2016 Football Preview: Perennial Power Gilmer Reunited With Area Rivals in 7-4A D-II
Following a couple of seasons playing in the western part of the Metroplex, Gilmer returns home to an East Texas-centric District 7-4A Division II.
The Buckeyes, winners of 31 of their last 32 games, figure to receive stern tests from the likes of Atlanta and arch-rival Gladewater in league play.
District 7-4A Division II Preview
- WR LaMarcus Morton, Sr., Gilmer
- DB Kollin Hurt, Sr., Gilmer
- TE/LB Tristan Allen, Sr., Atlanta
- WR/LB Desmond Robinson, Sr., Atlanta
- WR/DB Austin Hawley, Sr., Gladewater
- RB/LB Darnell McKnight, Sr., Gladewater
- TE Jackson Pace, Sr., Pleasant Grove
- WR/DB Keonte Burns, Soph., Pittsburg
- WR Dejour Dowell, Sr., Pittsburg
- DL DaQaylan Armstrong, Sr., Spring Hill
- Gilmer vs. Carthage, Sept. 16
- Gladewater at Gilmer, Oct. 14
- Gilmer at Atlanta, Oct. 28
1. Gilmer Buckeyes
- Coach: Matt Turner
- 2015 finish: 14-1 (4A Division II semifinalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- WR LaMarcus Morton, Sr., 6-1, 175 (committed to Oklahoma State)
- DB Kollin Hurt, Sr., 6-3, 175 (committed to Louisiana Tech)
- DL/LB Dustin Brown, Sr.
- LB Myles Chumley, Sr.
- ATH Kelton Collier, Sr., 6-0, 218
- DB Kameryn Cuevas, Sr., 6-0, 165
- WR/DB Desmond Jones, Sr., 5-8, 165
- QB Brett Rice, Sr.
Offense: For years, the Gilmer Buckeyes have been known for their high-flying offensive attack. And success is typically predicated by strong quarterback play, and Gilmer will be without last year's starter, Zac Spears. The new man in charge will be senior Brett Rice, who got some playing time last season when Spears was forced to sit out with an injury. The Buckeyes have plenty of weapons around Rice to continue piling up the points. Senior receiver LaMarcus Morton, an Oklahoma State commit, is primed to build upon last year's breakout junior campaign. Senior running back Kelton Collier is a physical runner, who is more than capable of carrying the offense during stretches of games. Senior Desmond Jones is another playmaker in the Gilmer receiving corps.
Defense: Gilmer graduated four-year starter Demarco Boyd, who signed with Texas last February. Fortunately for head coach Matt Turner, the Buckeyes do return several key defenders. Senior safety Kollin Hurt, a Louisiana Tech commit who racked up an East Texas-leading 11 interceptions a season ago, is back to patrol what should be an exceptional secondary. Senior cornerback Kameryn Cuevas is back after making a significant impact in 2015. Seniors Dustin Brown and Myles Chumley should give Gilmer a sound linebacking corps as well. The Buckeyes will need a few new faces to step up and fill the voids along the defensive line.
Outlook: The Buckeyes have won 31 of their last 32 games, and are seemingly always a threat for a state championship. With more than half of the starters from last season's state semifinalist squad returning, expect another championship-caliber season from Gilmer in 2016. If Rice takes off at quarterback, and the defensive line can pick up the pieces left by graduation, Gilmer could be staring down another deep playoff run come November and December.
2. Atlanta Rabbits
- Coach: Matt McClure
- 2015 finish: 9-5 (4A Division II quarterfinalist)
- Returning starters: 4 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- TE/LB Tristan Allen, Sr., 6-4, 218
- WR/LB Desmond Robinson, Sr., 6-3, 205
- RB/DB Kelton Young, Sr., 5-10, 180
- OL/LB Christian Oliver, Sr.
- LB Danny Dickerson, Sr.
- OL/DL Ethan Mauldin, Sr.
- QB/DB Layton Henson, Sr., 6-2, 180
- WR/DB Desmond Webster, Sr., 5-11, 180
Offense: Without a doubt, Atlanta will have some big shoes to fill following the graduation of running back Tyrell Phillips, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards a season ago. The Rabbits averaged almost 40 points per game in 2015, and several players will more than likely have to contribute in order to replace the production of Phillips. Senior running back Kelton Young might be Atlanta's best athlete, and that's good considering he's expected to touch the ball quite a bit on the offensive side of the ball this season. Senior Layton Henson returns to direct the offense at quarterback, while Desmond Robinson and Desmond Webster figure to factor in the passing game as well.
Defense: The Rabbits are a bit more experienced on the defensive side of the ball, and they're led by outside linebacker Tristan Allen, who's one of East Texas' top all-around defenders. Allen will be joined in the linebacking corps by Robinson, who is a Division I recruit in his own right. Atlanta allowed opposing offenses to average a little more than 23 points per game in 2015, and that number could be on the way down after a strong finish to the season. Atlanta posted back-to-back shutouts in the playoffs before holding Gilmer's high-powered offense to just 24 points in their state quarterfinal matchup.
Outlook: Aside from the absence of Phillips, Atlanta looks to be in good position to make another deep run in the postseason. Question marks will certainly lie with an offense that brings back just four starters, but with the Rabbits' long track record for producing great athletes, don't expect too big of a drop-off. Atlanta has a chance to be one of the best defensive units in all of East Texas, which could offset any negative effects on offense caused by graduation.
3. Gladewater Bears
- Coach: John Berry
- 2015 finish: 5-6 (4A Division II bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 8 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
- WR/DB Austin Hawley, Sr., 6-1, 206
- RB/LB Darnell McKnight, Sr., 5-11, 230
- RB/DB Isaiah Davis, Jr., 5-11, 210
- QB/DB Cameron Callaway Jr., Sr.
- QB/DB Jerome Gilmore Jr., Sr.
- OL Andrew Williams, Jr., 5-10, 260
- WR/K Fernando Serrano, Jr., 6-1, 180
- OL Jody Jackson, Sr., 5-11, 252
Offense: Despite several health setbacks on the offensive side of the ball in 2015, Gladewater managed to reach the playoffs for the third consecutive season. With several weapons returning, if the Bears can avoid serious injuries, Gladewater should be one of the area's most powerful offenses. Senior running back Darnell McKnight may be East Texas' best pure running back, and his power and vision make him a dangerous man in the open field. Junior fullback Isaiah Davis was in the backfield rotation as well a season ago, and is looking to increase his overall production. Receiver Cameron Callaway Jr. is a speedster who can stretch the field in one-on-one situations.
Defense: The Gladewater defense should be solid with eight starters returning off last year's unit. There is no more talented defender on the Bears' roster than defensive back Austin Hawley, a Division I recruit, who is versatile enough to play either cornerback or safety. Davis is another playmaker in the secondary, as are Callaway and Jerome Gilmore Jr. The Bears may be a little thin up front along the defensive line, but the linebacking corps should provide great run support with the return of McKnight and Michael Batchelor.
Outlook: Don't let the 5-6 record from last year fool you. Gladewater is every bit as talented as any team in this district, and if the Bears can stay away from the injury bug in 2016, it could be a big season in Gladewater. The quarterback position is a question mark, but with Gladewater's run-first offense, as long as the backs are gaining positive yardage, the Bears should be just fine on offense. Defensively, Gladewater may give up yards here and there, but the Bears are good enough in the back end to prevent big plays.
4. Pleasant Grove Hawks
- Coach: Josh Gibson
- 2015 finish: 6-5 (4A Division II bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 8 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
- OL Angel Mejia, Sr., 6-0, 250
- RB/LB Cannon McCrary, Sr., 5-11, 200
- TE Jackson Pace, Sr., 6-4, 220
- WR Keshawn Jones, Sr., 5-9, 161
- RB Logan Wesley, Sr., 5-7, 190
- OL Nick Gavriel, Jr., 6-3, 301
- OL Ryan Forbes, Sr.
- LB Xavier Benson, Jr., 6-3, 200
Offense: Pleasant Grove was one of East Texas' most productive offenses a season ago, averaging almost 42 points per game. And with eight starters returning to the offensive side of the ball, the Hawks expect 2016 to be an even more explosive year. Running backs Cannon McCrary and Logan Wesley could be one of the district's best backfield duos, while Keshawn Jones gives Pleasant Grove a dangerous downfield weapon in the passing game. The offensive line is steady as well with the return of 300-pounder Nick Gavriel and senior Ryan Forbes. As long as the Hawks remain relatively healthy, expect another big year on offense.
Defense: The Hawks weren't necessarily a shut-down defense in 2015, but they were definitely one of the most opportunistic. Pleasant Grove allowed more than 25 points per game, but used a big advantage in turnover ratio to keep the Hawks competitive in most games. PG returns most of its defensive starters, so expect to see a much-improved product on the field this fall. Junior linebacker Xavier Benson is a big and physical defender, while Jackson Pace, a tight end on offense, will give the Hawks quality play from the defensive end position.
Outlook: Pleasant Grove gave perennial power Gilmer a serious scare in the bi-district round of last year's playoffs, and with the confidence in their ability to compete against the best of the best, the Hawks certainly don't fear anyone in District 7-4A Division II. Not only is Pleasant Grove among the district's most experienced teams (15 returning starters), but the Hawks are also one of the most talented.
5. Pittsburg Pirates
- Coach: Brad Baca
- 2015 finish: 10-2 (4A Division I area finalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
- WR/DB Keonte Burns, Soph., 6-4, 175
- WR Dejour Dowell, Sr., 6-2, 196
- DB JaKeivian Hughes, Sr., 5-9, 150
- WR/DB Tra'Jon Sheppard, Sr., 5-5, 132
- WR/DB Red Shields, Sr., 5-10, 180
- DL Bradlee Warrick, Sr., 6-2, 260
- DL E.J. Hill, Sr., 6-2, 250
- RB Juwon Hawkins, Jr., 5-9, 155
Offense: In the first year under head coach Brad Baca, the Pittsburg Pirates' offense was among the most explosive in all of East Texas. The big challenge in 2016 is how Pittsburg goes about replacing the production created by graduated quarterback Brian Baca. While the QB position is still a mystery, Pittsburg may have one of the deepest and most talented collection of receivers in the area. Senior Dejour Dowell is a Division I recruit, while sophomore Keonte Burns is already on college coaches' radars. Red Shields and Tra'Jon Sheppard are just two more potential weapons in the passing game.
Defense: Pittsburg lost quite a bit on the defensive side of the ball, including linebacker Fre'Zarian Harrison, who was among the most productive defenders in East Texas last season. Fortunately for Coach Baca, he will have a couple of holdovers at his disposal. Defensive linemen Bradlee Warrick and E.J. Hill are nightmares for opposing offensive linemen, and will be the key to a very young Pirates' defense in 2016. Shields, when not catching touchdown passes, does a pretty good job of preventing them on defense.
Outlook: The UIL moved Pittsburg down from Division I during realignment, and ordinarily that would be a good thing. However, that's not necessarily the case for the Pirates, who move into a loaded district in Division II. Not only does Pittsburg have to contend with state powerhouse Gilmer, but new challenges from Atlanta, Gladewater, and Pleasant Grove await this season.
6. Spring Hill Panthers
- Coach: Kelly Mercer
- 2015 finish: 1-9
- Returning starters: 4 offensive, 3 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Dayson Adaway, Jr.
- DL DaQaylan Armstrong, Sr.
- RB/LB Daryn Beck, Soph.
- DB Morgan Bradford, Soph.
- OL/DL Colton Chandler, Sr.
- DL Justin Evans, Sr.
- WR Ryan Willis, Jr.
- OL/DL Robbie Graham, Sr.
Offense: It was a tough first year for coach Kelly Mercer, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Panthers won just one game, and averaged only 22.2 points per game. With only four returning starters on offense, Spring Hill will rely on several unproven commodities in 2016. Junior Dayson Adaway will get the keys to the offense at quarterback, while sophomore Daryn Beck is a potential playmaker at running back. Ryan Willis is an intriguing prospect at receiver, while seniors Colton Chandler and Robbie Graham should give the Panthers some stability up front.
Defense: As bad as it was on offense, Spring Hill's defense wasn't given much of a chance as much it was forced to be on the field. As a result, the Panthers surrendered an average of 48.5 points per game to opposing offenses. Coach Mercer is hoping a few new faces can help right the wrongs on the defensive side of the ball. Senior defensive lineman Justin Evans played well in 2015, and sophomore defensive back Morgan Bradford has the chance to become an elite high school defender.
Outlook: With a full season and offseason under Mercer, expect Spring Hill to operate more efficiently this year. As far as the results on the field, it might be unfair to expect too much this season with so many underclassmen expected to contribute significantly. With area powers like Gilmer, Atlanta, and Gladewater figuring to reign supreme in 7-4A D-II, the best Spring Hill can shoot for this season is a couple of district wins and a chance at a playoff berth.