The days of Van dominating the opposition with the ground game are over. Over the past two seasons, head coach Jared Moffatt has ushered in a new era in Van.

Instead of the offense going through running backs like Jermie Calhoun and Jarvis Crawford, everything is run through the quarterback and his name is Garrett Smallwood.

Smallwood had a monster junior season, passing for more than 3,000 yards and 34 touchdowns in leading the Vandals to a 10-2 mark in 2011.

Van finished second to Lindale in district a season ago, but with the Eagles' move up to 4A, District 15-3A appears to be Van's for the taking.

 

1.Van Vandals

Coach: Jared Moffatt (third season, 17-7)

2011 Record: 10-2 (3A Division II Region II area finalist; lost 57-40 to Gilmer)

Returning starters: 7 offensive (spread), 6 defensive (even front)

Players to watch

  • DT Syd Moore, Sr., 6-1, 260 (102 tackles, 34 for loss, 8 sacks)
  • QB Garrett Smallwood, Sr., 6-0, 185 (205 of 332, 3,175 yards, 34 TDs, 7 INTs)
  • WR Carson Rucker, Jr., 6-3, 215 (25 catches, 312 yards, 4 TDs)
  • WR Rigo Lemus, Sr., 5-9, 170 (45 catches, 797 yards, 9 TDs)
  • C Justin Hopkins, Sr., 5-8, 250
  • OL Jonathan Johnston, Sr., 6-1, 260
  • OL Tavo Lemus, Sr., 6-0, 260
  • RB Matt Savis, Soph., 5-8, 165 (23 carries, 210 yards)
  • WR Cody Hill, Sr., 5-11, 180
  • WR Austin Lockwood, Sr., 5-10, 165
  • P Chuy Alvarez, Sr., 6-2, 165 (3-for-8 FGs, 60-for-67 PATs; 19 punts, 42 average, 61 long)
  • OLB Hunter Hopkins, Sr., 6-1, 190 (3 INTs, 2 def. TDs)
  • DB Reid Hiler, Sr., 5-9, 170
  • DL Daniel Bowman, Sr., 5-11, 190

Strengths: The Van Vandals possess one of the top 1-2 combinations in East Texas in quarterback Garrett Smallwood and defensive tackle Syd Moore. Smallwood is the triggerman for an offense that averaged right at 44 points per game in 2011. The senior QB will have his choice of a couple of top-notch targets at receiver with Rigo Lemus and Carson Rucker. The bulk of the running game may be left to sophomore Matt Savis, who got his feet wet on varsity as a freshman. Moore is being recruited by a handful of Division I schools and will need to pick up the slack after the graduation of all-American linebacker Dalton Santos (now at Texas). The Van special teams will be in good shape as well with the return of all-state punter/kicker Chuy Alvarez.

Weaknesses: Santos was more than just a force on defense. The imposing athlete added 17 rushing touchdowns to his prowess on the defensive side of the ball. Even with Santos and Moore on last year’s team, the Vandals were vulnerable at times on defense. In both of its losses in 2011, Van allowed a total of 107 points to Lindale and Gilmer. If the Vandals are to improve on their 10-win season from a year ago, the defense will need to be on par with what is expected to be one of the most high-powered offenses in all of East Texas.

2012 Outlook: Van appears to be the early favorite for the district title. The Vandals are bringing back 13 players with starting experience, with Smallwood and Moore leading the way. Van will be tested during the non-district portion of its schedule against the likes of Hallsville, Lindale and Liberty-Eylau. If everything plays out according to plan, Van should walk away with the 15-3A title. However, a meeting with one of the big dogs from 16-3A will be on the horizon in the bi-district round of the playoffs. How far Van is able to advance in the playoffs will depend on how much progress is made on the defensive side of the ball.

 

2.Athens Hornets

Coach: Paul Essary (fourth season, 20-15; 48-58 overall)

2011 Record: 5-5

Returning starters: 5 offensive (multiple I), 4 defensive (3-4)

Players to watch

  • WR Javonte Johnson, Sr., 6-0, 170 (15 catches, 232 yards, 2 TDs)
  • OL Dylon Deaver, Sr., 6-0, 235
  • QB Anthony Sanders, Jr., 5-11, 185 (73 of 150, 1,089 yards, 10 TDs, 4 INTs; 91 carries, 684 yards, 4 TDs)
  • OL Coy McCray, Sr., 6-4, 230
  • FB Anthony Ingham, Sr., 5-10, 170
  • DB Chris Jefferson, Jr., 6-2, 200 (26 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, 1 FF)
  • ILB Adam Stallings, Jr., 5-9, 205
  • DE Nic Fincher, Jr., 6-2, 240
  • OLB K.J. Cumby, Jr., 6-1, 205 (64 tackles)
  • OLB George Hutson, Sr., 6-0, 185
  • K Jesse Durham, Sr., 6-2, 170 (4-for-6 FGs, 40-for-44 PATs)
  • RB Raheem Miller, Jr., 5-9, 185

Strengths: While all-American receiver and defensive back Kendall Sanders (now at the University of Texas) graduated, quarterback Anthony Sanders returns after a solid sophomore season behind center. In 2011, he scored 14 touchdowns and combined for more than 1,700 yards of offense. Receiver Javonte Johnson should be a solid target for Sanders after the two hooked up for a couple TDs a season ago. Defensive back Chris Jefferson was another sophomore that stepped in and had a nice 2011.

Weaknesses: The Hornets graduated 13 starters, and finding replacements will be priority No. 1 for fourth-year coach Paul Essary. Reloading in the backfield is a must for Athens, which has featured one of the top rushing attacks in the area over the past couple of seasons. The Hornets, who reached the state quarterfinals in 2010, failed to make the postseason last year after getting off to a 5-2 start. Athens was outscored 134-40 in its last three games, which may have left a bitter taste as the Hornets headed into the offseason.

2012 Outlook: Even though Athens is no longer in the same district as defending state champion Chapel Hill, an argument can be made that the Hornets’ new district may be tougher from top to bottom. While there does not figure to be any legitimate state-title contenders in 15-3A, the new district is loaded with teams brimming with high expectations. If Athens, which is the district’s second-largest school, does make the playoffs a big test looms in the opening round where Kilgore or Chapel Hill would be waiting.

 

3.Mineola Yellowjackets

Coach: Joe Drennon (fifth season, 26-18; 72-57 overall)

2011 Record: 8-3 (2A Division I Region II bi-district finalist; lost 49-3 to New Boston)

Returning starters: 5 offensive (I formation), 6 defensive (4-2-5)

Players to watch

  • RB/LB Dac Shaw, Sr., 6-2, 200 (118 carries, 1,327 yards, 28 TDs; 95 tackles, 20 for loss, 6 sacks, 3 FF)
  • QB Tyler Hudson, Sr., 5-10, 160 (4 of 6, 160 yards, 1 TD; 3 INTs)
  • OL Hunter Creech, Jr., 5-11, 220
  • WR Harry El Hallaoui, Sr., 5-11, 170 (3 INTs)
  • RB Rhett Self, Jr., 5-8, 160
  • WR Kendall Boyd, Jr., 6-2, 165
  • TE Lucas Flournoy, Sr., 5-10, 170
  • RB Tino Elias, Jr., 5-6, 170
  • TE Barrett Holland, Sr., 5-10, 170
  • RB Devon Foster, Sr., 5-8, 150
  • OL Neal Warnick, Sr., 6-2, 210
  • OL Josh Hurst, Jr., 5-10, 200
  • TE Brandon Melo, Jr., 5-9, 180
  • LB Doug Hearn, Sr., 5-10, 190
  • DE Colin Wooten, Sr., 6-0, 190

Strengths: The obvious strength for Mineola is outstanding senior running back and linebacker Dac Shaw, a TCU commit who is among the top recruits in the area. Shaw rushed for 28 touchdowns in 2011, and his touches in the backfield should only increase. Defensively, Shaw was a force with 95 tackles (20 for loss) and six sacks. As long as Shaw keeps improving, Mineola will be in good shape. With Doug Hearn also back at linebacker, the going may be tough for opposing offenses.

Weaknesses: The Yellowjackets must find a new quarterback to seriously challenge for a district title. Tyler Hudson is the projected starter, but he only attempted six passes a season ago. The Mineola offensive line does not have much size to it. Its top three offensive linemen average just 210 pounds, which is small for the 3A level. Shaw can only do so much, and Mineola will be breaking in 11 new starters. Head coach Joe Drennon will need a handful of newcomers to pick up the slack.

2012 Outlook: Mineola returns to Class 3A after spending the last couple of years in 2A, making the playoffs in each season. The Yellowjackets must also contend with being among the smallest 3A schools in the entire state. Bottom line: Mineola will need a lot more than just Shaw to become a force in 15-3A.

 

4.Canton Eagles

Coach: Robert Ivey (third season, 15-7; 29-37 overall)

2011 Record: 5-5

Returning starters: 8 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • OL Connor Robison, Sr., 6-0, 210
  • QB Kade Warren, Sr., 5-10, 165
  • OL Goni Lajqi, Sr., 6-2, 295
  • QB Chandler Eiland, Soph., 5-11, 170
  • LB Dakota Hesskew, Sr., 5-11, 185
  • LB Reece Sumner, Sr., 5-9, 180
  • DB Connor Eiland, Sr., 5-11, 175
  • DB Colton Williams, Sr., 5-8, 170
  • OL Cody Lide, Sr., 5-11, 215
  • OL Bryce Sanford, Sr., 5-7, 180
  • OL Daniel Buck, Jr., 6-0, 300
  • OL Chance Price, Sr., 5-10, 195
  • OL Jacob Busch, Soph., 6-3, 260

Strengths: Size on the offensive line. Canton has three linemen that go 260 pounds or more, including senior Goni Lajqi and Daniel Buck who are both right at 300. Their jobs will be to protect sophomore quarterback Chandler Eiland, who was the district’s newcomer of the year as a freshman. With returning starters on offense, expect the usually high-scoring Eagles offense to improve on the 31.4 points per game it averaged in 2011.

Weaknesses: Despite the amount of returners on offense, there are a few question marks at the receiver position. Canton graduated two of its top three receivers from last year, so finding players for Eiland to get the ball to will be a challenge early on. Where Canton needs the most improvement is on defense. The Eagles allowed 27.3 points per game last season, which included a loss to Van when Canton surrendered 69.

2012 Outlook: Canton missed out on the playoffs after losing by just one touchdown on the final day of regular season. With 13 combined starters returning, it is not unreasonable to expect Canton to return to the playoffs for the sixth time since 2003. However, the big boys from 16-3A will be waiting in the first round of the postseason.

 

5.Brownsboro Bears

Coach: Ty Thomison (second season, 1-9)

2011 Record: 1-9

Returning starters: 4 offensive (spread), 5 defensive (3-4)

Players to watch

  • QB Shelby Rogers, Sr., 6-2, 180 (153 of 277, 2,153 yards, 16 TDs, 7 INTs; 90 carries, 200 yards, 3 TDs; 32 punts 31.0 average, 54 long)
  • WR Tyler Thomison, Jr., 5-9, 160
  • WR Patrick McCarthy, Sr., 6-3, 180 (12 catches, 239 yards, 2 TDs)
  • RB Johntae Harmon, Sr., 6-1, 190
  • WR Taylor Beall, Sr., 5-10, 175
  • DE Swaide Houston, Jr., 6-3, 220
  • OL Quinton McKenzie, Jr., 6-1, 220
  • OLB Aaron Ramirez, Sr., 5-9, 165
  • OLB Miles Spencer, Sr., 5-11, 190

Strengths: Skill players. Brownsboro only returns four starters on offense, but one of them is quarterback Shelby Rogers, who put up some impressive numbers in his first season behind center. Receiver Patrick McCarthy provides a big target, while speedy Tyler Thomison and Taylor Beall could spread opposing defenses thin. Running back Johntae Harmon, whose size sets him apart from most 3A backs, could take advantage of all the space created by head coach Ty Thomison’s spread offense. Despite enduring its worst season in a decade, the offense averaged more than 26 points per game in district, which included a shutout.

Weaknesses: The biggest question marks for Brownsboro are on the defensive side. Last season, the Bears allowed more than 40 points per game, which took them out of a ton of games. In five of its losses, Brownsboro failed to keep it within four touchdowns. Outside of defensive end Swaide Houston, the Bears come into 2012 without any proven impact players on defense. Until those players are found, it will be up to a potentially explosive, yet inexperienced offense, to keep Brownsboro competitive.

2012 Outlook: The only district opponent from last season is Athens, which happened to be the only team Brownsboro defeated in 2011. However, if Brownsboro is to challenge for a playoff spot big improvements on defense are in order. Historically, Canton and Van have turned out high-scoring offense and Mineola features one of the best running backs in the area. The offense should be better, but it needs the other side of the ball to step up.

 

6.Mabank Panthers

Coach: Jared Wingfield (first season)

2011 Record: 4-6

Returning starters: 3 offensive (multiple), 6 defensive (3-4)

Players to watch

  • OL Hunter Strebeck, Jr., 6-4, 295
  • WR Dylan Schneider, Jr., 6-2, 195
  • QB Rance Thorne, Sr., 6-2, 200 (15 of 24, 144 yards)
  • DL Colton Thomas, Sr., 5-11, 210 (66 tackles)
  • OL Derek Brill, Sr., 6-1, 230
  • OL John Velez, Jr., 5-9, 235
  • K Korey Roberts (3-for-5 FGs, 34-for-34 PATs)
  • DB Adam Penix, Jr., 5-9, 175
  • LB Luke Winkelvoss, Jr., 6-0, 190
  • LB Christian Wilson, Sr., 6-0, 190
  • LB Trevor Chasteen, Sr., 5-10, 205
  • DL Cody Kuykendall, Sr., 5-10, 220

2012 Outlook: It’s been five years since the Mabank Panthers have tasted the postseason, and first-year coach Jared Wingfield is hoping his team’s luck will change in 2012. Mabank’s playoff hopes will almost assuredly rest on the shoulders of quarterback Rance Thorne, who performed well in 2011 but on a limited basis. District 15-3A may not be the toughest district in the area, but it should be among the most competitive. In order for the Panthers to keep up, the returning starters must adapt quickly to the new coach’s schemes and philosophies.