Malakoff WR/DB Q.T. Barker. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

You would be hard pressed to find a regional district that changed more drastically than District 9-3A Division I as a result of the University Interscholastic League's realignment process in February.

Outside of West Texas, this is one of the state's biggest leagues in square mileage, and no team will face solely familiar opponents for the league crown in 2016. East Texas meets Central Texas in this eight-team league.

What does that mean for Malakoff? That particular program has been trending up and finally might have a little bit of an edge against Teague, the team that held it back from district titles the past two years.

Is this the Tigers' year despite all the changes?

Teague, of course, is still a part of the enlarged league along with other familiar opponents in Elkhart, Eustace and Palestine Westwood.

Do we see any of those teams challenging at the top of the district?

Groesbeck, 39 miles east of Waco, dropped from Class 4A and entered the big hodgepodge of schools. Does that make it an automatic contender?

ETSN.fm's District 9-3A Division I picks are here.

Elkhart linebacker and returning all-state selection D.J. Williams. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

District 9-3A Division I Preview

PLAYMAKERS

  • WR/DB Q.T. Barker, Sr., Malakoff
  • DL/TE Malik Benson, Sr., Westwood
  • LB/RB Brayden Bradley, Sr., Groesbeck
  • OL/DL Danny Burns, Sr., Westwood
  • RB/DB Tayvis Coleman, Sr., Teague
  • LB Landon Frazier, Jr., Groesbeck
  • LB J.J. Hughes, Sr., Eustace
  • ATH Cooper Jones, Sr., Teague
  • DE/TE Danyal Littleton, Sr., Malakoff
  • LB/TE Nolan Lumberaz, Sr., Westwood
  • WR/DB Bricen Mansfield, Sr., Whitney
  • OL Mikey Marshall, Sr., Eustace
  • QB Judd Miller, Jr., Malakoff
  • LB Adolfo Rodriguez, Sr., West
  • ATH/DB Johnathan Simmons, Sr., Elkhart
  • WR/ATH Dawson Sulak, Sr., West
  • QB Mitchell Waller, Sr., Groesbeck
  • LB/DB D.J. Williams, Sr., Elkhart

TOP GAMES

  • Teague at West, Sept. 23
  • Groesbeck at Westwood, Oct. 7
  • Westwood at Malakoff, Oct. 14
  • Elkhart at Eustace, Oct. 14
  • Malakoff at West, Oct. 21
  • Whitney at Elkhart, Oct. 21
  • Teague at Malakoff, Oct. 28
  • Groesbeck at Whitney, Nov. 4

1. Malakoff Tigers

Malakoff QB Judd Miller. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Jamie Driskell
  • 2015 finish: 10-2 (3A D-I area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • WR/DB Q.T. Barker, Sr., 5-11, 165
  • QB Judd Miller, Jr., 5-11, 200
  • DE/TE Danyal Littleton, Sr., 6-2, 220
  • WR/DB Tyler Russell, Sr., 6-1, 175
  • OL/DL Larry Coker, Sr., 6-3, 195
  • RB/DB Breshawn Williams, Jr.
Malakoff WR Tyler Russell. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Offense: With eight starters returning off an area round playoff appearance, Malakoff is in good standing. And that's even before considering who is back in the fold.

All-around athlete Q.T. Baker is back for a final season. This time with college football interest and a hard offer from Stephen F. Austin. Barker was responsible for 1,024 yards of offense and 24 total touchdowns last season as predominantly a receiver and a running option off sweep plays.

Barker is the Tigers' absolute headliner, but he would be nothing without returning quarterback Judd Miller. Malakoff's signal caller passed for 2,411 yards last season and also ran for 718 yards toward 46 total touchdowns.

When you bring back eight starters, you know you have some good experience on the offensive line. The Tigers have that, headlined by athletic senior Larry Coker.

Receiver Tyler Russell and running back Breshawn Williams round out the team's top flight of offensive weapons.

Russell is a big supplemental target for Miller to find when opposing defenses double up Barker. Williams is a durable back that keeps the defense honest.

Malakoff DE Danyal Littleton. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Five players return from a unit that averaged 25 points against per game in 12 contests last season. That was a good number considering the offense's nearly 50 points per game.

Larry Coker has a role on the defensive side as well as the offensive at defensive end, but Danyal Littleton should be the team's best edge rusher from the opposing side. Littleton has great size at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds.

Tyler Russell can add athleticism to the secondary, if he needs to. He also has good size for a safety spot at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds.

The real question for the newcomers and the holdovers is, is the unit ready to take the next step? Malakoff's offense exploded early in its area round game against then three-time defending state champion Cameron Yoe, but the defense let Yoe claw back into the game for the win and for a fourth consecutive title game appearance a few weeks later.

 

2016 overview: This is a big year for the Tigers.

The offense has an embarrassment of riches for a 3A Division I team and the defense has good starting blocks.

Teague, a thorn in Malakoff's side the past two seasons, is reloading on both sides of the ball. Additionally, realignment provided some new teams into the district that should be easy wins for the Tigers and the Tigers alone.

Injuries are the only thing that can derail a promising regular season and potentially deep run in the playoffs. While Malakoff is the district favorite, it is the smallest school by enrollment in the entire eight-team league.

Keeping athlete Q.T. Barker, quarterback Judd Miller and defensive end Danyal Littleton healthy are the single biggest keys to success. If those guys are lost for any significant amount of time, players from an 8-2 junior varsity team last season are going to have to rise to the occasion.

2. West Trojans

  • Coach: David Woodard
  • 2015 finish: 11-2 (3A D-I regional semifinalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
  • LB/RB Adolfo Rodriguez, Sr.
  • WR/ATH Dawson Sulak, Sr., 5-11, 185
  • QB Romeo Hernandez, Jr., 5-8, 145
  • DE/TE Trevor Scott, Jr., 6-2, 200
  • LB Hadley Commak, Sr.

2016 outlook: West joins the huge league from Central Texas off an impressive run to the third round of the playoffs. Teague ended that run for an 11-2 West finish.

Defense is the big strength for West, and it is particularly strong at its linebacker spots. Adolfo Rodriguez recorded 131 tackles a season ago and Hadley Commak is another player head coach David Woodard is advertising as a strength.

Both of those linebackers are experienced seniors.

Defensive end Trevor Scott adds even more of a punch to the front. He was his old district's newcomer of the year recipient last season.

Dawson Sulak will be an important receiver, but he also has the versatility to play either linebacker or defensive back.

Eight starters are back from a unit that surrendered an average of 23.6 points per game.

West's offense is just a bit weaker with six starters back and a big hole to fill at quarterback. Romeo Hernandez is expected to get the nod under center and will be asked to feed Sulak early and often.

The line is the most experienced part of the offense.

Defense alone, plus 14 returning starters in total, make West a very real challenge for teams hoping to finish near the top in District 9-3A Division I.

 

3. Teague Lions

  • Coach: Donnie Osborn
  • 2015 finish: 11-2 (3A D-I regional finalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB/DB Tayvis Coleman, Jr., 5-11, 165 (931 yards)
  • WR/DB Cooper Jones, Sr., 5-11, 165 (87 tackles, 4 INTs)
  • OL/DL Marcus Williams, Jr., 6-2, 225

2016 outlook: Teague has dominated its districts the past two seasons and has been a Region III threat at large. But the district streak might be ending this season with 10 starters back versus somewhat more experienced teams at the top of the district.

That doesn't mean Teague won't be successful though. Both sides of the ball have one established playmaker.

Running back Tayvis Coleman ran for 931 yards as a sophomore last season and should eclipse the 2,000-yard career mark around the time district play starts on Sept. 23 versus West. Defensive back Cooper Jones made four interceptions a season ago.

Great non-district games against Caldwell and Mexia might give Teague a boost before entering league competition. And you can't put a value on Teague's winning tradition under head coach Donnie Osborn, who will begin his third season on the job with a 23-2 record.

4. Palestine Westwood Panthers

 

  • Coach: Kevin Hayes
  • 2015 finish: 8-3 (3A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • DL/TE Malik Benson, Sr., 5-10, 200
  • LB/FB Nolan Lumberaz, Sr., 6-0, 217
  • RB/LB Red Warren, Sr., 5-11, 175
  • RB/DB J.D. Clewis, Jr., 5-9, 167

Offense: Graduation did a number to Westwood's offense, but senior running back Red Warren is a nice point to build back from. Warren rushed for 615 yards last season.

Fellow back J.D. Clewis might be another answer and a good way to keep defenses truthful. Clewis is very shifty and could be utilized in the intermediate passing game as well as catching throws out of the backfield.

But that's just about it in terms of known quantities at the skill positions.

The Panthers averaged 34.8 points per game last season.

Defense: Westwood's front should be pretty good.

Malik Benson is a force on the defensive line and big linebacker Nolan Lumberaz is back as well. They were all-district selections last year.

Red Warren might be asked to fill another linebacker spot. J.D. Clewis, primarily a running back like Warren, might find a second role at cornerback.

Five starters return on this side of the ball. The secondary will be virtually all-new.

 

2016 outlook: It should be an OK year for Westwood within the district.

There are twenty returning letter winners and the Panthers' junior varsity team played well last season ahead of joining the varsity ranks.

Westwood is in good preseason standing to be competitive with the top teams and more than formidable against the bottom half of the district.

5. Groesbeck Goats

  • Coach: Steve Hale
  • 2015 finish: 5-6 (4A D-II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB Mitchell Waller, Sr., 6-3, 180
  • LB Landen Frazier, Jr., 6-0, 175
  • LB/RB Brayden Bradley, Jr., 6-2, 180
  • ATH Kolby Ayers, Sr., 5-01, 165

2016 outlook: Keep an eye on Groesbeck, which made the playoffs last season as a 4A Division II school despite a 1-4 district record. But also keep in mind Teague beat it in a non-district game by a score of 35-8.

This dropdown to the 3A Division I level might be what the program needs to take the next step.

Quarterback Mitchell Waller is the team's most valuable returning player. He threw for 1,1879 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior and will get to link up with universal offensive athlete Kolby Ayers once again.

Junior linebackers Brayden Bradley and Landen Frazier made a combined 293 tackles last season.

Six players return on each side of the ball for Groesbeck.

 

6. Whitney Wildcats

  • Coach: Kenneth Gilchrist
  • 2015 finish: 5-5
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • WR/DB Bricen Mansfield, Sr., 5-11, 160
  • OL Joe Fallwell, Sr., 6-3, 270
  • RB Dantay Owens, Jr., 6-0, 200

2016 outlook: Whitney brings back a good number of starters. Eleven main pieces from last season's squad are expected to return from a team that went 5-5 and just missed the playoffs.

Receiver Bricen Mansfield is the team's brightest star ahead of his senior season. He recorded 717 yards last season on 33 catches -- an average of 21.7 yards per touch.

Five starters return on defense, but none particularly stood out last season. That's where the team stands to gain the most in 2016.

Whitney joined the district alongside West. For some reference, West defeated it 56-20 in a head-to-head game last season.

 

7. Elkhart Elks

Elkhart ATH Johnathon Simmons. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Sam Wells
  • 2015 finish: 5-5
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
  • LB/RB D.J. Williams, Sr., 5-9, 200
  • ATH/DB Johnathan Simmons, Jr., 6-1, 175
  • LB/RB Alex Thlang, Sr., 5-8, 170
  • DL/OL Gavin Defore, Sr., 5-11, 199

Offense: Elkhart's offense is in OK preseason standing. Five returning starters are back, some of whom also count on the defensive side of things.

Johnathan Simmons can do it all and might just end up being District 9-3A Division I's most valuable player at season's end.

Elkhart must improve on the 13.8 points it averaged last season in a district with Malakoff, Teague, Palestine Westwood and Eustace.

Defense: This is the Elk's specialty.

For as underwhelming as the offensive side of the ball was last season, the defense played masterfully. It averaged 23.4 points against per game with limited support. And seven players return to this side of the ball.

Linebacker D.J. Williams made 170 tackles last season and earned an All-State selection. Defensive back Jonathan Simmons and linebacker Alex Thlang also had great seasons and are back for senior years.

You can count on this defense.

2016 outlook: It could be a playoff year if Elkhart significantly improves on offense.

Regardless, expect the Elks' defensive individuals to put up ridiculous numbers.

 

8. Eustace Bulldogs

Eustace QB Alejandro Sanchez. (Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)
  • Coach: Heath Ragle
  • 2015 finish: 3-7
  • Returning starters: 3 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
  • LB J.J. Hughes, Sr.
  • OL Mikey Marshall, Sr., 6-3, 290
  • QB Alejandro Sanchez, Soph., 5-8, 147
  • RB/QB James East, Sr., 5-7, 185
  • DL Dylan Hunsaker, Sr.

Offense: This is a big transition year for the Bulldogs with just three starters back.

Eustace finally had to say goodbye to running back Keenan Hargest, who eclipsed the 3,000-yard career mark in his final high school game last season.

Alejandro Sanchez inherits the quarterback role as a sophomore, should be a three-year solution for head coach Heath Ragle and will be protected by huge offensive tackle Mikey Marshall.

James East will get the nod in Hargest's old spot and can be optioned to the quarterback spot if anything happens to Sanchez.

Eustace performed marginally last season. It averaged 19.6 points per game against the likes of Malakoff, Teague, Palestine Westwood and Elkhart.

Defense: Eustace has to improve.

It allowed about 37 points per game against in its old district, which is half of the new district.

Fortunately, six starters return.

Linebacker J.J. Hughes leads the returners. He recorded 87 tackles, including eight for loss, through his 10-game junior campaign.

 

2016 outlook: Eustace will face some big challenges this season and has the lowest number of returning starters in the district.

A Bulldogs run this season would put head coach Heath Ragle in the Coach of the Year conversation.