2015 Football Preview: Loaded District 6-4A Division II Not Short On Intrigue
Welcome to arguably East Texas' most competitive league in 4A Division II: District 6. Last season, the district featured three programs that each advanced to at least the third round of the playoffs.
And once again, Gladewater, Atlanta, and Tatum represent the district's hierarchy, but there's plenty of intrigue elsewhere.
Center and Spring Hill made impressive head coaching hires in the offseason, and Pleasant Grove will attempt to duplicate its surprising success from 2014.
District 6-4A Division II Preview
- RB/LB Darnell McKnight, Jr., Gladewater
- DL Quanterius Turner, Sr., Gladewater
- ATH Jeremy Smith, Sr., Atlanta
- DL Keyuntea Kinney, Sr., Atlanta
- QB J.D. Taylor, Sr., Tatum
- TE/DL Shay Rodgers, Jr., Tatum
- WR Octavius Evans, Jr., Center
- QB Kyle Parks, Jr., Center
- QB Jacob Smith, Sr., Pleasant Grove
- RB Devuntay Walker, Jr., Pleasant Grove
- QB Garrett Self, Sr., Spring Hill
- LB Jantzen Lee, Sr., Spring Hill
- Tatum at Gilmer, Sept. 11
- Gladewater vs. Bossier City Parkway (at Shreveport), Sept. 12
- Gladewater at Carthage, Sept. 18
- Atlanta at Liberty-Eylau, Sept. 25
- Atlanta at Tatum, Oct. 30
- Pleasant Grove at Center, Oct. 30
1. Gladewater Bears
- Coach: John Berry
- 2014 finish: 11-2 (4A Division II regional semifinalist)
- Returning starters: 5 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
- RB/LB Darnell McKnight, Jr., 5-10, 220
- DL Quanterius Turner, Sr., 6-4, 275
- RB Justice Centers, Sr., 6-0, 215
- DB Austin Hawley, Jr., 6-1, 195
- RB/LB Marcello Jackson, Sr., 6-0, 190
- WR Caleb Williams, Sr., 5-11, 160
- LB Austin Blanco, Sr., 5-11, 220
- WR Cameron Callaway, Jr.
Offense: Gladewater's offense was among East Texas' very best in 2014, averaging more than 43 points per game. And while the Bears should have plenty of depth at the skill positions, replacements at quarterback and along the offensive line must be addressed if Gladewater hopes to have the same level of success it did a season ago. Despite losing leading rusher James Reese to graduation, the Bears are loaded with backfield options in the running game. Senior Justice Centers, junior Darnell McKnight, and senior Marcello Jackson are each capable of taking games over offensively. The passing game is not a huge part of Gladewater's offensive attack, but whoever ultimately lands the starting quarterback job will have a couple of premium weapons on the outside with speed-burners Caleb Williams and Cameron Callaway. The big question on the offensive side of the ball will be how quickly the young O-line comes together.
Defense: The Bears took a massive graduation hit with the loss of three-year starting defensive tackle Daylon Mack, one of the best defenders East Texas has seen in more than decade who took his supreme talents to Texas A&M. And with just four returning starters back on the defensive side, there could be a few growing pains early for Gladewater. There are, however, a handful of solid impact defenders coming back to a unit that yielded a respectable average of 20 points per game in 2014. Senior defensive lineman Quanterius Turner delivered in a big way as a junior, and he'll be asked to pick up some of the slack created by Mack's absence. McKnight and Jackson, since they won't be every-down backs on offense, will spent significant time at linebacker, joining senior mainstay Austin Blanco. Gladewater suffered some key losses in the secondary over the offseason, but keep an eye on junior Austin Hawley, a big cornerback who shined in single-coverage situations a season ago.
2015 outlook: Despite losing a once-in-a-generation talent like Mack, who was also a vital part of the Bears' offensive attack as a lead blocker or short-yardage ball carrier, expectations remain high at Gladewater, which has gone at least three rounds deep in the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons. Nine returning starters don't sound like a lot, but the players that are coming back are some of the best at their positions in all of East Texas. And don't think that just because the Bears have revived their program that the chip on their shoulder is gone. Gladewater let a golden opportunity to upset eventual state champion and longtime nemesis Gilmer slip away in the final seconds of their epic regional semifinal showdown at Longview's Lobo Stadium last Thanksgiving weekend. But before the Bears can get to the playoffs, a challenging schedule that features some of East Texas' heaviest hitters awaits.
2. Atlanta Rabbits
- Coach: Matt McClure
- 2014 finish: 12-2 (4A Division II state quarterfinalist)
- Returning starters: 4 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
- ATH Jeremy Smith, Sr., 5-11, 160
- DL Keyuntea Kinney, Sr., 6-0, 230
- DL Tristan Allen, Jr., 6-3, 205
- RB Tyrell Phillips, Sr., 5-8, 175
- WR D'Corey Larry, Sr., 5-11, 170
- OL Tanner Duke, Sr., 6-1, 270
- DB Layton Henson, Jr.
- HB Cade Coulter, Sr., 5-11, 170
Offense: Atlanta put together one of the most explosive offenses in the area a season ago, averaging more than 43 points per game, and doing it against some of the best teams East Texas had to offer. It could be a challenge, however, for the Rabbits to duplicate 2014's showing with only four starters back. The three biggest graduation casualties were quarterback Chase Musgrove, who put up almost 4,000 total yards of offense and accounted for 55 touchdowns, 1,000-yard rusher Dequan Allen, and big-play receiver Eddrick King. The Rabbits' offensive line also suffered heavy losses, which means the going could get rough at the outset. Fortunately for fifth-year head coach Matt McClure, there are a couple of standout holdovers from last year's group. Jeremy Smith did a little bit of everything on the offensive side of the ball for Atlanta in 2014, and his speed makes him a threat to score on just about every touch. Running back Tyrell Phillips, a backup to Allen who saw significant playing time last year, also returns.
Defense: Atlanta's defense was not as consistent as its offense last season, but then again, it didn't really have to be. This year may be a different story with eight defenders with starting experience returning to the fold. With so much inexperience on the offensive side of the ball in 2015, the Rabbits will need to lean on their defense, particularly early in the season. The strength of Atlanta's defense appears to be its line play, which will be anchored by senior Keyuntea Kinney and junior Tristan Allen, who both specialize in rushing the passer. The Rabbits also have solid contributors at both linebacker and in the secondary, which should help keep Atlanta competitive until the offense can find its footing.
2015 outlook: Atlanta is coming off its best season since the Rabbits captured the state championship in 2003. And all signs point to another highly productive campaign, especially if the offense comes around. Atlanta used a 5-0 non-district record to jump-start its run to the state quarterfinals, which was impressive, considering the Rabbits' murder's row of opponents. It may be asking a lot for Atlanta to sweep its non-district foes -- New Boston, Henderson, Daingerfield, Pittsburg, and Liberty-Eylau, again, but if nothing else, the competition should easily prepare the Rabbits for a tough district slate that features the likes of reigning league champ Gladewater, perennial power Tatum, a program on the rise in Pleasant Grove, along with Center and Spring Hill, which each made significant head coaching hires in the offseason.
3. Tatum Eagles
- Coach: Andy Evans
- 2014 finish: 7-6 (4A Division II regional semifinalist)
- Returning starters: 3 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- QB J.D. Taylor, Sr., 6-2, 180
- TE/DL Shay Rodgers, Jr., 6-4, 240
- LB Da'Calen Hicks, Sr., 6-0, 190
- RB Denarius Earl, Sr., 5-7, 150
- RB Tavian Ray, Sr.
- LB D'Torian Smith, Jr., 6-3, 220
- WR/DB Jermaine Moore, Sr., 6-2, 165
- LB Ke'Traelan Harrison, Sr.
Offense: The 2014 season wasn't vintage Tatum when it came to win-loss record, or offensive production, but all things considered, the Eagles faired well in their return to Class 4A (formerly 3A). They turned a third-place finish in district and 5-5 regular season into a berth in the regional semifinals, the furthest that Tatum has advanced in the playoffs since 2011. Tatum averaged a little more than 33 points per game, but really turned it on down the stretch. During a late-season 5-1 stretch, the Eagles scored an average of 39 points per game, a positive finish to a season that began uncharacteristically slow. The problem for Tatum moving forward is experience, as just three returning starters from the offensive side of the ball return. But don't feel sorry for Tatum just yet; the Eagles used a ton of players on offense in 2014, and there's never a shortage of athletes at one of East Texas' most established programs. J.D. Taylor is back at quarterback, while Denarius Earl and Tavian Ray are speedy backs capable of carrying the load out of the backfield.
Defense: Despite technically having more starting experience than the offense, Tatum experienced significant graduation losses on the defensive side of the ball. Multiple letter winners Devon Boyd and Kyshaun Smith are gone from the linebacker spot, while standout defensive back and return specialist Chaston Brooks -- also a weapon on offense -- is now playing college football at Lamar. Thus, a new wave of impact defenders will be counted upon in order for Tatum to remain competitive against opposing offenses. Junior lineman Shay Rodgers, a Division I talent being pursued on offense, is an offensive tackle's nightmare with his blend of size and speed off the edge. The linebacking corps will feature some heavy hitters as well with senior Da'Calen Hicks, junior D'Torian Smith, and senior Ke'Traelan Harrison.
2015 outlook: Tatum resurfaced in Class 4A last season with an experienced and talent-laden roster. Now, the Eagles will find out how graduation turnover will affect one of the smallest schools in 4A Division II. Recent history suggests Tatum struggles playing up a class. After playing in three consecutive state championship games from 2005-07, Tatum moved up and went 11-11 in its two seasons in 3A. And while a return down to 2A the next four seasons did not yield another title game appearance, the Eagles' overall record was 44-7. Tatum did reach the third round of the playoffs in its first season back in 4A (formerly 3A), but it experienced another .500 record during the regular season. Another brutal non-district schedule that features the likes of Newton, Gilmer, Liberty-Eylau, and Chapel Hill won't make the task of improvement any easier.
4. Center Roughriders
- Coach: Barry Bowman
- 2014 finish: 2-7
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
- WR Octavius Evans, Jr., 6-2, 190
- QB Kyle Parks, Jr., 6-1, 185
- RB DeCorey McGee, Sr., 5-9, 180
- LB Sayoddrick Barnes, Sr., 6-0, 220
- WR KamRon Parks, Sr., 6-5, 205
- DB JaTerrius Evans, Soph.
- DL LaMarcus Goodwin, Sr., 6-0, 290
- LB Adrian Jackson, Jr., 6-1, 195
Offense: Last season's win-loss record may not reflect it, but Center has some serious talent on the offensive side of the ball. Junior receiver Octavius Evans is one of East Texas' top overall recruits in the 2017 class. His classmate, quarterback Kyle Parks, performed admirably as sophomore, and has all the tools to become an elite high school quarterback. Roughriders senior receiver KamRon Parks is a physical specimen, capable of drawing double teams away from Evans on the other side of the field. And senior running back DaCorey McGee is eager to put his skills to good use in the coming months. Despite the abundance of talent, Center averaged just 20 points per game, and finished dead-last in the district with an 0-5 record. Longtime head coach Kevin Goodwin left to take an assistant's job at Conroe Oak Ridge, opening the door for Center to hire three-time state championship winning coach Barry Bowman, who brought along accomplished offensive coordinator Ricky Joe Meeks to run the offense.
Defense: Center struggled on the defensive side of the ball as well in 2014, allowing opposing offenses to average almost 40 points per game. The issues worsened in district play, as the Roughriders were attacked to the tune of 45.8 each week. Center returns just four starters on the defensive side of the ball, but all of them are expected to have major impacts. Senior lineman LaMarcus Goodwin is a wide body and run-stuffing specialist, linebackers Sayoddrick Barnes and Adrian Jackson play fast and physical, and sophomore defensive back JaTerrius Evans, while young, may ultimately have the highest ceiling of any Center defender. The key will be how well the established veterans and newcomers adapt to the new coaching staff's defensive schemes and principles.
2015 outlook: It's not often that a team coming off a winless mark in district, in which it was outscored by an average of 25.6 points per game, can legitimately be expected to challenge for a playoff spot the following season. But there are those that feel Center greatly underachieved last year, and that changes with coaching staff may inject life into a roster full of untapped potential. Bowman won three consecutive state championships at Daingerfield from 2008-10, and moved on to a good run at Paris from 2011-13. He's a coach who's proven he can win if given the right set of circumstances, and Center appears to be a program on the cusp of breaking out.
5. Pleasant Grove Hawks
- Coach: Josh Gibson
- 2014 finish: 6-5 (4A Division II bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 4 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Jacob Smith, Sr., 5-11, 170
- RB Devuntay Walker, Jr., 6-0, 190
- LB Mark Ashby, Sr.
- DL Jackson Pace, Jr., 6-3, 210
- DB Xavier Benson, Sr.
- DB Vashon Williams, Sr.
- DL Hunter Adams, Sr.
- FB Landon Shelton, Sr.
Offense: Pleasant Grove snapped a three-year playoff drought in Josh Gibson's first year as head coach, but the Hawks didn't do it with a particularly potent offense. PG managed to corral the district's fourth and final playoff spot despite averaging a humble 25 points per game. Most of the Hawks' highest-scoring outputs in 2014 came against lesser competition, as Pleasant Grove averaged just 11.2 points per game in its five losses to New Boston, Atlanta, Gladewater, Tatum, and Gilmer. Graduation didn't do anything for offensive continuity as the Hawks begin 2015 with just four starters from a season ago. However, PG's top two performers on offense return in senior quarterback Jacob Smith and junior running back Devuntay Walker, who were both instrumental in what success the Hawks' offense enjoyed last fall. The same teams are on the schedule again, so we'll see how much progress the Hawks' offense makes in year No. 2 under Gibson.
Defense: It's not often a team that's cumulatively outscored by the opposition has the opportunity to extend its season into the playoffs, but it happens, and that was the case for Pleasant Grove in 2014. Much like the offensive narrative, a fast start and tough finish accurately describe the Hawks' defensive arc from a season ago. During PG's 4-1 start to the year, it allowed offenses an average of 14.2 points per game. But in their 2-4 conclusion to the season, the Hawks' scoring defense average ballooned to 38.7. Again, much of that can be chalked up to stiffer competition down the stretch. However, PG can't hide; the exact same teams will be waiting for them this season. The Hawks bring back five defensive starters and are expecting big contributions from senior lineman Hunter Adams, junior lineman Jackson Pace, senior linebacker Mark Ashby, and the senior defensive back duo of Xavier Benson and Vashon Williams.
2015 outlook: Confidence can work wonders. Last season's senior class at Pleasant Grove witnessed a three-year start to their high school careers that featured a combined record of 5-25. So, when a new coach arrived prior to 2014, and the Hawks began the new regime with four wins in five games, PG took that renewed confidence in themselves and carried it all the way to an unlikely playoff appearance. So, how do the Hawks follow up their first real taste of success in four years? The foundation set last season should at least keep Pleasant Grove in contention for a playoff spot at the end of the year. The final playoff spot likely comes down to PG's Week 10 encounter at Center, which is expected to compete at a much higher level that it did a season ago.
6. Spring Hill Panthers
- Coach: Kelly Mercer
- 2014 finish: 2-8
- Returning starters: 7 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Garrett Self, Sr., 6-2, 195
- LB Jantzen Lee, Sr., 6-0, 205
- OL Cameron Hawkins, Sr., 6-1, 225
- WR Scott Deal, Sr., 6-4, 185
- RB Zach Tulpa, Soph., 5-10, 155
- DB D'Bravian Black, Jr.
- RB Christian Johnson, Sr., 5-5, 140
- OL Carter Shelton, Sr.
Offense: When your offense struggles as Spring Hill's did in 2014, and the head coaching position opens up, what do you do? Most would answer by hiring an offensive-minded head coach, and that's exactly how the Panthers expect to correct their woes -- not only on offense, but overall. Kelly Mercer, who was the offensive coordinator for Plano West, which has featured one of top scoring offenses in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex the last few years, became the new head coach at Spring Hill during the spring. And the Panthers hope some of the winning habits he picked up as an assistant at one of the top programs in DFW rubs off on Spring Hill, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Panthers finished last year with a scoring average of 21.2 points per game, which paled in comparison to the rest of the district. However, senior quarterback Garrett Self, one of seven returning offensive starters, has received rave reviews from his new head coach during the offseason.
Defense: Spring Hill had its woes on the defensive side of the ball as well last season. The Panthers yielded an average of more than 37 points per game to opposing offenses a year ago, and that figure obviously must come down significantly if Spring Hill wants to legitimately make positive steps in the right direction. While it may be difficult early on for the players to grasp the new coaching staff's schemes and philosophies, the Panthers have a few veterans they can rely on during Mercer's first year on the job. Senior linebacker Jantzen Lee will anchor the defense, which means he must have a large impact if others are to follow his lead.
2015 outlook: It's been since 2007 that Spring HIll has appeared in the postseason. In the years since, the Panthers are 20-49 and will be led by their fifth different head coach in the last five seasons. The first order of business for Mercer's administration will be to get his players to buy into what he and his coaching staff are selling, and if a few early-season moments of success follow, Spring Hill might be on the right track. The Panthers have a few opponents a classification lower than them in non-district, so opportunities for improving on 2014's win total of two do exist. Will Spring Hill take advantage of any of them?