TYLER -- As Tyler Lee officially began is third season under head coach Darrell Piske on Monday morning, the message was pretty clear.

"Our coaching handbook says 'It's time,'" Piske said during Lee's first official practice of the new season. "And that's what we told the kids today: 'It's time.' It's the third year and it's time to get into the playoffs. We're not thinking anything else."

The Red Raiders program, which had become of the state's most consistent for more than a decade, has not reached the playoffs in the last three seasons. Lee's record the last four years is just 8-33, and its last winning season came in 2008.

But after even after a couple hours, the atmosphere among the players and coaches was noticeably different than it had been in recent years.

"It's intense," said Lee junior quarterback Zach Hall. "If you walk through drills, you've got to do up-downs. Making the playoffs is a must this year, it's not an option for us."

A big reason for the optimism is a 2016 class, which includes Hall and running back Tavon Wesley, who both had impressive debut seasons on the varsity as sophomores. Hall passed for 1,129 yards and nine touchdowns, while rushing for a team-best 739 yards and eight scores.

Piske feels like an entire offseason as Lee's starting quarterback will yield significant improvement this fall.

Tyler Lee RB Tavon Wesley. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

"The biggest thing is Zach played quarterback during 7-on-7 for us this year," Piske said. "Last year he hadn't won the job coming out of the spring. Him getting the reps and the timing with the receivers, and the kids see him as our leader. I think it's going to be good for us."

Lee qualified for the state 7-on-7 tournament last month in College Station.

"It helped a lot with timing and learning the coverages of the defense -- cover 2, cover 3 or whatever they're going to be in," Hall said of his performance over the summer. "I learned the offense, and the offense is way better this year. I'm more experienced so I know where my receivers are going to be. Last year we had trouble with that."

Piske said he's been emphasizing the importance of becoming a leader to Hall.

"He's a great athlete," Piske said. "The biggest thing he's got to understand is he's our leader and he's got to be our leader at all times. It's not just when he's in the football game, but his actions off the field as he trains and shows up."

Wesley (6-1, 190) finished 2013 with 718 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging nearly seven yards per carry.

"Tavon's really good; he's physical, runs well and has good speed," Piske said. "Developing depth there is what we're working on, but as far as Tavon goes, I couldn't ask for a better No. 1. He had a good year last year and then he hurt that shoulder, so keeping him healthy and having him continue to improve … he's going to make a lot of progress."

But the real question going into the 2014 season doesn't concern the offense. It's a defense that struggled to prevent the big play and allowed opponents to score 39.1 points per game on average.

"We've got to pick it up," Piske said. "Our secondary last year turned every team we played into a passing team, so they know they have to challenge this year. Through the spring they looked good, and they've looked pretty good so far today."

Lee, East Texas' only Class 6A school, will scrimmage Marshall at Rose Stadium in Tyler on Aug. 22, before opening the season at home Aug. 30 against Keller Fossil Ridge.

"Everybody has a great attitude and everybody's getting better," Hall said. "We're getting explosive. The offseason helped a lot; everybody's bigger, stronger and faster."

Tyler Lee goes through 7-on-7 drills during Monday morning's practice. (ETSN.fm)