2017 Football Preview: Athens, Brownsboro + Van Battle For District 8-4A Division I Playoff Berths
This district seemed pretty cut-and-dry until Terrell pulled an upset against unbeaten Van the final night of the regular season and forced a three-team tie between the Vandals, Terrell and Kaufman.
Each of the three teams went at least two rounds deep in the playoffs and each has an interesting strength this season. Van and Kaufman are particularly well equipped with their most valuable athlete returning.
But four other teams make up this seven-team league.
Crandall has one of the best linemen in the state and a majority of its starters back. It made the playoffs last season. Will it leapfrog one, two or all three of the defending co-champions?
Athens had a tough, tough season. Do we see the Hornets in the playoff mix?
How about Brownsboro? Fourteen starters are returning, and the team is under new management.
Our District 8-4A Division I picks are here.
District 8-4A Division I Preview
- OL Branson Bragg, Jr., Crandall
- OL Kris Dike, Sr., Van
- QB Xavius Fulton, Sr., Athens
- RB Tyson Gatewood, Sr., Crandall
- TE/DL Rowdy Godwin, Soph., Athens
- LB Jake Kellam, Sr., Van
- LB Devyn Morris, Sr., Kaufman
- QB Garrett Moseley, Sr., Van
- WR/DB Dre Prox, Sr., Kaufman
- RB/DB Saul Williams, Sr., Brownsboro
- OL Caleb York, Sr., Van
- Van at Crandall, Sept. 29
- Kaufman at Terrell, Sept. 29
- Athens at Van, Oct. 6
- Brownsboro at Mabank, Oct. 6
- Terrell at Crandall, Oct. 13
- Athens at Terrell, Oct. 20
- Crandall at Athens, Oct. 27
- Van at Kaufman, Nov. 3
- Terrell at Van, Nov. 10
- Athens at Brownsboro, Nov. 10
1. Van Vandals
- Coach: Jared Moffatt
- 2016 finish: 12-2 (4A D-II regional finalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Garrett Moseley, Sr., 5-11, 190 (2,785 passing yards, 1,680 rushing yards, 60 total TDs)
- OL Kris Dike, Sr., 6-6, 275 (Committed to TCU)
- LB Jake Kellam, Sr., 6-0, 210 (101 tackles, 7 TFL, 6 sacks)
- OL Caleb York, Sr., 5-10, 250
- WR/DB Bray Doring, Jr., 5-11, 155
- DL Tristan Gentry, Jr., 5-9, 170
- DB Zeke Betancourt, Sr., 5-9, 160
Offense: Van brings back six starters on the offensive side. It has lost star receivers Isaiah Allred and Connor Houston to college careers, but Garrett Moseley is back under center for the third consecutive season.
Moseley will begin the season as the district's top offensive MVP candidate having amassed 4,465 total yards and 60 touchdowns as a junior dual-threat. The quarterback averaged about 319 yards per game. A lot of high school offenses at large can't hit that mark on a game-by-game basis.
Moseley was the team's leading rusher as well as passer a season ago. Don't expect his status to change.
A majority of the remaining offensive experience is along the line. Tackle Kris Dike committed to TCU earlier this summer ahead of his senior season and Caleb York is another great asset on the high school level.
Head coach Jared Moffatt will have to work over the receiving unit in fall camp, but Bray Doring and Zeke Betancourt have the potential to play both ways as two of the squad's most athletic players.
Reid Thomas will probably headline the running backs corps.
Van put up a district-best 231 points in league play last season. With Moseley back and potential at the receiver spots, the Vandals might pace the district for a second consecutive season.
Defense: Five defenders are back from a Van defense that allowed an average of 16 points per game. District opponents averaged less than 10 points against the unit.
Safety Cooper Bledsoe, the ETSN.fm Defensive Player of the Year, graduated from the program and is now at Indiana State, but there is at least one playmaker at each level of the unit.
Linebacker Jake Kellam will anchor the defense after a 101-tackle junior campaign. He earned seven tackles for loss en route to the regional championship round.
Tristan Gentry is a solid edge rusher from the end position. Six of his 84 tackles went for sacks as a junior.
Cornerback Zeke Betancourt is the most established defensive back. He made 81 tackles a season ago.
2017 outlook: Van is pretty middle-of-the-road among returning experience within the district and lost very important pieces to last season's team to graduation on both sides of the ball.
That being said, a senior Garrett Moseley playing behind a seasoned offensive line should be enough to help the Vandals make the playoffs considering Moseley's dominance in the running game. If less experienced players can combine to fill Isaiah Allred and Connor Houston's voids at the receiver spots, Van's offense should be as diversified as last season and that much harder to defend.
The new headlining receivers and six new starters on defense complimenting some nice building blocks on the defensive side will determine how far Van gets once out of the district.
2. Kaufman Lions
- Coach: Jeramy Burleson
- 2016 finish: 8-4 (4A D-I area finalist)
- Returning starters: 4 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- WR/DB Dre Prox, Sr., 5-10, 165 (817 receiving yards, 401 rushing yards, 11 total TDs)
- LB Devyn Morris, Sr., 6-2, 235 (106 tackles, 3 forced fumbles)
- QB Trey Collier, Jr., 5-11, 150 (923 yards, 10 TDs)
- OL/DL Landon Taylor, Jr., 6-0, 220
- WR/DB Casey Smith, Sr., 5-10, 160
2017 outlook: Kaufman is the district's second-least experienced team in front of only Terrell, but the program has a nice recent history that did not stop last season with first-year coach Jeramry Burleson. The Lions made the postseason for a sixth consecutive year -- the district's longest active streak.
Receiver Dre Prox had a phenomenal junior season offensively with 1,200 total yards.
Quarterback Trey Collier got thrown into the fire a little sooner than expected and did just fine in relief of former signal-caller Jefferson Fritz.
Whereas Van has some question marks in its passing game, the first tier of Kaufman's is well established.
Five players are back from the district's third-best defense in terms of points allowed. The Lions surrendered 22.8 points per game against the league toward a 5-1 league record.
3. Crandall Pirates
- Coach: Joe Dale Cary
- 2016 finish: 4-7 (4A D-I bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- OL Branson Bragg, Jr., 6-4, 295
- RB Tyson Gatewood, Sr., 5-7, 170 (1,348 yards, 15 TDs)
- DB Adam Kirk, Sr., 5-10, 173
- DB Rahzel Young, Sr., 5-10, 150
- OL Matthew Lunsford, Sr., 6-3, 290
2017 outlook: The Pirates' running game should be special with Tyson Gatewood back for his senior season and bookends Branson Bragg and Matthew Lunsford there to anchor an offensive line that will contest to be the district's best against Van's line. Bragg, a junior, is regarded as one of the best 2019 prospects in Texas with early offers from Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
There is some room to improve on defense. Crandall had the district's third-worst unit in terms of points allowed. It averaged 29.5 points through its six league games.
Possessing six returning starters on defense is a nice starting point for hopes this year's collective team will be better.
4. Terrell Tigers
- Coach: Mike Shields
- 2016 finish: 9-3 (4A D-I area finalist)
- Returning starters: 3 offensive, 3 defensive
Players to watch
- DL De'Garian Fuller, Sr., 5-10, 180 (42 tackles, 5 sacks)
- OL/DL Markell Ringo, Sr., 6-0, 275 (28 tackles, 1 sack)
- OL Malik Griffin, Soph., 6-2, 225
2017 outlook: Terrell has the fewest returning starters of the seven-team district and zero established skill players on offense. There are 10 letter winners back from the 2016 team in total.
Head coach Mike Shields has never failed to lead the Tigers program to the postseason, and the program has been in bad positions before. He's three-for-three with two appearances at the Class 5A level.
What Terrell certainly has is known quantities along the offensive and defensive lines. Worst case scenario, Shields can piece together lines of players that go both ways.
A good offensive line is the single biggest key to a good offense. The unit averaged about 31 points per game against district opponents with pieces of the line from last season.
5. Athens Hornets
- Coach: Paul Essary
- 2016 finish: 2-8
- Returning starters: 9 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- QB/DB Xavius Fulton, Sr., 5-10, 175
- TE/DL Rowdy Godwin, Soph., 6-5, 205
- OL Garrett Hayes, Soph., 6-0, 220
- DB Andrew McBride, Jr., 5-11, 156
- DB Rheji Sherfield, Jr., 5-8, 140
Offense: Fans thought Athens might take a step back in its first season without powerful running back Logan Fuller and an experienced offensive line. Only two offensive starters from the 2015 team returned in 2016 and the Hornets definitely confirmed fears.
Athens missed the postseason for the first time in four seasons last year with a final record of 2-8. This year, however, the Hornets have the district's most experienced team with 15 starters returning, including nine on offense.
Athletic quarterback Xavius Fulton will guide the Hornets' power run game. A couple of running backs need to rise from the depth, but you can expect a better product with so much experience along the line and at the end spots.
Athens needs to be better against the top flight of the district. It handled Brownsboro and Mabank for its only two wins of the season, but the unit was miles away from being formidable against Van, Kaufman and Crandall.
Terrell played the Hornets to a one-point victory.
Defense: Losing linebacker Noah Bush to Air Force isn't ideal, but Athens has a history of being strong on defense and brings back six starters from last season's team.
Andrew McBride is projected to be the leading linebacker and the unit should be very good at the back end with Rheji Sherfield and Reggie McBride back in the fold. The secondary is not a bad place to possess a strength with the aerial assaults Van, Kaufman and Crandall unleash on a year-to-year basis.
Athens allowed about 30 points against opposing district offenses last season. The Hornets' own offensive improvement should cut into that number.
2017 outlook: The Hornets have a lot to prove after last season's flop, but their experience holds the promise they can compete for a playoff berth for the fifth time in six seasons.
The squad needs to be much better offensively. Nine experienced starters suggest it will be.
Waco Robinson headlines a decent Athens non-district schedule, but any wins in that portion of the schedule will suggest improvement ahead of a winnable district-opener against Mabank.
6. Brownsboro Bears
- Coach: Greg Pearson
- 2016 finish: 2-8
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
- RB/LB Kevon Thompson, Sr., 6-1, 190 (600 yards)
- WR/LB Kenneth Woods, Sr., 6-4, 233 (584 yards)
- DB Saul Williams, Jr., 5-11, 160 (88 tackles, 5 INTs)
Offense: Brownsboro has high-grade athleticism at the top and six starters in total returning from last season's team.
The problem last season, as the Bears replaced their two key athletes from a playoff team, was that the offense was in different gears game-to-game. It was good enough to beat Mabank and shock Crandall, but it couldn't get much going in the season finale against Athens. A win against Athens would have sent Brownsboro back to the playoffs.
Kevon Thompson, the running back, and Kenneth Woods, the leading receiver, will pace the Bears offense this season. Experience along the offensive line is decent.
The only thing Brownsboro really needs is another playmaker or two.
Defense: Eight starters return and want to improve upon last season's performance. Brownsboro had the second-worst district defense in terms of points surrendered.
Offensive improvement won't hurt matters, but Brownsboro's 2-4 district record was pretty much par for the course with a defense that allowed 36.5 points per game.
2017 outlook: Defensive improvement is feasible with former Waskom defensive coordinator Greg Pearson arriving on scene at Brownsboro. Pearson succeeded Jason Hooker, the new head coach at Chapel Hill.
Waskom won Class 3A Division II state championships in 2014 and 2015 with Pearson, and the new coach's championship pedigree might improve morale on the offensive side as well.
Brownsboro has excellent non-district games lined up against Canton, Spring Hill, Bullard and Mineola to get ready for district challenges. The Bears also should benefit from being the lone team to get its open date just before league play and then have a winnable district-opener against Mabank.
Following Mabank, unfortunately, Brownsboro will face Van, Kaufman and Terrell in succession. It probably won't have much margin for error afterward.
7. Mabank Panthers
- Coach: Mikey Thompson
- 2016 finish: 0-10
- Returning starters: 5 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- OL/DL Jacob Felts, Sr., 6-1, 280
- DL Kolton Stephens, Sr., 5-11, 260
2017 outlook: Mabank has been producing good sub-varsity teams in recent seasons yet it is still waiting for the production to transition to the big stage.
Eleven starters return from last year's winless team, which was the worst squad in both points scored and points surrendered in the district.
The Panthers have a very challenging non-district schedule of Palestine, Kemp, Canton and Ferris just ahead of its two biggest district games -- Athens and Brownsboro.