When the UIL decided to spit Class 5A into two divisions, it did a couple of things in relation to East Texas. One, it increased travel for the area's only three Division I teams.

But for everyone else, with the exception of Sulphur Springs, the world got smaller.

The new District 9-5A Division II is comprised of eight schools, the entirely of whom who are in East Texas.

Marshall and Whitehouse appear to be in the best shape, Jacksonville is a potential deep sleeper in Region III, and Pine Tree is coming off its first playoff appearance since 2001.

Lindale missed out on the postseason by just one game in 2017, while Hallsville, Nacogdoches, and Mount Pleasant combined for only four wins total.

Will this be a district of haves and have-nots, or will sheer chaos ensue as the regular season hits the home stretch? I'd bet big on the ladder.

District 9-5A Division II Preview

Jacksonville DB/QB/WR Deshawn McCuin. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

PLAYMAKERS

  • OL Riley Birdwell, Jr., Nacogdoches
  • WR Colton Brown, Sr., Lindale
  • WR Cameron Cantrell, Sr., Whitehouse
  • ATH Tristan Driggers, Sr., Hallsville
  • WR/RB Dorian Glinton, Sr., Mount Pleasant
  • QB JJ Green, Jr., Marshall
  • QB Dillon Heinaman, Sr., Lindale
  • DB/QB/WR Deshawn McCuin, Sr., Jacksonville
  • TE/DL Jashon Pogue, Sr., Mount Pleasant
  • DB/WR Braelyn Riden, Sr., Jacksonville
  • QB Jake Smith, Jr., Nacogdoches
  • WR JJ Sparkman, Jr., Pine Tree
  • OL Blake Trainor, Sr., Hallsville
  • DL Darius Trimble, Sr., Whitehouse
  • WR/ATH Tahj Washington, Sr., Marshall
  • ATH Keshon Williams, Sr., Pine Tree

 

TOP GAMES

  • Jacksonville at Carthage, Aug. 31
  • Carthage at Marshall, Sept. 14
  • Pine Tree at Hallsville, Sept. 28
  • Whitehouse at Marshall, Nov. 2
Marshall's (from left) Tahj Washington, De'Kendrick Bender, and Saivon Williams. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

1. Marshall Mavericks

  • Coach: Claude Mathis
  • 2017 finish: 6-5 (5A Division I bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 6 defensive

Players to watch

  • QB JJ Green, Jr., 6-4, 176
  • WR/ATH Tajh Washington, Sr., 5-11, 169
  • WR De'Kendrick Bender, Sr., 6-2, 196
  • OL Christian Hood, Sr., 6-1, 294
  • WR/ATH Saivon Williams, Jr., 6-5, 203
  • LB Brevin Randle, Sr., 6-1, 221
  • CB/S Champ Mathis, Sr., 5-9, 189
  • DE Rashard Jackson, Sr., 6-2, 254
Marshall QB JJ Green. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Offense: There is certainly no shortage of talent on the offensive side of the ball for Marshall, which returns seven starters, five of whom are Division I recruits. It all starts with dual-threat quarterback JJ Green, who has early FBS offers from Ole Miss, Nebraska, and Texas State, and put up almost 2,300 yards of offense and accounted for 24 touchdowns as a sophomore. Three of the receivers -- seniors Tahj Washington and De'Kendrick Bender and junior Savion Williams -- have D-I talent as well. And offensive lineman Christian Hood anchors the Mavs up front. If Marshall can add a solid running game to the mix, it has the potential to be one of the most explosive offenses in East Texas.

Marshall LB Brevin Randle. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Marshall graduated defensive end and Baylor signee Marje Smith along with four others starters on defense. But the Mavs could be a better overall unit in 2018 with the return of defensive end Rashard Jackson, linebacker Brevin Randle, and defensive back Champ Mathis. Aside from finding a consistent running game on offense, the area most in need of improvement is the defense, which allowed an average of 23 points per game in 2017.

2018 outlook: The start to the 2017 season, the first under head coach Claude Mathis, was rocky to say the least. Marshall lost its first four games of the year, leaving many to wonder what was in store for district. The Mavs got the things turned around in a hurry, cruising to an unbeaten district championship. But that's where the party ended, as Marshall was edged by Mesquite Poteet in the opening round of the playoffs. Mathis is hoping that his experienced returning starters can do more than just win a district title in his second year in charge. The pieces, especially on offense, are in place for a potential run in Region III. But there will be challenges from the likes of A&M Consolidated, Manvel, Fort Bend Marshall, Port Neches-Groves, and Crosby once the playoffs begin.

Whitehouse DL Darius Trimble. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

2. Whitehouse Wildcats

  • Coach: Marcus Gold
  • 2017 finish: 6-5 (5A Division II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR Cameron Cantrell, Sr., 6-1, 175
  • DL Darius Trimble, Sr., 5-11, 250
  • WR/KR Kendrion Johnson, Sr., 6-3, 190
  • CB/OLB Chaez Spurlock, Sr., 5-10, 180
  • DB/WR Kendahl Fry, Sr., 5-8, 170
  • S Jermone Bowser, Jr., 5-9, 165
  • QB Flint Herrington, Sr., 6-0, 165
  • RB/DB Jaden Haskins, Sr., 5-7, 155
Whitehouse WR Cameron Cantrell. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Offense: The Wildcats weren't great on offense last season, putting up an average of just 18.9 points per game. With the return of seven starters, the Wildcats should have less trouble putting points on the board this fall. Flint Herrington, who got a few snaps behind center a year ago, should get the first shot to take over the starting quarterback spot. If he locks down the job, expect big seasons from senior receivers Cameron Cantrell (Texas Tech commit) and Kendrion Johnson. A new running back also needs to emerge if Whitehouse is turn things around on offense.

Whitehouse CB/OLB Chaez Spurlock. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The strength of Whitehouse's team last year was its defense, which limited opponents to a respectable 24 points per game. The Wildcats were especially good up front on the defensive line. Darius Trimble, one of the top players at his position in the district, returns, but Whitehouse graduated Mitchell Melrose (Abilene Christian) and Trevor Lawrence. So there will need to be others step up this season. Holes will need to be filled at linebacker, but the secondary should be solid with Chaez Spurlock, Kendahl Fry, and Jermone Bowser leading the way.

2018 outlook: Whitehouse went young with its hire of Marcus Gold as its next head coach. Gold is just in his seventh year of coaching, and it will be only his third leading a program, having spent the previous two seasons as head coach at Irving High School. He'll inherit one of the most stable 5A programs in East Texas over the last decade. Since 2005, Whitehouse is 85-52 and has reached the playoffs in 10 of the past 12 seasons. With half of last year's starters coming back, the Wildcats should have no trouble getting back to the postseason. However, Whitehouse will be shooting for its first win there since Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes' senior year of 2013.

Jacksonville OT/DE Jermichael Calhoun. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

3. Jacksonville Indians

  • Coach: Wayne Coleman
  • 2017 finish: 6-5 (5A Division II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 5 defensive

Players to watch

  • DB/QB/WR Deshawn McCuin, Sr., 6-0, 170
  • DB/WR Braelyn Riden, Sr., 5-11, 170
  • RB/LB TJ Ratliffe, Sr., 5-10, 185
  • OT/DE Jermichael Calhoun, Sr., 6-3, 245
  • QB Tristen Shewmake, Jr., 5-11, 185
  • WR/DB Chris Carpenter, Jr., 6-0, 165
  • DL Byrondrick Davis, Sr.
  • DE Ke'lyn Miles, Sr., 6-3, 218
Jacksonville RB/OLB TJ Ratliffe. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Offense: The Indians like the options they have on offense heading into the 2018 season. For starters, running back TJ Ratliffe is back after posting almost 600 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017. But it's the potential newcomers on offense that has everyone in Jacksonville excited. Seniors Deshawn McCuin and Braelyn Riden played almost exclusively on defense a season ago, and both are Division I talents in the secondary, being committed to TCU and Texas Southern, respectively. Both players are supremely athletic and will give the Indians' offense an added dimension of explosiveness in 2018. Junior quarterback Tristen Shewmake has had a great offseason, and should transition into the starting spot smoothly.

Jacksonville DB/QB/WR Deshawn McCuin. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Jacksonville will need to improve on the defensive side of the ball after it allowed an average of a little more than 27 points per game last season. McCuin and Riden will make the Indians' secondary a strength, but Jacksonville needs to show major improvement on the D-line and at linebacker to turn things around. Byrondrick Davis, Ke'lyn Miles, and Jermichael Calhoun will be key to Jacksonville's defensive line play.

2018 outlook: It's been a slow climb back to respectability for a proud Jacksonville program that was among the best in East Texas in the 1990's and early 2000's. The Indians suffered through five consecutive losing seasons from 2011-15, including an 0-10 campaign in 2013. Head coach Wayne Coleman, who is entering his third year in charge of the Indians' program, has produced back-to-back bi-district finalists. But could this be the year Jacksonville gets its first win in the playoffs since 2004? Time will tell, but that will depend on how it fares in district. The Indians could have a decent shot of picking up a win in bi-district if they can avoid a potential matchup with 10-5A Division II favorite A&M Consolidated, which means Jacksonville needs to stay away from finishing fourth in district.

Pine Tree's Keshon Williams (left) and JJ Sparkman. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

4. Pine Tree Pirates

  • Coach: Kerry Lane
  • 2017 finish: 3-8 (5A Division II bi-district finalist)
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • ATH Keshon Williams, Sr., 6-4, 235
  • WR JJ Sparkman, Jr., 6-5, 205
  • WR/DB Da'Von Coleman, Sr., 5-10, 175
  • DL Keith Burkes, Sr., 5-11, 260
  • RB/CB Sylvandan Stewart, Sr., 5-9, 170
  • RB Jayden Smith, Soph., 5-6, 174
  • OL Alex Thornburg, Sr., 6-2, 290
  • RB/SS Gabe Nelson, Sr., 5-9, 155
Pine Tree WR/DB Da'Von Coleman. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Offense: The Pirates need to find a quarterback because they are set pretty much everywhere on offense. Receivers JJ Sparkman and Da'Von Coleman represent one of the top pass-catching duos in the district, who could be even better in 2018 if the right quarterback comes along. It will likely be a running-back-by-committee situation with Sylvandan Stewart and Jayden Smith first in line for carries between the 20's. For everything else, it's Keshon Williams, a bruising runner that rushed for 16 touchdowns on only 76 carries a season ago. The offensive line will be a strength as well with the return of seniors Alex Thornburg and Bailey Hughes.

Pine Tree DL Keith Burkes. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Pine Tree lost most of its defensive firepower to graduation, including defensive end and SMU signee Gary Wiley, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2017. The Pirates will need to replace six other starters on the defensive side of the ball. Opponents averaged more than 38 points per game on Pine Tree a year ago, so new blood might be a good thing. Defensive lineman Keith Burkes is one of the holdovers from last season, and he'll be counted on to lead the way this fall..

2018 outlook: In just his second year as head coach, Kerry Lane accomplished something at Pine Tree that hadn't been done since 2001: lead the Pirates to the playoffs. It wasn't pretty, however, as Pine Tree qualified with just three wins in the regular season. And the celebration was short-lived as North Forney eliminated the Pirates by 39 points in the first round. The three wins, which all came in district, came against Sulphur Springs, Mount Pleasant, and Hallsville. Sulphur Springs is no longer in Pine Tree's district, and aside from Marshall, Whitehouse, and Jacksonville, the fourth and final playoff spot from 9-5A looks to be wide open. The Pirates will have to stave off challenges from Mount Pleasant, Hallsville, Lindale, and Nacogdoches, which were a combined 8-32 in 2017.

Hallsville OT Blake Trainor. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

5. Hallsville Bobcats

  • Coach: Joe Drennon
  • 2017 finish: 1-9
  • Returning starters: 5 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • OL Blake Trainor, Sr., 6-8, 300
  • ATH Tristan Driggers, Sr., 6-1, 190
  • QB/ATH Semaj Boyd, Sr., 6-0, 172
  • RB/ATH Reginald Fulton III, Jr., 5-8, 170
  • DE/TE Cameron Bullock, Sr., 6-4, 225
  • RB/DB Cortland Venters, Jr., 5-9, 160
  • DE Garrett Hulen, Sr., 6-2, 220
  • OL/DL Donavan Cooper, Sr., 6-2, 252
Hallsville QB/ATH Semaj Boyd. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Offense: It wasn't a good year for the Hallsville offense in 2017, as the Bobcats averaged a little more than 16 points per game. To make matters more difficult moving forward Hallsville has less than half of its offensive starters coming back. But that's not to say the Bobcats don't have reason to be optimistic about 2018. Quarterback Semaj Boyd is a dynamic athlete, and his playmaking ability behind center will be key to Hallsville's turnaround on offense. Hallsville got an influx of talent from Highland Park as running back Reginald Fulton III transferred in after playing with the state champions a season ago. And of course, the big name on offense is tackle Blake Trainor, who has already committed to Texas A&M.

Hallsville ATH Tristan Driggers. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Defense: Hallsville allowed almost 30 points per game a season ago, so there is work to be done on the defensive side of the ball. But with only four starters returning, fixing those problems might be difficult. The defensive line is one spot where Hallsville can dominate with the return of pass-rushers Cameron Bullock and Garrett Hulen. The secondary will be anchored by Tristan Driggers, who is as physical a safety as there is in the district.

2018 outlook: Joe Drennon's first year as head coach at Hallsville was one to forget. Drennon, who had led Class 3A Mineola to a state championship in 2016, moved to Hallsville in the offseason, and the Bobcats finished 1-9, their first one-win season since 1979. Hallsville has much different expectations in 2018, and that's get back to the playoffs. The Bobcats have reached the postseason seven times since 2003, so one is left to wonder if last season was just an aberration for an otherwise stable program. Tough non-district games against Terrell and Kilgore should get Hallsville prepared for what should be a dogfight in district. The Bobcats are probably too far behind Marshall and Whitehouse, which means the other five league games will be big for the Bobcats. The good news: none of those five are true road games. They're all at home except for a game against Jacksonville at Bullard High School.

Lindale's (from left) Brennan Moore, Dillon Heinaman, and Colton Brown. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

6. Lindale Eagles

  • Coach: Chris Cochran
  • 2017 finish: 4-6
  • Returning starters: 6 offensive, 7 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR Colton Brown, Sr., 6-0, 180
  • QB Dillon Heinaman, Sr., 6-1, 230
  • OL James Sandifer, Sr., 6-2, 244
  • WR Brennan Moore, Sr., 6-0, 150
  • OL Cason Cheney, Sr., 5-8, 255
  • DB Christian Wood, Jr., 5-10, 140
  • DB Jaron Covey, Sr., 5-10, 175
  • DT Jonah Flores, Sr., 6-0, 225
Lindale WR Colton Brown. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Offense: Lindale lost leading rusher Jordan Robinson to graduation but there are enough holdovers from last season to make the Eagles' offense more dynamic in 2018. Quarterback Dillon Heinaman got some valuable experience behind center a year ago, and receiver Colton Brown returns to reprise his role as the go-to-guy in the passing game. Brennan Moore is another potential impact player at receiver, while seniors James Sandifer and Cason Cheney will anchor an experienced offensive line. Lindale averaged a little more than 21 points per game in 2017, so there is definitely room for improvement.

Lindale DT Jonah Flores. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Defense: The Eagles had their good moments on defense a season ago. Lindale held opponents to 20 points or less on four occasions in 2017, and with seven starters coming back on the defensive side of the ball, the Eagles could have one of the most improved defenses in the area this year. Senior Jonah Flores will be the leader on the defensive line, while Jaron Covey and Christian Wood will carry the weight out of the secondary. Lindale needs some playmakers to emerge at linebacker, and if it gets that, 2018 could be a very good year on "D."

2018 outlook: Lindale got off to a hot start in Chris Cochran's first season as head coach. The Eagles won four of their first six games in 2017, including the district opener against Nacogdoches. Then, it all went south. Lindale lost its final four contests, its last three by 11 points or less. Lindale kept three district opponents -- Whitehouse, Jacksonville, and Nacogdoches --  with realignment, and gained four new ones -- Marshall, Pine Tree, Hallsville, and Mount Pleasant. The big litmus test for Lindale will be its non-district schedule, which is comprised of three schools that played at the 4A Division I level in 2017. If the Eagles struggle in the early going, that won't bode well for district success. However, if Lindale manages two or three wins in the first three weeks, the playoff race in 9-5A could be something to behold.

Nacogdoches' (from left) Karlus Flanagan, Chris Campos, and Marcus Sweat. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

7. Nacogdoches Dragons

  • Coach: Bobby Reyes
  • 2017 finish: 1-9
  • Returning starters: 7 offensive, 7 defensive

Players to watch

  • OL Riley Birdwell, Jr., 6-4, 330
  • QB Jake Smith, Jr., 6-3, 185
  • DL Jaylon Flanagan, Sr., 6-2, 239
  • RB Marcus Sweat, Sr., 5-7, 160
  • LB Jonathan Pitts, Sr., 5-10, 203
  • WR Jatavious Deckard, Jr., 6-0, 195
  • DB Ke'Undre Deckard, Jr., 5-11, 180
  • DB D'Quillan Burleigh, Jr., 5-8, 184
Nacogdoches RB Marcus Sweat. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Offense: The Dragons might only have won one game last year, but that was certainly not the fault of the offense, which averaged a little more than 28 points per game. The best part about that: most of the impact players on the offensive side were underclassmen and are coming back in 2018. Quarterback Jake Smith is as promising a quarterback East Texas has in the 2020 class, and he'll once again team with Jatavious Deckard, one of the quickest receivers in the area. Senior Marcus Sweat is expected to carry the load at running back, while offensive lineman Riley Birdwell might be East Texas' best junior O-lineman.

Nacogdoches DL Jaylon Flanagan. (© Clint Buckley, ETSN.fm)

Defense: It was a tough 2017 season for the Nacogdoches defense, which surrendered an average of almost 40 points per game to opponents. The Dragons were young a year ago, and with seven players with starting experience returning, the defense is expected to be much better moving forward. Jaylon Flanagan is a disruptive force on the defensive line, linebacker Jonathan Pitts is primed for a big senior season, and the duo of Ke'Undre Deckard and D'Quillan Burleigh give Nacogdoches a solid defensive backfield.

2018 outlook: After reaching the playoffs in 2013 and 2014, Nacogdoches' first consecutive postseason appearances since 1965-66, the Dragons have fallen back significantly. The Dragons are 9-21 the last three years, and were just 1-9 last season. But there could be better days ahead. Most of Nacogdoches' prospective impact players in 2018 are underclassmen, some of whom got valuable experience as sophomores last season. The Dragons might be a year away from beating down the door of the playoffs, but once you get past Marshall and Whitehouse, there is quite a bit of parity in this district. One thing the Dragons have going for them: Nacogdoches boss Bobby Reyes (six seasons) is now the longest-tenured head coach in 9-5A.

 

8. Mount Pleasant Tigers

  • Coach: Ritchie Pinckard
  • 2017 finish: 2-8
  • Returning starters: 4 offensive, 4 defensive

Players to watch

  • WR/RB Dorian Glinton, Sr., 6-2, 185
  • TE/DL Jashon Pogue, Sr., 6-5, 240
  • RB/LB Tyke Fluellen, Jr., 6-2, 195
  • QB Josh Morris, Sr., 5-11, 190
  • OL/DL Steven Luna, Sr., 6-2, 265
  • DB/WR Jamarion Brown, Jr., 6-4, 185
  • DB/RB Shamour Hines, Sr., 5-8, 160
  • WR Anterius Beard, Jr., 6-0, 150

Offense: Mount Pleasant returns only four offensive starters, but one of them is senior Dorian Glinton, one of the district's top home run hitters. Glinton is as good a receiver and he is a runner, and he should give defenses fits again in 2018. Josh Morris also returns at quarterback, but Mount Pleasant will need several newcomers to emerge as game-changers in order to improve on last year's production. The Tigers averaged less than 17 points per game a season ago, so there is much to be done on the offensive side of the ball.

Defense: Opponents put up almost 33 points per game on Mount Pleasant in 2017, and with only four defensive starters coming back, improving on those numbers might prove to be difficult. The Tigers will need big seasons from defensive lineman Jashon Pogue, and defensive backs Jamarion Brown and Shamour Hines.

2018 outlook: Mount Pleasant has just seven wins over the last four years, and Ritchie Pinckard will be the Tigers' third head coach over that time span. Mount Pleasant has the unenviable task of turning around a losing culture while being surrounded by more established programs. Marshall, Whitehouse, Jacksonville, and Pine Tree were in the playoffs last year. And Hallsville and Lindale have serious aspirations of getting back to the postseason in 2018. It might not happen for Mount Pleasant this year, but if the Tigers can make some positive strides in the coming months, they could be a team to watch in 2019.