggest reason for the sudden change in philosophy is the personnel. Junior quarterback Buddy Jackson along with receivers Jonathan Shepherd and Cole Wood give Kilgore all the tools necessary to take multiple shots down the field in the passing game. That's not to say Kilgore won't do its fair share of running this season with speedster Melek Hamilton back in the mix. The offensive line, anchored by senior Dylan Scarlett, is still very much suited for the ground-and-pound approach, so don't be surprised if the Bulldogs still ask their backs to win tight games in crunch time.

Kilgore QB Buddy Jackson. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Things haven't changed so much on defense for Kilgore, which allowed opponents a little more than 21 points per game on average in 2015. The Bulldogs will still get after the quarterback, stuff the running game, and defend against big plays through the air. The defense starts up front with senior lineman Kevin Tinney, and continues at the second level with junior linebacker Ty Wallace, who burst onto the scene with a breakthrough sophomore campaign. On the back end, expect safety Mateo Meraz to pick up where he left off a season ago by picking off unsuspecting quarterbacks.

Outlook: Kilgore came away with a piece of the district championship last year, and with 13 starters coming back, the Bulldogs could be in good shape for another run at the league title. Carthage and Henderson will provide stern tests, like always, but Kilgore feels like it's in as good a position as any to lock up the "District of Doom."

 

4. Center Roughriders

Center WR Octavius Evans. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Barry Bowman
  • 2015 finish: 10-3 (4A Division II regional semifinalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR Octavius Evans, Sr., 6-2, 192
  • QB Kyle Parks, Sr., 6-1, 185
  • WR/DB K.J. Dones, Sr., 6-0, 175
  • WR/DB JaTerious Evans, Jr.
  • LB Adrian Johnson, Sr.
  • LB/DB Devin Randle, Sr., 5-8, 151
  • DB Keyshawn Barnes, Sr.
  • DL Robert King, Jr.

Offense: The Center Roughriders were one of the area's most well-rounded offenses in 2015, sprinkling in the run and the pass effectively on their way to a berth in the regional semifinals. Center put up an average of more than 36 points per game a season ago, and with a handful of last year's playmakers returning, the 'Riders are feeling good about things on the offensive side of the ball. Dual-threat quarterback Kyle Parks is one of East Texas' best overall athletes at the QB position, and he'll have one of the top recruits in the area to target in senior receiver Octavius Evans, who put up more than 1,000 receiving yards as a junior. Center will need a few need players to step up at the running back spot after the duo of Sayoddrick Barnes and DaCorey McGee were lost to graduation.

Center QB Kyle Parks. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Head coach Barry Bowman returns six defensive starters from last year's 10-win team, and he'll need each of them to step up their game in 2016. The secondary should be in good shape with the return of K.J. Dones, JaTerious Evans, Devin Randle, and Keyshawn Barnes, but there is work to be done along the defensive front. Luckily for Center, a couple holdovers -- lineman Robert King and linebacker Adrian Johnson -- should provide a measure of stability until reinforcements arrive.

Outlook: Not only does Center make the jump up to 4A Division I, the Roughriders were placed in arguably the toughest 4A district in the state. Since 2004, 9-4A Division I has been responsible for seven state championships. Parks and Octavius Evans will need to be brilliant once again, and the Center running game will need to come around if the 'Riders want to entertain thoughts of reaching the playoffs out of this challenging district.

 

5. Bullard Panthers

Bullard TE Major Tennison. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Shannon Wilson
  • 2015 finish: 7-4 (4A Division II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 8 defensive

Players to watch

  • TE Major Tennison, Sr., 6-6, 240
  • QB Cleet Bowman, Jr., 6-0, 185
  • RB/LB Luke Bowman, Jr., 5-9, 180
  • LB Thomas Brooks, Jr., 6-0, 180
  • WR/DB Nic Costas, Jr., 5-10, 145
  • RB/DB Tre Crayton, Sr., 5-10, 180
  • WR/DB Ty Crayton, Jr., 5-8, 165
  • DB Joey Padrucco, Sr., 5-11, 165

Offense: Bullard's offense put up an average of more than 30 points per game in 2015, and there is good reason to believe those numbers could be on the rise this season. Cleet Bowman took over at quarterback midway through last season, and the offensive numbers took a significant jump after that. Bowman, who is only a junior, should be even more comfortable after having a few games under his belt. The rest of the offense should be in good hands as well with the return of tight end Major Tennison, one of the most recruited players in the country as his position. Tennison not only is an excellent pass-catcher, but he excels in run-blocking as well. Luke Bowman should get the lion's share of the carries in the backfield, while Nic Costas and Ty Crayton are playmakers at receiver.

Bullard QB Cleet Bowman. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The Panthers might not be the biggest team, but their defense certainly packs a punch. Last season, Bullard held opposing offense to a mere 20.3 points per game, and with eight returning starters on the defensive side of the ball, expect more of the same from the Panthers in 2016. Thomas Brooks is an excellent run-stuffer at the linebacker position, while the secondary will be anchored by the experienced duo of Tre Crayton and Joey Padrucco.

Outlook: Bullard made it back-to-back playoff berths for the first time since 1992-93 last season, but reaching the postseason a third consecutive time will be difficult. Not only do the Panthers move up to 4A Division I, the district they're in will be no cakewalk. With traditional powers Carthage, Kilgore, and Henderson figuring to take three of the four playoff spots from 9-4A, Bullard would need to defeat Center, Chapel Hill, and Palestine in order to qualify.

 

6. Chapel Hill Bulldogs

Chapel Hill RB/DB Ladarian Hudson. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Thomas Sitton
  • 2015 finish: 3-8 (4A Division I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 2 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Andrian Miner, Sr., 6-0, 178
  • LB Kaleb Golden, Sr., 6-2, 195
  • RB/DL DeCorian Horton, Sr., 5-6, 206
  • DL Donaven Dotson, Sr.
  • DB Jaden Mayfield, Sr., 5-10, 160
  • FB/LB Jaylon Redwine, Sr., 5-6, 166
  • LB Jordan Williams, Sr., 5-11, 185
  • RB/DB Ladarian Hudson, Sr., 6-0, 185

Offense: Despite losing their starting quarterback to injury for most of last season, Chapel Hill's offense did just enough to qualify for the playoffs for the fifth time in head coach Thomas Sitton's seven years in charge. The Bulldogs averaged almost 23 points per game, but with just two returning offensive starters, Chapel Hill will need several newcomers to step up this season. Finding a quarterback will be priority No. 1, but there are plenty of other holes to fill. The Bulldogs are high on running backs Andrian Miner, DeCorian Horton, and Jaylon Redwine, but will need several underclassmen to emerge at receiver.

Chapel Hill LB Kaleb Golden. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Graduation hit the Chapel Hill defense hard as well, as the Bulldogs will be breaking in seven new starters on that side of the ball. One holdover that could make a significant impact is defensive back Ladarian Hudson, who was one of the bright spots on the Bulldogs' defense a season ago. Linebackers Kaleb Golden, Cale Caruthers, and Jordan Williams have the potential to form a solid second level, while Chapel Hill is hoping a D-line anchored by Horton and Donaven Dotson can do the job.

Outlook: This is certainly not the year to be breaking in new starters in District 9-4A Division I, as most of the other members bring back most of their impact players from 2015. Chapel Hill is banking that a tough non-district schedule will be enough to prepare the young players for what is to come in "District of Doom" competition. Making the playoffs is the goal, but it figures to be an uphill climb for the Bulldogs to accomplish that in 2016.

 

7. Palestine Wildcats

Palestine LB Edward Reese. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Robby Clark
  • 2015 finish: 1-9
  • Returning starters: 9 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR/DB Jesus DeSantiago, Sr.
  • RB Irric Deyon, Sr.
  • DB Karnelius Hamilton, Sr.
  • WR/DB Jhamonte Milton, Sr.
  • OL/DL Jake Neal, Sr.
  • LB Edward Reese, Sr.
  • QB Claude Rodgers, Sr.
  • WR/DB Stephen Warren, Sr.

Offense: It was a tough first season for head coach Robby Clark, whose Wildcats managed just one win in 2015. Fortunately for Clark, Palestine returns more starters than any team in the district with 15 (nine offensive, six defensive). Last season was a struggle for the Palestine offense, which averaged just 13.9 points per game. The Wildcats, however, will return the vast majority of last year's impact performers, including running back Irric Deyon, who the coaches are expecting big things from this fall. Senior Claude Rodgers returns at quarterback as well after showing flashes of brilliance a season ago. A full compliment of receivers, including Jhamonte Milton and Stephen Warren, are back at it, too.

Palestine OL/DL Jake Neal. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Predictably, the Palestine defense wasn't put in very many positive situations a season ago. And as a result, the Wildcats surrendered an average of 47.5 points per game to opposing offenses. Things should go much smoother in Coach Clark's second year at the helm, but there is obviously plenty of room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Palestine coaches like what they've seen from linebacker Edward Reese and defensive back Karnelius Hamilton, who will be counted upon to help turn things around in 2016.

Outlook: Palestine had an eventual offseason by reaching the state 7-on-7 tournament over the summer, and while that is a far cry from real football, the Wildcats hope the experience at least begins to change the culture. It's been a difficult last few years for the Palestine program, but with several veterans returning to the field, the Wildcats have hope for brighter days ahead.