Mineola dominated this district and Class 3A Division I as a whole to its long-awaited state championship in 2016.

It had senior leadership. It had a dominant defensive front. It had the most explosive backfield in the state by miles.

Most of that is gone. The rest of the district is licking its lips.

Do the Yellowjackets have enough to keep ahead of the district pack on program pedigree alone? Possibly.

But the reality is really good Farmersville and Mount Vernon teams are coming up. Commerce has 16 players returning.

Among the other East Texas teams in the district, Winnsboro had a solid season and returns a bit of experience.

Could another team be ranked ahead of Mineola?

Grand Saline is forced to turn away from star quarterback Trent Easley. Is it in the postseason talk?

Quitman enters the season on a 33-game losing streak, but hope springs eternal. Will the Bulldogs surprise?

Our District 7-3A Division I picks are here.

Mineola RB Curtis London (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

District 7-3A Division I Preview

PLAYMAKERS

  • OL/DL Isaiah Benton, Sr., Winnsboro
  • QB/DB Logan Cortez, Jr., Winnsboro
  • ATH Kevi Evans, Sr., Mount Vernon
  • RB/DB Curtis London, Sr., Mineola
  • ATH Kason Pletcher, Jr., Mount Vernon
  • WR/DB Kobie Sheriff, Sr., Farmersville
  • DB/K Cameron Sorenson, Sr., Mineola
  • WR Judsen Truett, Jr., Grand Saline
  • ATH Cade Twyford, Sr., Farmersville
  • K Jose Vargas, Jr., Grand Saline

TOP GAMES

  • Farmersville at Mineola, Oct. 13
  • Grand Saline at Commerce, Oct. 13
  • Mineola at Mount Vernon, Oct. 20
  • Winnsboro at Grand Saline, Oct. 20
  • Farmersville at Mount Vernon, Nov. 3
  • Winnsboro at Mineola, Nov. 10
  • Commerce at Quitman, Nov. 10

1. Farmersville Farmers

  • Coach: Sammy Burnett
  • 2016 finish: 11-2 (3A D-I regional semifinalist)
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
  • RB Cade Twyford, Sr.
  • WR/DB Kobie Sheriff, Sr.
  • QB Michael Bagwell, Jr.
  • OL/DL Brandon Spruill, Sr.

2017 outlook: The Farmers bring back 13 starters from what was the district's second-best team a season ago as well as a team that ultimately reached the regional semifinal round of playoff competition.

Farmersville is fairly secretive about its players' size and stats from the 2016 season -- it hasn't even shared heights and weights since 2015 -- but it has known quantities within its backfield in leading rusher Cade Twyford and quarterback Michael Bagwell. Kobie Sheriff is a two-way star utilized at receiver and defensive back.

This team is the most experienced among the district's playoff rosters from a season ago with exception to Mount Vernon, which will enjoy 16 returning starters. Farmersville beat Mount Vernon, 21-12, in 2016.

The Farmers have good non-district games against Nevada Community and Emory Rains to gear up for the league.

Mineola DB/K Cameron Sorenson (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

2. Mineola Yellowjackets

  • Coach: Luke Blackwell
  • 2016 finish: 14-2 (3A D-I state champion)
  • Returning starters: 2 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
  • DB/K Cameron Sorenson, Sr., 6-2, 170 (138 tackles, 3 INTs, 10 PBUs; 4-4 FGs, 92-98 PATs)
  • RB/DB Curtis London, Sr., 5-8, 160 (603 yards, 8 TDs; 52 tackles)
  • OL/DL Cameron Wise, Jr., 6-0, 285

Offense: The Yellowjackets will have to build up almost an entirely new offense this season with all of its skill position depth wiped out. They had a good run, however, culminating with last year's long-awaited state championship win after close brushes in 2014 and 2015.

Mineola QB Shaw Franklin (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Running back Curtis London technically is a new starter, but he filled in very well for star back Chantz Perkins several times last season.

Shawmon Franklin will most likely get the nod at quarterback to replace Jeremiah Crawford. Crawford, like Perkins, ran for at least 1,000 yards his sophomore, junior and senior seasons.

That's the big question for Mineola. Can Franklin and London come close to the explosive, nearly undefendable running game Crawford and Perkins created?

If they can, the Yellowjackets will keep on keeping on.

Defense: Cameron Sorenson is back for a fourth season at safety and has never led the unit to a worse finish than the state semifinals.

Of course, Mineola's dominant defensive front played a big role in the program's recent success. That depth has been wiped out by graduation as well as senior linebacker Michael Drennon's transfer to Hallsville to play under former Yellowjackets coach and new Bobcats head coach Joe Drennon.

Mineola DT Ian Thompson (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

One of many good things about establishing a strong football program is more players come out for the team. Hopefully, some of the guys that were in middle school at the beginning of Mineola's three-year tear are ready to contribute on the defensive side.

2017 outlook: The initial wave of players that put Mineola on the map have advanced to college education or full-time careers. Joe Drennon left the program as well to coach at the Class 5A level with Hallsville.

New coach Luke Blackwell, formerly the Yellowjackets' defensive coordinator, will have to raise his own team from the get-go. No other team returns less than Mineola.

Blackwell and company have the most challenging non-district schedule of the district. It was meant to forge a state championship team a season ago. Now Mineola has to follow through on return trips against Class 4A programs Van, Kaufman, Wills Point and Brownsboro.

Don't expect this new group to go through non-district unblemished -- not even last year's title team accomplished that -- but do expect the squad to have some unique competition experiences heading into pivotal early district games against Farmersville and Mount Vernon.

Which brings us to Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon TE/LB Brent Baird (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

3. Mount Vernon Tigers

  • Coach: Josh Finney
  • 2016 finish: 5-5 (3A D-II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
  • ATH Kevi Evans, Sr., 5-8, 160 (900 rushing yards, 600 receiving yards)
  • ATH Kason Pletcher, Jr., 6-2, 225 (700 rushing yards, 200 receiving yards; 84 tackles, 3 INTs, 9 PBUs)
  • LB Kaden Proffitt, Sr., 6-0, 175
  • TE/LB Brent Baird, Sr., 5-10, 175

Offense: Mount Vernon is tied as the district's most experienced offense with Commerce. Eight returners will take the field once again, including universal athletes Kevi Evans and Kason Pletcher.

Mount Vernon OL Will Gamblin (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Evans might be the district's fastest player and amassed 1,500 total yards his junior season as a running back and receiver. Pletcher recorded 900 total yards and might serve as the team's quarterback as a junior.

Mount Vernon also has experience along the offensive line.

Expect the Tigers to be explosive and a little more consistent this season. The unit averaged 29 points against the district last season, but it did not perform anywhere near that number against Mineola and Farmersville.

Defense: Pletcher also will guide Mount Vernon's defense after a solid sophomore season in the secondary. He recorded three interceptions and nine breakups in addition to 84 tackles.

Mount Vernon CB/WR Trey Wickware (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Eight starters return on defense. The unit allowed opponents about 24.2 points per game with the number skewed in a 42-6 loss to Mineola.

This defense should be better than a season ago.

2017 outlook: Mount Vernon has a team that has been knocking on the door for a while, made the playoffs last season and is now tied as the district's most experienced team. To boot, Mineola probably won't be the dominant team it was last year.

The time has come for Mount Vernon to contend for the district championship.

Mount Vernon has good non-district games against Bullard Brook Hill, Hooks and Ore City. Things get dicey late in the league schedule, however. Mineola and Farmersville will be two of the team's final three games, so it's important to pile up the district wins early to ensure a playoff berth.

A league title would be very fitting for senior athlete Kevi Evans. He is a four-year starter and was part of 1-9 and 2-8 teams his freshman and sophomore seasons. He's also endured more than one coaching change in the process.

 

4. Winnsboro Red Raiders

  • Coach: Steve Pinnell
  • 2016 finish: 6-5 (3A D-I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
  • QB/DB Logan Cortez, Sr., 5-9, 165
  • OL/DL Isaiah Benton, Jr., 6-3, 250
  • FB/LB Kolby Brown, Jr., 5-7, 175

Offense: Winnsboro should benefit from a half-and-half offense of experienced and inexperienced players.

Logan Cortez is back at quarterback to guide an offense capable of about 28 points per district game and will be protected by a group of experienced linemen.

The flip side, the Red Raiders need skill players to emerge from 14 returning letter winners and the former junior varsity squad.

Defense: The Red Raiders' defensive unit held district opponents to 24.6 points per game for an average point differential of about plus-three through six league contests.

That's an OK differential for a program hoping to make it to the bi-district round, which Winnsboro accomplished last season.

Five defensive starters are back, and most are situated within the front seven.

This is a pretty balanced district offensively. Asserting oneself against the running game is a big step toward a win.

2017 outlook: Winnsboro is in an interesting spot.

It needs a lot to go right for it to contend for the district championship, but it also historically performs better than two of the three teams ranked below.

Three district wins were enough to make the postseason last year. Taking a win away from Grand Saline or one of the three teams ranked in front of Winnsboro should be enough to get beyond Week 11.

Grand Saline RB Carlos Aguilar (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

5. Grand Saline Indians

  • Coach: Michael Ridge
  • 2016 finish: 4-6
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
  • WR/DB Judsen Truett, Jr., 6-1, 160 (668 yards, 10 TDs)
  • K Jose Vargas, Jr. (6-7 FGs, 47-49 PATs)
  • RB Carlos Aguilar, Jr. (795 yards, 12 TDs)

Offense: Grand Saline is in decent shape on paper offensively, but losing star quarterback Trent Easley to Northwestern Oklahoma State is a massive blow.

Grand Saline WR/DB Jordan Smith (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Easley led the Indians in both rushing and passing with more than 1,000 yards in each category. He also was essentially a three-year starter.

Quarterback Jaxon Taylor, a senior, is Easley's heir apparent.

Carlos Aguilar will lead this version of Grand Saline's offense. He ran for 795 yards and 12 scores in a 10-game season and should be able to be stretched now that Easley is out of the picture.

The program usually produces good offensive linemen to protect its backfield. That's one of Grand Saline's signatures.

Defense: Eight starters are back on defense, but the Indians had the second-worst unit among district teams. It allowed about seven touchdowns per game against district competition per game.

Grand Saline LB Wesley Harrison (© Rob Graham, ETSN.fm)

Only winless Quitman was worse.

Grand Saline will have to be much more competitive on defense, especially early in the season while nursing a less experienced offense.

2017 outlook: Grand Saline could make the playoffs if it produces some pleasant surprises in fall camp, particularly at quarterback.

The school starts off its season with a confidence builder game against Como-Pickton and then will face fierce competition against New Diana, Winona and Edgewood to close the non-district slate.

Like Winnsboro, Grand Saline could afford to steal a game against the top three projected district teams as well as hold Commerce and Quitman at bay.

Beating Winnsboro will be a major key as well. Winnsboro's win against Grand Saline last season was the decider for the fourth and final playoff berth out of the district.

 

6. Commerce Tigers

  • Coach: Cody Farrell
  • 2016 finish: 2-8
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
  • LB Larrance Hickson, Sr., 5-11, 185

2017 outlook: Commerce had some fairly big expectations last season and managed to lose three straight district games by close margins to open the slate. At that point, it folded before beating Quitman on the final night of the regular season.

The school ties for the most experience among district teams, but there's a lot to prove.

Commerce tied with Winnsboro for a fifth-best 167 total points in district play. Forty-eight points came against Quitman.

The defensive unit allowed 37.5 points against per league contest.

Experience might help the numbers, but can the team improve the numbers dramatically?

That's the big question. And a necessity to make the playoffs.

 

7. Quitman Bulldogs

  • Coach: Bryan Oakes
  • 2015 finish: 0-10
  • Returning starters: 4 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
  • OL/DL Sebastian Howell, Sr., 6-3, 260
  • RB/LB A.J. Dunn, Soph., 5-11, 175 (89 tackles)

Offense: Quitman nearly increased its offensive output by a quarter compared to the 2015 season and might be able to take the next step with fresh faces. Only four starters are back on this side of the ball.

Still, 11.8 points per game won't win a lot of games. The Bulldogs didn't win any games last season.

A.J. Dunn is a player Quitman has been excited about for a long time. He'll be a sophomore running back this season.

Defense: The Bulldogs desperately need to improve on defense. The six district opponents averaged 50 points against the unit last year.

Six players return on the defensive side.

2017 outlook: Quitman will try to snap a losing streak currently at 33 games this season. Getting a district win would be a big step in the right direction.