With two quality playoff teams from last season and a couple more squads moving down from Class 2A, the new District 9-A Division I promises to be one of East Texas' deepest leagues.

Carlisle didn't lose last season until mid-November, while Big Sandy lasted that long in a solid nine-win campaign. Then there's Joaquin and Harleton, teams that went a combined 9-11 playing 2A ball a year ago.

Throw in Beckville as another Class A playoff participant, and 9-A D-I should keep fans captivated all season.

1.Carlisle Indians

Coach: Rocky Baker (eighth season, 56-22)

2011 Record: 11-1 (1A Division I Region III semifinalist; lost 49-22 to Lovelady)

Returning starters: 4 offensive (spread, double wing), 4 defensive (split).

Players to watch

  • QB/S Gunner Baker, Sr., 6-3, 185 (58 of 109, 1,407 yards, 14 TDs, 5 INTs; 163 carries, 1,866 yards, 24 TDs; 42 tackles)
  • WR/DB Jared Poncho, Sr., 6-0, 175 (55 carries, 732 yards, 11 TDs; 25 catches, 647 yards, 7 TDs; 8 INTs)
  • RB/LB Gustavo Martinez, Jr., 5-8, 180 (52 carries, 551 yards, 15 TDs; 106 tackles)
  • WR Caleb Colley, Jr., 5-8, 155
  • FB Tiburcio Garcia, Soph., 5-8, 200 (20 carries, 266 yards, 4 TDs; 35 tackles)
  • LB Clay Allphin, Sr., 5-11, 195 (53 tackles)
  • DE Dylan Sanders, Sr., 6-3, 185 (39 tackles)
  • WR/CB Shadow Sanders, Sr., 5-11, 150 (1 rushing TD; 7 catches, 111 yards, 1 TD)
  • DE Adan Sanchez, Sr., 6-0, 190 (50 tackles)
  • OL Sam Clark, Jr., 6-1, 295
  • OL Adrian Gallegos, Soph., 5-8, 205
  • CB Bryce McGowan, Soph., 5-8, 140
  • S Geraldo Deleon, Sr., 5-9, 160 (17 punts, 36.2 average, 58 long)
  • CB Pedro Vasquez, Sr., 6-1, 170
  • CB Rigo Hernandez, Jr., 5-7, 145

Strengths: Skill positions, back seven. Gunner Baker is poised to cap a stellar high school career with what could be his best season yet running the Indians’ offense. Baker has amassed huge numbers during his sophomore and junior seasons: 2,371 passing yards, 21 passing TDs, 3,069 rushing yards and 37 rushing scores. He’ll have plenty of options to get the ball to when he doesn’t simply take the ball himself, which he did for an average of 11.4 yards per carry last season. Jared Poncho averaged an absurd 17.2 yards per touch and scored 18 offensive touchdowns during a breakout junior season. Tiburcio Garcia averaged more than 13 yards per rush in limited action as a freshman and could become a go-to back for the Tribe, along with Gustavo Martinez, who joins Clay Allphin to form the linebacker backbone of the Carlisle defense. That duo will have capable defensive backs Poncho and Shadow Sanders playing behind them. Baker will also probably see his share of playing time at safety, which he played in 2011. And although the bulk of Carlisle’s defensive experience comes in the back seven, the defensive end duo of Adan Sanchez and Dylan Sanders gives the Tribe a solid start to what could be a quality defensive front.

Weaknesses: Experience. This is a little misleading because the Indians have a lot of players back who gained valuable playing experience in 2011, especially at the positions that will be handling the ball the most. But only four starters return on each side of the ball, so a lot of players will have to grow accustomed to playing larger roles if Carlisle is to repeat the 11-win performance it assembled a year ago.

2012 Outlook: Carlisle had one of its best seasons in school history a year ago and with Baker and Poncho leading the offense, the Indians could have more fireworks in store in 2012. Carlisle enters the season as the District 9-A Division I favorite and should pile up points a season after averaging 49.2 per game. Often overlooked because of that offensive prowess was a defense that limited opponents to a jaw-dropping 4.9 points per game during the regular season. Much of that defense is gone, so if Carlisle can plug the holes created by graduation, the Indians should be playing in mid-to-late November for the second season in a row and third time in coach Rocky Baker’s eight-year tenure.

2.Big Sandy Wildcats

Coach: Larry Minter (fourth season, 22-15)

2011 Record: 9-4 (1A Division I Region III semifinalist; lost 37-6 to Garrison)

Returning starters: 6 offensive (shotgun wing), 7 defensive (4-3).

Players to watch

  • WR Joshua Jackson, Sr., 5-10, 170 (126 carries, 1,250 yards, 17 TDs)
  • OL John Howe, Sr., 6-0, 215 (valedictorian)
  • FS Taurus Keppard, Sr., 6-0, 190 (3 of 5, 96 yards; 114 tackles, 11 INTs)
  • LB Dillon Branson, Sr., 6-0, 195 (118 tackles)
  • LB Zay Gordon, Sr., 6-0, 205 (96 tackles)
  • OL Boston Beason, Jr., 6-2, 260
  • ATH Travis Willoughby, Jr., 6-0, 180
  • RB Gary Elder, Sr., 5-7, 180
  • OT Sean Combs, Jr., 6-4, 220
  • RB Dirrell Hodge, Fr., 5-10, 175
  • RB Barry Moore, Soph., 5-7, 175
  • LB Jaloni Williams, Soph., 6-1, 180
  • DL Jacoby Ference, Sr., 5-10, 235
  • CB Jacob Owens, Sr., 5-9, 150
  • LB Rowdie Mullins, Sr., 6-0, 190
  • LB Caleb Smith, Soph., 5-11, 170
  • DL Charles Brooks, Sr., 5-10, 265

Strengths: Running game, linebackers. A few experienced offensive linemen, including John Howe and Boston Beason, are back to see if they can lead Joshua Jackson to an even bigger rushing campaign than his stellar 2011 season. Taurus Keppard is back after his huge junior year in the secondary and will probably figure into the offense somehow, whether it’s as the new quarterback, taking handoffs or catching passes. Dillon Branson and Zay Gordon are back to form the backbone of Big Sandy’s defense, which returns seven starters from a unit that held opponents to a respectable 20.1 points per game during the regular season. Their experience and playmaking ability combined with newcomers to the linebacker positions should compensate for the graduation of George Bauman, who had 13 sacks and 11 forced fumbles in 2011.

Weaknesses: Quarterback, defensive line. The QB spot and front four may not be as much weaknesses as they are uncertainties. James Ellis won’t be easy to replace under center after he accounted for 2,990 total yards and 32 total touchdowns running the Wildcats’ offense. Big Sandy had two hosses up front last season -- Anthony Strickland (6-3, 240) and Michael Green (6-1, 270) -- and while Jacoby Ference and Charles Brooks give the Wildcats some girth, replacing one of the best D-line duos in 1A football won’t be an easy task. After all, Strickland and Green’s ability to command the offense’s attention and occupy blockers helped free up Branson and Gordon to accumulate more than 200 tackles from their linebacker spots.

2012 Outlook: Big Sandy appears to be Carlisle’s top competitor in the race for the District 9-A Division I championship, although the Indians topped the Wildcats 43-6 in 2011 for a league crown. Big Sandy has more starters back than Carlisle, but the lack of a proven quarterback hurts Big Sandy’s image when forecasting during the preseason. Nevertheless, the Wildcats will be able to run the ball and should be able to defend the run fairly well with the linebackers available to fourth-year coach Larry Minter, who has guided Big Sandy to deep playoff runs each of the past two seasons. That experience combined with the talent the Wildcats have returning should mean a playoff berth at the least, and potentially another multi-game postseason run.

3.Joaquin Rams

Coach: Wayne Gandy (11th season, 73-41)

2011 Record: 5-5

Returning starters: 8 offensive (double wing), 7 defensive (4-4 stack).

Players to watch

  • QB Will Vaughn, Sr., 6-3, 206
  • CB Wyatt Hairgrove, Sr., 5-10, 160
  • LB Lance Lawson, Jr., 6-2, 210
  • C Zach Wildes, Sr., 5-10, 248
  • FB Tra Rogers, 5-11, 205
  • TE Jordan Powdrill, Sr., 6-0, 180
  • OG Za Cooper, Jr., 5-11, 175
  • OG Adam Mason, Soph., 5-9, 210
  • CB Nick Cheatwood, Sr., 5-10, 171
  • FS Gage Belrose, Jr., 6-2, 180
  • DL Keith Ferguson, Jr., 5-11, 205
  • DL Cody Greer, Sr., 5-9, 180
  • DL Rhett Golden, Jr., 5-8, 253

Strengths: Running game, experience. The one thing you can always depend on when it comes to the Joaquin Rams is an effective running game. Will Vaughn and Tra Rogers give the Rams two big-bodied options in their almost run-exclusive offense, which returns eight starters after averaging 37.6 points per game in 2011, when they played a Class 2A schedule and finished above .500 in district. That impressive average included four games of at least 52 points. Including defense, Joaquin has 15 starters back from a team that went 5-5, 3-2 playing at the 2A level, so the experience is there to take advantage of the drop back to Class A, which saw Joaquin reach the regional finals in 2009.

Weaknesses: Defense. With seven starters back, Joaquin has a good chance to improve drastically on its 2011 performance. The Rams don’t have much of a choice if they want to be return to the playoffs in their return to 1A. Joaquin allowed a hefty 37.4 points per game a year ago, yielding 43 or more points six times. The Rams’ went 1-5 in those contests, the only win coming in a 58-56 shootout against Frankston.

2012 Outlook: While Joaquin is certainly happy to return to 1A, it’s not like the Rams have been placed in an easy district. Carlisle and Big Sandy went a combined 20-5 in 2011, and like Joaquin, Harleton is dropping from 2A. Still, Joaquin appears to have the veterans and the system -- meaning, longtime coach Wayne Gandy’s run-heavy offense -- to take advantage of the drop in classification. The Rams enter the season as a likely playoff team, although cracking the top two of the district standings is probably not in the cards. How much the defense improves will have a huge impact on whether Joaquin lives up to or exceeds expectations, or misses the postseason for the third year in a row.

4.Harleton Wildcats

Coach: Jackie Lloyd (interim)

2011 Record: 4-6

Returning starters: 6 offensive (multiple I), 5 defensive (multiple).

Players to watch

  • OG Thomas Reynolds, Sr., 6-0, 230
  • C Clay Hooten, Sr., 6-0, 200
  • OT Bob Krudewig, Sr.
  • WR Brooks Lloyd, Sr., 5-8, 160
  • LB Louis Wilson, Sr., 5-8, 185
  • CB Steven Crump, Sr., 5-8, 155
  • WR Phoenix Young, Sr., 6-1, 160
  • RB Campbell Coleman, Jr., 5-7, 165
  • FB Jack Underwood, Soph., 5-10, 170
  • OT Zach Thompson, Jr., 6-2, 250
  • OT Jacob Evans, Jr., 5-10, 230
  • OG Lane Hopkins, Jr., 5-11, 170
  • QB Taylor Henson, Jr., 5-11, 150
  • QB Matt Bullock, Jr., 5-11, 165
  • OG Donald Maxey, Jr., 5-8, 200
  • OLB Tucker Horan, Sr., 5-7, 150
  • LB Tim Perry, Soph., 5-10, 160
  • LB Gage Knox, Jr., 5-11. 180
  • LB Casey Hilliard, Jr., 5-9, 170
  • FS Austin Odell, Soph., 5-9, 150

Strengths: Offensive line, redistricting. Harleton boasts a veteran offensive line with good size that should help the Wildcats score more points in 2012, which marks Harleton’s return to Class A. Harleton played 27 games during the 2004-05 seasons, the last time the Wildcats were a 1A program. Being in a district with Carlisle, Big Sandy and another 2A-to-1A team, Joaquin, makes the playoff race jammed, but Harleton would probably rather be in that position than fighting with its old district foes (Hughes Springs, Elysian Fields, etc.). In fact, Harleton beat Big Sandy 14-0 in the second week of last season, so the Wildcats have proven they can beat at least one team picked ahead of them in the District 9-A Division I race.

Weaknesses: Firepower, coaching change. Harleton had a good scoring defense a year ago, limiting opponents to 18.7 points per game. That was even more impressive considering how much the Wildcats’ defense was on the field thanks to an offense that averaged only 13.8 points per game. That offense eclipsed the 20-point plateau only three times. The blocking should be there, so the Wildcats have to hope that their skill positions will develop and give them more production than a year ago. But a July coaching change is never easy, especially when you’re losing Dennis Alexander (Troup) -- the fourth-winningest coach in Texas high school football history.

2012 Outlook: Harleton will have the advantage of being one of the big boys in enrollment, but the Wildcats make their return to 1A in a tough district. Harleton’s playoff chances hinge on the offense’s development, as well as the defense’s ability to maintain its high level of play from the 2011 season with only five returning starters. Harleton always had the ability to turn the preseason predictions on their heads when Alexander was coaching. He led the Wildcats to an 80-35 record in 10 seasons. But for now, Harleton’s ninth playoff berth in 10 seasons looks in peril.

5.Beckville Bearcats

Coach: Eric Robinson (first season)

2011 Record: 3-8 (1A Division II Region III area finalist; lost 53-8 to Hubbard)

Returning starters: 7 offensive (pro-style), 7 defensive (4-3).

Players to watch

  • WR/DB Colten Allen, Sr., 6-1, 185 (40 catches, 720 yards, 9 TDs)
  • WR/DB Dalton Etheredge, Sr, 5-7, 160 (4 INTs)
  • OL Jesse Sipes, Sr., 6-2, 260
  • OL Hasten Adams, Jr., 6-3, 255
  • QB Jaylon Allison, Sr., 5-10, 190
  • DL James Jinks, Sr., 6-0, 285 (65 tackles, 10 for loss)
  • DB Joey Wharmby, Jr., 5-11, 170
  • OL Victor Angeles, Jr., 5-8, 260
  • TE Jake Tondreau, Soph., 6-3, 195

Strengths: Experience, size, skill positions. First-year coach Eric Robinson, who comes to Beckville with three state title rings to his credit after being an assistant at Carthage, welcomes 14 returning starters to a team that didn’t have a good win-loss record, but did enough to reach the second round of the playoffs. Colton Allen and Dalton Etheredge give new starting quarterback Jaylon Allison two solid targets in the passing game. Etheredge and James Jinks will be tough customers on the defensive side of the ball for a unit with seven returning starters.

 

Weaknesses: Defense. The good thing for Beckville is the Bearcats have experienced players back on defense, but they must help the unit improve on the 37.1 points per game it allowed a season ago. Beckville yielded 50 or more points five times in 2011, although three of those came against a pair of Class 2A opponents and eventual Division II state champion Tenaha. Robinson should immediately help the Bearcats on that side of the ball having previously served as Carthage’s defensive coordinator.

2012 Outlook: Beckville’s quest to snag a playoff berth as a preseason sleeper hinges on Allison’s ability to guide the offense and the defense’s overall improvement, which is a safe bet considering Robinson’s background as a former defensive coordinator. The Bearcats have the advantage of playing three of their five District 9-A Division I contests at home, including games against Timpson and Harleton. If Beckville can win two of those and perhaps steal a game at Joaquin, the Bearcats may find themselves back in the playoffs. But for now, the odds are stacked against Beckville making its third consecutive playoff appearance.

6.Timpson Bears

Coach: James Conway (first season; 131-78-4 overall)

2011 Record: 1-9

Returning starters: 6 offensive (multiple), 6 defensive (multiple).

Players to watch

  • QB Lorenzo Young, Sr., 5-10, 175
  • RB/LB Colton McSwain, Jr., 5-10, 185
  • OT Dimric Caraway, Jr., 6-0, 220
  • ATH Joseph Parker, Soph., 5-9, 185
  • LB Tyler Jackson, Sr., 5-8, 165
  • C Ruston Bush, Jr., 6-0, 235
  • WR/DB Dekendrick Cooper, Sr., 5-7, 160
  • QB Ryan Battles, Sr., 5-8, 150
  • WR Michael Franks, Sr., 6-0, 170
  • S Jay Bussey, Sr., 6-1, 180
  • LB Tanner Murdock, Jr., 5-10, 165

Strengths: Back seven. First-year coach James Conway will have veterans in the linebacker corps and secondary to rebuild the Bears’ defense, which allowed 37.8 points per game in 2011. Colton McSwain could prove a playmaker on both sides of the ball. The same can be said for Joseph Parker.

Weaknesses: Line play. Everything starts in the trenches. Timpson struggled to score and stop opponents from scoring last season, so it will be interesting to see if the new staff can establish a higher level of play up front on both sides of the ball to turn the tide and get the Bears rolling in the right direction.

2012 Outlook: The big question entering the 2012 season is can Timpson see significant improvements on both sides of the ball? Perhaps not enough to secure a playoff berth, but to get going in the right direction to aim for that in the next season or two? The offense averaged fewer than 15 points per game, so that made the defense’s struggles even more apparent since the unit was on the field more than it had to be. But there are winnable games on the schedule for the Bears, starting with the season opener against Tyler All Saints. If Timpson could get a couple of wins under its belt during the non-district schedule, perhaps the Bears could gain the confidence they need to become a District 9-A Division I sleeper. That’s probably still at least a season away, but Conway and company could lay the groundwork for future success with modest improvement in 2012.