GLADEWATER -- Thursday would have been a good day to drop out of the Bears' football program if someone was in it just for the letter jacket.

The UIL permitted teams that began fall camp Monday to begin practicing in pads Friday. Gladewater wasted no time in its quest to overpower classic state championship contenders this season.

"It was good to shift gears and get them into pads," head coach John Berry said. "We want to establish ourselves as a physical football team. It's what we do."

Running back James Reese rushed for more than 1,500 yards last season and has returned for his senior season. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Before the Bears migrated to the big stage at Jack V. Murphy Stadium for organized practice, they went through the Oklahoma drill on their old-school grass practice field.

The procedure consists of laying out blocking bags to create a narrow lane. A ball carrier and a potential tackler line up on the opposite side of the lane and each player is given a lineman or a set of two blockers to work on their behalf. The end result is a chain of collisions as the carrier attempts to reach the end of the lane still on his feet.

It's not a regular thing in Gladewater -- many teams open their first padded practice with the drill and shelve the drill for a year -- but it certainly sent a message to the players about what Bears football is and gave the practice additional life.

Players pushed each other around until the session closed about two hours later.

"Other than the first part of it, which is not an every day thing, we do our one-on-one stuff in the front end of the practice," Berry said. "It's an opportunity for kids to learn how to win a collision. After that, we go through our inside run drills and outside runs and passes and then team drills. It's full speed except to the ground."

As you would expect from a team returning 18 starters, Gladewater certainly has some athleticism. James Reese ran for more than 1,500 yards last season and senior quarterback Nick Canaguier manages the offense like a pro.

The depth in the offensive backfield is very deep. Coaches also are optimistic about what returns on defense.

Junior defensive end Quanterius Turner is someone to watch closely this season. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

But outsiders know about this team for its trench play.

Defensive tackle Daylon Mack, a Texas A&M verbal commitment, is widely considered the best player at his position in the state and is right at the top nationally. Quanterius Turner, a junior defensive end, is another player that could have colleges lining up at his door by season's end.

The offensive line is big and has been sharpened by its encounters with the defensive front. Its work speaks for itself in the skill players' numbers.

This is what a regional championship contender should look like. The Bears played for a state semifinal berth last year despite going 4-6 through Game 10 in a district consisting partially of Gilmer, Chapel Hill and Class 3A Division I state runner-up Kilgore.

All of Gladewater's district losses came against teams that went at least three rounds deep. Each squad was eliminated by an eventual state champion, as were the Bears.

The team now sits in District 6-4A Division II with Atlanta, Center, Spring Hill, Pleasant Grove and a Tatum program that has moved up from the old Class 2A.

"It is not like it has been in the past," Mack said. "But we feel like we can win it and we would have felt good about our odds in that old district, too. We feel like Tatum and Atlanta are going to be real hard opponents, but we feel like we'll be really good this year."

The Bears defeated Atlanta in the regular season last year by 12 points. A rematch in the playoffs went down to the wire with Gladewater winning, 34-33.

There are definitely challenges outside of the district.

Gilmer, a state favorite, and Canton are in the adjacent district as is a good Melissa program. Furthermore, a district opponent could swing back into Gladewater's path midway through the bracket. Fairfield, meanwhile, played for the Class 3A Division II crown last year and has a handful of returning starters on the defensive side.

Gladewater is prepping for all of it with a brutal non-conference schedule.

Daingerfield, Pittsburg, Carthage and Kilgore make up the in-state lineup. The Bears will venture to Shreveport, La., to take on Lafayette (La.) St. Thomas Moore on Sept. 12.

"Our pre-district should prepare us for anybody," Berry said with a nervous laugh. "We catch Daingerfield right off the bat. Pittsburg, I don't know if they're under anybody's radar, certainly not ours, their whole team is coming back from the second round of the playoffs. They'll be second year into Coach (Dickey) Meeks' plan.

"Then we see St. Thomas Moore which is a lot bigger school out of Lafayette. They're a dominant team out of Louisiana. Then Carthage and Kilgore who were the two finalists in 3A Division I."

There are quite a few reasons to push the team early.

The run begins in 20 days.

"It felt good today," Mack said. "It always feels good putting the pads on for the first time and being able to pop a little bit."

Daylon Mack at ETSN.fm's 2014 photo day shoot. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)