The Lufkin Panthers may have finished 2016 with a first-round loss in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, and saw the graduation of prolific quarterback Kordell Rodgers, but hope always springs eternal.

That's because a strong collection of impact players on both sides of the ball return, making the Panthers a force once again at the Class 6A level.

Lufkin is ranked No. 3 in the ETSN.fm Preseason Class 6A/5A poll.

Rodgers, who signed with Texas State back in February, passed for more than 3,000 yards in 11 games, and a lot of that went to 1,000-yard receiver Dhailon Phillips, who also graduated.

But the cupboard certainly isn't bare on offense.

Senior slot receiver Malik Jackson, a Houston commit, leads a strong contingent of returning starters on offense. Jackson caught 52 balls for 1,017 yards and 10 touchdowns a season ago.

Also coming back are junior receiver Breylon Garcia, who is a Division I recruit that will pick up attention as the season goes along, and standout offensive lineman Hunter Hollis.

The defense is just as loaded, as junior tackle Carl Williams, a major FBS recruiting target, and senior defensive backs Jeremiah Davis (Louisiana-Lafayette commit) and Savon Fields return.

Lufkin's first three games are against East Texas competition -- Longview, Nacogdoches, and John Tyler. Then, the Panthers tackle District 12-6A, where challenges from defending state finalist The Woodlands and Beaumont West Brook await.

The Panthers, if they quality for the playoffs, are a lock for Division II. In order to avoid likely matchups with either Longview or John Tyler on the road in the first round, Lufkin needs to finish at least second in district.

ETSN.fm Preseason Class 6A/5A Poll