The top of the new District 8-5A Division I is about as tough as it gets anywhere in the state.

Lufkin is dropping down after a run to the 6A Division II quarterfinals, while College Station is coming off the 2017 5A Division II state championship.

Those two meet in College Station on Oct. 12, which should be for the district title.

The rest of the league will battle it out for the other two playoffs spots.

Whichever teams come out of the district will be challenged by one of the roughest regions in the state. Region II is home to heavyweights Highland Park, Frisco Lone Star, Lancaster, Mansfield Legacy, and John Tyler.

District 8-5A Division I Preview

Lufkin's (from left) Breylon Garcia, Carl Williams, and Javasia Brunson. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

PLAYMAKERS

  • QB Cade Bartlett, Sr., Waller
  • ATH Darren Battle, Sr., Magnolia
  • TE Logan Compton, Sr., Tomball
  • QB Hunter Dunn, Jr., Tomball
  • CB Ryan Frank, Jr., Magnolia West
  • TE/WR Simon Gonzalez, Sr., Magnolia West
  • DL/OL Gabriel Hall, Sr., Waller
  • QB Julian Hernandez, Sr., Caney Creek
  • DB/WR Brandon Joseph, Sr., College Station
  • OL King McGowen, Sr., Willis
  • WR Ben Renfro, Jr., Magnolia
  • DE Bralyn Richardson, Sr., Willis
  • S Jerrin Thompson, Jr., Lufkin
  • WR Dylan Trotter, Sr., Caney Creek
  • QB Brandon Williams, Sr., College Station
  • DT Carl Williams, Sr., Lufkin

 

TOP GAMES

  • Lufkin at Longview, Aug. 31
  • Richmond Foster at College Station, Aug. 31
  • Lufkin at College Station, Oct. 12
  • Magnolia at Tomball, Oct. 26
Lufkin RB Titan Williams. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

1. Lufkin Panthers

  • Coach: Todd Quick
  • 2017 finish: 11-3 (6A Division II quarterfinalist)
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • DT Carl Williams, Sr., 6-4, 306
  • S Jerrin Thompson, Jr., 6-0, 170
  • DE Breylon Garcia, Sr., 6-4, 230
  • WR Ja'Lynn Polk, Jr., 6-2, 175
  • DE Javasia Brunson, Sr., 6-4, 235
  • QB Kewone Thomas, Sr., 6-2, 190
  • CB Demond McKelvey, Sr., 6-0, 177
  • LB De'Andre Bagley, Sr., 6-0, 185
Lufkin WR Christian Reggie. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Lufkin lost its two most reliable options on offense with the graduation of 2,000-yard rusher Isaiah Phillips and 1,000-yard receiver Malik Jackson, who both signed with Louisiana-Monroe back in February. The Panthers will, however, rely on the return of dual-threat quarterbak Kewone Thomas and talented junior receiver Ja'Lynn Polk to light up the scoreboard this season. The offensive line should also be a strength for Lufkin, which welcomes the return of seniors Bryson Wilson and Andrew Ehrlich. The Panthers averaged almost 35 points per game a season ago, which would win them a lot of games again in 2018.

Lufkin DT Carl Williams. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Without question, the strength of this team is its defense. The line is in part comprised of three Division I recruits -- ends Breylon Garcia (Nevada commit) and Javasia Brunson, and tackle Carl Williams (Arkansas). The Panthers also have additional depth on the line, which will only make them more difficult on opposing offensive lines as games wear on. De'Andre Bagley is an all-district performer at linebacker, while the secondary might be as good as any in all of East Texas. Senior cornerback Demond McKelvey and junior safety Jerrin Thompson will give receivers and quarterbacks fits this season.

2018 outlook: Lufkin reached the 6A Division II quarterfinals last season, its deepest playoff run since 2005. And with the Panthers' dropping down a classification, an even longer postseason journey could be in the offing. The new district is filled with unfamiliar faces for Lufkin, which has been in Houston area leagues before but always at the state's highest classification. The Panthers have as much talent as any 5A team in the state, but they'll certainly get challenged in the playoffs as a member of Region II. Lufkin faces potential challenges from perennial powerhouses like Frisco Lone Star, two-time defending champion Highland Park, Mansfield Legacy, Lancaster, John Tyler, and Texas High.But if Lufkin can manage its way through the region, it should be prepared for any challenge it would face in the either the semifinals or title game.

 

2. College Station Cougars

  • Coach: Steve Huff
  • 2017 finish: 14-2 (5A Division II champion)
  • Returning starters: 4 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • DB/WR Brandon Joseph, Sr., 6-1, 180
  • QB Brandon Williams, Sr., 6-2, 218
  • LB Garrett Draper, Sr., 5-11, 180
  • ATH Spencer Maxwell, Sr., 5-9, 163
  • CB Ryan Stapp, Sr., 5-9, 170

2018 outlook: College Station, which opened in 2012 and didn't have football until 2014, managed to knock off the storied Aledo Bearcats in the 5A Division II state championship game last season. The question for the Cougars in 2018 will be how well they handle the role of hunted. Just eight total starters are returning, so there will definitely be some growing pains with the new influx of players. Head coach Steve Huff does have a handful of impressive pieces coming back, including Brandon Jospeh, a Texas Tech commit that will play a role on both sides of the ball. Brandon Williams was mostly a receiver last season, but is expected to assume the role of starting quarterback in 2018. Spencer Maxwell should be the receiving corps' strongest member. The Cougars will have no problem getting back to the playoffs, but Lufkin will carry the label as district favorites.

 

3. Magnolia West Mustangs

  • Coach: JD Berna
  • 2017 finish: 9-2 (5A Division I area finalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • TE/WR Simon Gonzalez, Sr., 6-4, 215
  • CB Ryan Frank, Jr., 6-2, 175
  • QB John Matocha, Sr., 5-10, 185
  • LB Rusty Bertrand, Jr., 6-0, 227
  • LB John Andrews, Sr., 6-0, 195

2018 outlook: The Mustangs made a run to the second round of the playoffs a season ago, falling to eventual regional finalist Temple. With nine starters returning, Magnolia West has some work to do in order to regain last season's form. Senior quarterback John Matocha is a reigning district MVP, having accounted for more than 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns on offense. Simon Gonzalez a big target, who will be a prime option in the red zone. But the Mustangs will need several newcomers to step into starring roles if the offense is to keep pace with the rest of the district. The linebacking duo of Rusty Bertrand and John Andrew could be the league's best. Magnolia West will be in the mix for a playoff spot, but finding success in the postseason will be a challenge in the loaded Region II.

 

4. Tomball Cougars

  • Coach: Kevin Flanigan
  • 2017 finish: 7-3
  • Returning starters: 8 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB Hunter Dunn, Jr., 6-4, 170
  • TE Logan Compton, Sr., 6-5, 220
  • RB Ja'Kobi Holland, Jr., 5-11, 180
  • OL Christian Mobley, Sr., 6-6, 290
  • FS Kasen Handal, Sr., 5-10, 180

2018 outlook: Tomball is bringing back the most experienced offense in the entire district as all but three starters return. Junior quarterback Hunter Dunn has Division I talent and is coming off an outstanding sophomore year that included more than 1,900 yards and 19 touchdowns in just seven games. Running back Ja'Kobi Holland returns as well after he put up more than 1,700 yards on the ground with 20 touchdowns. The Cougars will also be strong up front with the return of senior offensive tackle Christian Mobley. The defense is in good shape as well, and it will be led by safety Kasen Handal, who had nine interceptions last season as a junior. Tomball won seven games a season ago, but missed out on the playoffs by one game, suffering losses to Magnolia, Magnolia West, and Brenham. The Cougars don't have to worry about Brenham this year, but they will surely be challenged by new additions like Lufkin and College Station.

 

5. Magnolia Bulldogs

  • Coach: Sterling Doty
  • 2017 finish: 5-5 (5A Division I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 3 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR Ben Renfro, Jr., 6-2, 185
  • ATH Darren Battle, Sr., 6-0, 175
  • OL Kade Bond, Jr., 6-5, 290
  • DB Hunter Kitchens, Jr., 6-2, 170
  • DL Uriel Gutierrez, Sr., 6-0, 224

2018 outlook: Graduation hit Magnolia hard as it brings back just eight total starters from last year's playoff team. However, the Bulldogs were able to survive a difficult district and play perennial power Cedar Park to within four points in the bi-district round. It will take a similar effort in 2018 for Magnolia to make a return trip to the postseason. The offense has a couple of impact players returning in junior receiver Ben Renfro, who bursted onto the scene as a sophomore, and Darren Battle, who can affect a game in a variety of ways. Offensive lineman Kade Bond is among the district's most physical players. The defense will have eight new starters this fall, so there could be bumps in the road early in the season on that side of the ball.

 

6. Willis Wildkats

  • Coach: Michael Wall
  • 2017 finish: 2-7
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • OL King McGowen, Sr., 6-6, 250
  • DE Bralyn Richardson, Sr., 6-3, 225
  • ATH Mike Dickerson, Sr., 5-10, 150
  • TE Terius Mathis, Jr., 6-8, 235
  • LB Davonte Nephew, Sr., 5-10, 178

2018 outlook: Last season was one to forget for Willis, which picked up only two wins. And with less than half of the starters coming back, the Wildcats could find it difficult to get things back on track. Willis is short on experienced playmakers at the skill positions, but it does have size up front with the return of senior King McGowen and junior Terius Mathis. Defensively, Willis is led by pass-rushing specialist Bralyn Richardson and linebacker Davonte Nephew. The Wildcats aren't especially deep on either side of the ball, so health with be a major priority this fall.

 

7. Waller Bulldogs

  • Coach: Jim Phillips
  • 2017 finish: 1-9
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 7 defensive

Players to watch

  • DL/OL Gabriel Hall, Sr., 6-5, 285
  • QB Cade Barlett, Sr., 6-3, 215
  • WR Curtis Fisher, Sr., 6-2, 205
  • RB Jateaveon Boley, Jr., 5-9, 163
  • LB Jared Dicus, Sr, 6-0, 170

2018 outlook: Waller suffered through a 1-9 season in 2017, but head coach Jim Phillips is hoping that with 14 returning starters, brighter days are ahead. The Bulldogs averaged less than 24 points per game a year ago, so Willis will need the duo of quarterback Cade Bartlett and receiver Curtis Fisher to pick up where it left off in 2017. Bartlett passed for almost 2,300 yards and 21 touchdowns, while Fisher put up more than 1,100 yards and caught 12 touchdown passes. Jateaveon Bailey will step into the role of featured back this season. But the defense is in need of significant improvement after it surrendered an average of almost 42 points per game last year. Defensive lineman Gabriel Hall and linebacker Jared Dicus will lead the way.

 

8. Caney Creek Panthers

  • Coach: Steve Svendsen
  • 2017 finish: 2-7
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB Julian Hernandez, Sr., 5-9, 150
  • WR Dylan Trotter, Sr., 5-10, 165
  • RB Gabe Garcia, Sr., 5-9, 210
  • OL Jakob Legg, Sr., 6-0, 280
  • ATH Spencer Brandon, Jr., 5-9, 175

2018 outlook: The Panthers managed just two wins a season ago, and with just nine starters coming back, this year could be another struggle. Caney Creek will need big seasons from senior quarterback Julian Hernandez, receiver Dylan Trotter, and running back Gabe Garcia in addition to solid campaigns from the newcomers. Finding wins in the difficult District 8-5A Division I won't come easy for Caney Creek, but Willis and Waller combined for only three wins a season ago. So there could be an opening for the Panthers to climb the district ladder.