District 9-2A Division I should be one of the deepest and most competitive districts in East Texas.

Tatum is the clear favorite despite returning only six starters. Veteran coach Andy Evans has a host of new playmakers who will give Tatum a chance to go several rounds deep into the playoffs like they did last year.

Jefferson, Harmony, White Oak, and Troup are all playoff-caliber teams, so the race for the final two playoff spots will be heated. Each team will feature a strong running game, and Jefferson's Deion Williams will be among the best backs in the region.

Fans should prepare themselves for one of the most fun district races in the state.

1.Tatum Eagles

Coach: Andy Evans (ninth season, 88-21; 159-50 overall)

2011 Record: 12-3 (2A Division I state semifinalist; lost 21-14 to Hempstead)

Returning starters: 3 offensive (multiple), 3 defensive (multiple)

Players to watch

  • OG Darius Whiting, Sr., 6-0, 265
  • RB Shaquille Johnson, Sr., 5-5, 155 (786 rushing yards, 8 TDs)
  • QB Darian Brooks, Sr., 6-2, 200 (100 passing yards, 1 INT)
  • LB Kiano Lucas, Sr., 6-0, 210 (138 tackles)
  • DT Tristan Durden, Sr., 6-4, 292
  • CB C.J. Whitaker, Sr., 5-8, 165 (36 tackles)
  • QB/FS Javolick Garrett, Sr., 6-0, 180 (3 INTs)
  • FS Jaylen Shans, Jr., 5-10, 160
  • CB Toby Henderson, Sr., 5-9, 180 (36 tackles)
  • OG Joseph Schmidt, Sr., 6-0, 230
  • WR Klifton Willis, Jr., 6-0, 180
  • QB Cody Weaver, Sr., 5-10, 170
  • TE Dyllan Fields, Jr., 6-2, 170
  • OG Keaton Blanton, Jr., 6-2, 325
  • OT Jared Kimberly, Jr., 6-0, 195
  • OT Jacob Taylor, Jr., 6-0, 250
  • OG Dylan Moore, Jr., 6-1, 240
  • OT Michael Dominguez, Sr., 5-9, 230
  • DT Cambron Beall, Jr., 6-3, 260
  • ATH Deyante Roberson, Soph., 6-1, 180
  • ATH Martin Williams, Soph., 6-2, 185
  • ATH Devin Boyd, Soph., 5-10, 170
  • CB Donovan Centers, Jr., 6-0, 150
  • LB Alexis Garza, Sr., 6-0, 185
  • DE Garrett Ross, Sr., 5-11, 160
  • NG Andrew Peterson, Jr., 5-5, 220
  • NG Collin Gage, Jr., 5-11, 200
  • LB Kyshaun Smith, Soph., 6-1, 200

Strengths: Size, athleticism. Tatum will be big and fast. Simple as that. The Eagles will boast one of the largest pairs of Class 2A lines in East Texas. Tristan Durden, Cambron Beall, and Darius Whiting give the Eagles a monstrous defensive tackle rotation, while Whiting, Keaton Blanton, Jacob Taylor, and Dylan Moore are parts of a Tatum O-line that may steamroll most opponents. Then there’s Tatum’s trademark speed, of which there will be plenty, including running back Shaq Johnson, linebacker Kiano Lucas and a host of versatile athletes such as Javolick Garrett, Jaylen Shans, C.J. Whitaker, Kilfton Willis, and several others. A promising sophomore skill-position group could also get in the mix.

 

Weaknesses: Experience. A lot of Tatum’s players gained valuable playing experience during last year’s 15-game run, but not many of them have extensive starting experience. Normally, losing a quarterback the caliber of Jalen Overstreet (Texas) would cripple a team, but Darian Brooks and Javolick Garrett are physically prepared to take over the QB duties. Experience early will be an issue. The same goes for players replacing leading receiver Nate Pickett (Southern Arkansas), lineman LaRance Hale (Southern Arkansas), linebacker Jordan Noel (Southern Arkansas) and athlete L.J. Johnson, four of Tatum’s best players in 2011. Playing for a high-expectations program should help the new Eagles more than it hurts, though.

 

2012 Outlook: When Tatum lost in last season’s Class 2A Division I state semifinals, a lot of people wrote off the Eagles for 2012. Overstreet, Pickett, Hale, and a slew of others who defined last year’s team would be gone come August, and the promising sophomore class would still be a season away from a major impact. But now that the 2012 season is here, Tatum’s junior and senior classes appear primed to prove those old doubters wrong. The usual Tatum athleticism will be in place all over the field, while the Eagles’ size will be as imposing and roster-wide as it has been in recent memory. If the new starters can transition into their roles relatively seamlessly, watch out. This on-paper promise and the potential it presents are the reasons the East Texas Sports Network has tapped Tatum with our No. 1 preseason ranking in the Class 2A & Below Countdown. The Eagles are clear District 9-2A Division I favorites and are on a collision course with Newton, ranked second in our preseason countdown, for the Region III championship. The winner will be more than capable of bringing home state hardware.

 

2.Jefferson Bulldogs

Coach: Jerry Bennett (second season of second tenure, 19th season with Jefferson, 159-71-5; 179-81-5 overall)

2011 Record: 5-6 (2A Division I Region III bi-district finalist; lost 41-20 to Newton)

Returning starters: 7 offensive (spread), 7 defensive (multiple)

Players to watch

  • RB Deion Williams, Sr., 5-8, 180 (1,813 rushing yards, 19 TDs)
  • OT Ryan Cox, Soph., 6-5, 275
  • WR Terrance Whitaker, Jr., 5-10, 170
  • WR L.D. Holt, Sr., 5-8, 160
  • LB Chris Smith, Jr., 5-11, 185 (87 tackles)
  • DE Adrian Jones, Sr., 6-1, 195 (93 tackles)
  • DE Shawn Figures, Sr., 6-0, 195 (84 tackles)
  • DT Landon Templin, Jr., 6-3, 280
  • DT Rod Smith, Jr., 6-0, 280
  • LB Josh Eppler, Sr., 6-1, 240
  • QB/OLB Brayden Varnell, Jr., 5-11, 175
  • C Blake Mosley, Sr., 6-0, 185
  • OT Dominique Gardner, Sr., 6-3, 245
  • WR Davonte Singleton, 6-3, 180

Strengths: Running game, defensive line. Jefferson should be able to run and stop the run, an age-old recipe for success. Deion Williams is the Bulldogs’ bona fide star after rushing for almost 2,700 yards and 23 touchdowns during 2010-11. He’ll have a solid offensive line led by senior Dominique Gardner leading the way. That offensive front will also feature a large, promising sophomore in Ryan Cox. On the other side of the ball, Landon Templin and Rod Smith give Jefferson a huge defensive tackle tandem to rival Tatum’s rotation of interior defenders. Playing their edges will be Adrian Jones and Shawn Figures, who round out what should be one of the better Class 2A defensive lines in East Texas.

Weaknesses: Passing game, defensive consistency. Jefferson has sorely lacked offensive balance in recent seasons, as evidenced by the Bulldogs’ somewhat anemic 23.8 points per game during the last two seasons. In that 22-game span, Jefferson scored 16 points or fewer nine times. Williams is indeed a stud, but he’ll also need a lot more help than he’s gotten in 2010-11. On the other side of the ball, the Bulldogs need to cut back on their roller coaster tendencies. Jefferson held five of its first six 2011 opponents to 26 or fewer points and an average of 21.2 points, but yielded no fewer than 28 in its final five games, allowing 34.2 points per game in that span, which ended in a 41-20 first-round loss to Newton.

2012 Outlook: Jefferson has been enigmatic in recent seasons. The Bulldogs always have talent and athleticism but are a tough preseason read every year. If Jefferson gets more offensive balance and helps Williams carry the load, that side of the ball should be more than capable of getting the Dogs to the postseason for the eighth consecutive season. Jefferson should be better defensively with seven returning starters, several of which play in the box. That strength up front should help the Bulldogs against District 9-2A Division I foes who rely on the run, such as Tatum, Harmony, White Oak, and Troup. After district favorite Tatum, the next four spots are as wide open as you can imagine. Based on the district’s best tailback returning, as well as the 14 returning starters, we’re picking Jefferson to keep its postseason streak alive as the No. 2 seed from 9-2A D-I, with the caveat that three or four other teams could very well finish ahead of the Bulldogs in an ultra-competitive district race.

3.Harmony Eagles

Coach: Tim Russell (second season of second tenure, fifth season with Harmony, 35-20; 46-59 overall)

2011 Record: 9-3 (2A Division I Region III semifinalist; lost 55-21 to Crockett)

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

Players to watch

  • WR/TE Lucas Askew, Sr., 6-6, 210 (33 catches, 487 yards, 7 TDs; committed to Texas State)
  • FS Tim McCoy, Jr., 5-11, 175 (169 tackles, 5 INTs, 3 def. TDs)
  • FB/LB Levi Thompson, Jr., 6-0, 225 (53 carries, 307 yards, 3 TDs)
  • QB/DB Alan Peralta, Sr., 5-9, 175 (9 INTs)
  • OLB Brandon Glenn, Sr., 5-9, 160
  • DB Daven Murphree, Sr., 5-11, 175
  • DB Reid Rendon, Sr., 5-8, 150
  • RB Juan Montoya, Jr., 5-10, 185
  • RB/LB Ethan Edwards, Jr., 6-2, 185
  • OL Dalton Gage, Jr., 6-0, 270
  • OL Riley Henson, Jr., 6-0, 275
  • OL Jonathan Weaver, Jr., 6-1, 285
  • OL Brandon Murphy, Jr., 6-2, 285
  • TE Hunter Little, Jr., 6-0, 180
  • DL Trevor Pilcher, Sr., 5-11, 180
  • LB Hayden Rhodes, Sr., 5-9, 180
  • DL Aaron Keith, Jr., 5-11, 200
  • DB Jacob Fielden, Jr., 6-0, 175

Strengths: Size, secondary. Noticing a trend in District 9-2A Division I? Yeah, it’s size. Harmony is another team with a huge offensive line anchored by four players ranging from 270 to 285 pounds. They should open holes for whoever replaces 2,000-yard rusher Matt Hosea, who graduated. His replacement may come by committee. Alan Peralta factors into that somehow as the Eagles’ new quarterback, although he’ll remain part of a proven secondary that made life tough for opposing quarterbacks a season ago. Daven Murphree is one of the team’s best athletes as a state champion pole vaulter, and Lucas Askew will be Peralta’s top pass-catching target. Askew (Texas State commit) has several Division I FBS offers and has drawn interest from high-major programs such as Texas A&M and Miami.

Weaknesses: Experience, schedule. Some veterans are back, but Harmony returns less than half of its 2011 starters on each side of the ball. The Eagles also have a brutal stretch in the middle of their 9-2A D-I slate: Oct. 19 at White Oak, Oct. 27 vs. Jefferson at Longview’s Lobo Stadium, and Nov. 2 at Troup. That three-week span keeps Harmony away from home during the stretch that will likely determine their postseason fate. When the Eagles finally return home, they host Tatum in the regular-season finale.

2012 Outlook: Harmony was East Texas’ biggest 2A surprise in 2011, going 9-3 only one season after finishing 1-9 in coach Tim Russell’s return to the Upshur County school he spent leading from 2001-03. Harmony has a solid core of returning starters, albeit not a ton of them. While the Eagles may not have a high-volume workhorse in Hosea’s mold, Russell is optimistic about his new skill players’ explosiveness. Much like Jefferson, Harmony could finish virtually anywhere from second in 9-2A D-I to fifth. That three-week district stretch will likely decide the Eagles’ fate. But from a preseason perspective, we think the Eagles have enough back and coming up in their sophomore and junior classes to get Harmony back to the postseason.

 

4.Troup Tigers

Coach: Dennis Alexander (first season; 323-126-11 overall, fourth in state history)

2011 Record: 6-5 (2A Division I Region III bi-district finalist; lost 14-7 to Marlin)

Returning starters: 7 offensive (multiple), 9 defensive (3-4)

Players to watch

  • RB Seth Gibson, Sr., 5-9, 175 (179 carries, 1,546 yards, 14 TDs)
  • OL Shaquille Rollins, Sr., 6-4, 250
  • OL Tristen Walsworth, Jr., 6-0, 260
  • OL D’Zavier Harris, Sr., 5-10, 280
  • QB Kody Welch, Sr., 6-1, 160
  • WR/CB Hitachi Lydia, Jr., 6-0, 155 (15 catches, 268 yards, 4 TDs)
  • OL Austin Chambers, Sr., 6-2, 280
  • OL Alex Hall, Sr., 6-1, 235
  • LB Michael Davis, Sr., 6-1, 225 (54 tackles, 11 for loss, 5 sacks)
  • LB Bradly Stewart, Sr., 6-0, 185 (53 tackles)
  • OLB Marcus Davis, Jr., 5-9, 170
  • LB Jacob Beaty, Sr., 5-9, 165
  • CB An’Fernee Ross, Jr., 5-8, 150 (4 INTs)
  • OLB Blake Narrell, Soph., 6-0, 180 (44 tackles)
  • TE Dakota Deese, Sr., 6-0, 170
  • TE Tanner Emery, Sr., 6-1, 210
  • WR Brandon Hearon, Sr., 6-0, 150
  • DL Wesley Thompson, Sr., 6-3, 190
  • DL Anthony Adkins, Sr., 5-10, 215
  • K Gabe Leon (3-for-6 FGs, 44-for-45 PATs)

Strengths: Size, experience. Yet another District 9-2A Division I team with loads of size on the offensive line, which features four players ranging from 250 to 280 pounds. That’ll help Seth Gibson duplicate his hugely successful junior season, when he averaged 8.6 yards per carry. Gibson and much of his offensive line are some of the veterans who comprise the seven returning offensive starters. They join nine returning defensive starters to give Troup the second-most experienced returning core in 9-2A D-I behind Sabine’s 10 starters on each side of the ball. The linebacker group should be strong with Michael Davis, Bradly Stewart and Blake Narrell, only a sophomore, all gaining valuable experience a season ago. Davis is moving from defensive end, where he still posted solid tackle numbers despite playing with a hand on the ground.

Weaknesses: District change, late coaching change. Getting the fourth-winningest head coach in Texas high school football history is never a bad thing, but a late July hire isn’t the best time for it. Dennis Alexander will bring a new system emphasizing a physical offense that throws off play action, so there will be growing pains learning the new scheme in such a short span. But the bigger issue may be realignment shipping Troup east. The Tigers’ old district included Crockett and Malakoff, but not much beyond that. They’ll be tested virtually every week and could theoretically be the underdog in 4 of 5 league contests.

2012 Outlook: Never underestimate Alexander, who often made preseason predictions look stupid while going 80-35 in 10 seasons at Harleton. Troup is very much in playoff contention, but in a five-team race for the playoffs, there’s room for only three teams at the 2A level. There will undoubtedly be fans of 9-2A D-I teams calling for the UIL to expand the 3A and 2A playoff brackets to four teams per district. Troup’s supporters may be among them.

5.White Oak Roughnecks

Coach: Gerry Stanford (5-5, second season)

2011 Record: 5-5

Returning starters: 7 offensive (multiple spread), 6 defensive (multiple)

Players to watch

  • ATH Darion Barr, Sr., 6-0, 190 (500 rushing yards, 250 receiving yards, 5 total TDs)
  • RB Hunter Owens, Sr., 5-11, 205 (165 carries, 1,100 yards, 15 TDs)
  • OL Jason Heim, Jr., 6-1, 245
  • WR/DB Jansen McCurdy, Jr., 6-0, 170 (3 INTs)
  • WR Hayden Nichols, Jr., 6-2, 215 (20 catches, 401 yards, 5 TDs)
  • QB Dylan Gale (2 of 3, 67 yards, 1 TD)
  • DB Riley Lakin, Jr., 5-9, 175 (67 tackles)
  • DL Dee Sutton, Jr., 5-11, 235
  • WR Dylan Gale, Jr., 5-8, 145
  • RB Tyler Loven, Sr., 5-10, 185
  • WR Gabe Michael, Jr., 6-1, 170

Strengths: Skill positions, running game. Darion Barr, Hunter Owens and Hayden Nichols give White Oak a trio of multi-faceted offensive weapons. Barr is a two-way starter, while Owens is primed for a big year after averaging 6.7 yards per carry and a touchdown and a half per game as a junior. Nichols pulled in 20.1 yards per catch thanks to his 6-3 frame, which also serves White Oak’s state championship basketball team well. With Owens and Barr returning, the Roughnecks should again have a solid running game, something they always seem to have.

Weaknesses: Line depth, non-district schedule. White Oak will need players other than the proven Jason Heim and Dee Sutton to step up if the Roughnecks hope to contend with the jumbo-sized fronts Tatum, Jefferson, Harmony, and Troup will field in District 9-2A Division I play. New quarterback Dylan Gale would probably appreciate that, too. White Oak will find out early if it has a team that can get it back to the playoffs. The Roughnecks play 4 of 5 non-district games away from home, including a season-opening matchup against Redwater in Gilmer. White Oak closes non-district play with three consecutive trips to Class 3A rival Spring Hill, Ore City, and newly 3A Mineola, which won eight games as a 2A school last season.

2012 Outlook: Same story, different team. White Oak would be a pretty safe bet to make the playoffs in most six-team 2A districts, but 9-2A D-I may be a different story. The Roughnecks went 3-2 in league play last year and narrowly missed the postseason despite outscoring their five district opponents 211-123, an average of 17.6 points. Placing White Oak fifth in preseason in 9-2A D-I doesn’t have anything to do with the East Texas Sports Network underestimating White Oak as much as it shows how deep the district is. Like we’ve said about Jefferson, Harmony, and Troup, White Oak could finish just about anywhere between second and fifth. The Roughnecks might even be able to win the district. After all, they lost 44-42 in the 2011 season finale to Tatum, so the Roughnecks have proven they can play with the best of the district. For now, ETSN.fm sees White Oak again narrowly missing the postseason, but that could certainly change.

6.Sabine Cardinals

Coach: Mark Comfort (first season)

2011 Record: 0-10

Returning starters: 10 offensive, 10 defensive

Players to watch

  • RB Qwaylen Chumley, Sr., 6-0, 200 (700 rushing yards)
  • OG Dylan Cook, Sr., 6-0, 200
  • C Zach Parnell, Sr., 6-0, 180
  • OT Aaron Montalvo, Sr., 5-10, 215
  • TE Alvaro Castillo, Sr., 6-0, 180
  • OG Colton Brown, Sr., 6-0, 230
  • QB Collin Gray, Jr., 5-8, 130 (300 passing yards)

Strengths: Backfield, experience. Qwaylen Chumley returns after a solid junior season, while Collin Gray will get a chance to prove he’s the man under center from Day 1. The Cardinals’ two veteran backfield mates will have some fellow veterans blocking for them led by guard Dylan Cook and center Zach Parnell, two of Sabine’s five senior offensive linemen if you include tight end Alvaro Castillo.

Weaknesses: Size. Looking at each District 9-2A Division I team’s returning players, it’s obvious that Sabine will be at a size disadvantage. Those O-linemen may have gained valuable experience in 2011, but how much will it help them when huge defensive fronts from Tatum and Jefferson line up across the line of scrimmage?

2012 Outlook: First-year coach Mark Comfort -- a longtime defensive coordinator at Longview, Pine Tree and Spring Hill -- takes over a program that was winless a year ago. But on the bright side, Sabine has 10 starters back on each side of the ball, so perhaps those players can turn the tide and get the Cardinals on the right track. A playoff berth is virtually impossible in such a hotly contested district, but getting a couple of wins in the first four games of the season -- vs. Ore City, vs. Emory Rains, at Waskom, vs. Harleton -- would go a long way in showing marked improvement under a new coach.