2017 Football Preview: 9-4A D-I, ‘District of Doom’ Deep Again
If there's one district in East Texas that stands out among them all, it's District 9-4A Division I, a.k.a. the "District of Doom."
The league is home to eight state champions since 2004, 19 Division I FBS signees since 2013, and six current players with at least one FBS scholarship offer.
The district is so deep that its third-place finisher from last year -- Carthage -- went on to win the state title.
The Bulldogs are pretty much everyone's favorite to repeat as state champs, but both Henderson and Kilgore handed Carthage regular-season losses a year ago.
Carthage should be favored in 9-4A with half its team back, including arguably the state's best running back, Keaontay Ingram.
Henderson graduated two Big 12 signees from last year's 11-win, regional semifinalist, but returns dynamic quarterback Trae Hall. And Kilgore's one-two punch of quarterback Patrick "Buddy" Jackson and receiver Jonathan Shepherd -- and Oklahoma State commit -- is back in 2017.
Center, the district's fourth and final playoff representative from 2016, will have to fend off a Palestine program on the rise. Meanwhile, Bullard and Chapel Hill hope their new head coaches will be just the spark they need.
Scroll down for our District 9-4A Division I predictions, players to watch, and must-see games.
District 9-4A Division I Preview
- RB/LB Adrian Berry, Sr., Chapel Hill
- WR/LB Tyrek Blanton, Sr., Henderson
- RB/LB Luke Bowman, Sr., Bullard
- RB/DB Hunter Branin, Sr., Chapel Hill
- WR/DB Ty Crayton, Sr., Bullard
- TE/DL T.J. Dever, Jr., Palestine
- WR/DB Kameron Elmer, Sr., Center
- WR/DB JaTerious Evans, Sr., Center
- LB Mykel Gates, Sr., Carthage
- QB Trae Hall, Sr., Henderson
- WR Dewaylon Ingram, Sr., Carthage
- RB Keaontay Ingram, Sr., Carthage
- QB/WR Patrick "Buddy" Jackson, Sr., Kilgore
- DL Demorrea Richardson, Sr., Kilgore
- TE/DL Keivie Rose, Jr., Henderson
- WR Jonathan Shepherd, Sr., Kilgore
- WR/DB Josh Williams, Jr., Palestine
- Sept. 15 -- Carthage at Whitehouse
- Sept. 23 -- Carthage at Gilmer
- Oct. 6 -- Palestine at Center
- Oct. 13 -- Kilgore at Carthage
- Oct. 20 -- Henderson at Kilgore
1. Carthage Bulldogs
- Coach: Scott Surratt
- 2016 finish: 13-2 (4A Division I champion)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- RB Keaontay Ingram, Sr., 6-0, 200 (320 carries, 2,225 yards, 31 TDs; 46 catches, 475 yards, 2 TDs; committed to Texas)
- WR Dewaylon Ingram, Sr., 6-1, 165 (61 catches, 977 yards, 9 TDs)
- LB Mykel Gates, Sr., 5-11, 225 (158 tackles, 19 for loss, 3 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, 2 INTs, 2 PBUs)
- WR/DB Mekhi Colbert, Sr., 5-8, 175 (22 catches, 279 yards, 2 TDs; 9 carries, 66 yards, 1 TD; 43 tackles, 8 INTs, 10 PBUs, 2 forced fumbles, 1 defensive TD)
- WR Dee Bowens, Sr., 5-7, 140 (58 catches, 857 yards, 11 TDs)
- LB Ahmad Brown, Sr., 6-0, 225 (192 tackles, 17 for loss, 3 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries at Crockett)
- DL Montario Wilson, Sr., 5-8, 187 (101 tackles, 16 for loss, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovery, 1 PBU)
- LB Jose DeJulian, Sr., 5-11, 180 (122 tackles, 11 for loss, 5 forced fumbles, 4 recoveries, 4 PBUs)
Offense: Carthage senior running back Keaontay Ingram, a four-star recruit and University of Texas commit, might get most of the attention, but don't be fooled. There's plenty more.
A star-studded receiving corps, anchored by seniors Dewaylon Ingram and Dee Bowens -- both college recruits -- might make opposing defenses think twice about loading up the box against the run.
Dewaylon Ingram and Bowens combined to catch 119 passes good for 1,834 yards and 20 touchdowns during Carthage's run to last year's state championship.
Carthage did lose 3,000-yard passer Kason Davis to graduation, but junior quarterback Gunner Capps looked good during the summer in helping the Bulldogs reach the state 7-on-7 tournament.
There are a few holes on the offensive line that need filling, but a big group of underclassmen were waiting in the wings last year.
Defense: Carthage won its fifth state title in eight years on the strength of its defense. Not only did the Bulldogs force six turnovers in the title-game win, but the "D" came up big all playoffs long.
The Dawgs' top two defenders from a season ago are back in senior linebacker Mykel Gates, the team's leading tackler in 2016, and cornerback Mekhi Colbert, who pulled down eight interceptions as a junior.
End Montario Wilson and tackle Darrian Ingram are back as well, but another player will need to fill the void left by star pass-rusher Tre Gatlin.
The linebacking corps will be the strength of this defense. Not only is Gates returning, but so is Ahmad Brown, who started at Carthage as a sophomore before putting up big numbers at Crockett last season.
2017 outlook: Carthage is the preseason No. 1 in both the Associated Press and Dave Campbell's Texas Football magazine polls, and for good reason.
No other team currently in Class 4A Division I has accomplished more since 2008 than Carthage. The Bulldogs are 109-24 overall, 5-0 in state championship games, and a remarkable 40-4 in the playoffs.
Expectations are nothing new in Carthage, so don't expect the weight to become too much.
The meat of the Bulldogs' regular-season schedule comes in Weeks 3 through 7, when they will play at Class 5A Whitehouse, Gilmer, and Henderson, and host Kilgore with Carthage's bye week in the middle.
Then, it should be smooth sailing until the playoffs when another loaded Region III field consisting of Stafford, El Campo, Kilgore, Henderson, and Silsbee awaits. Then, it's probably either perennial power Waco La Vega or a rematch with China Spring in the semifinals.
The drive for Carthage's sixth state title is certainly doable, but it definitely won't be easy.
2. Kilgore Bulldogs
- Coach: Mike Wood
- 2016 finish: 7-5 (4A Division I area finalist)
- Returning starters: 5 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- WR Jonathan Shepherd, Sr., 6-3, 196 (17 catches, 259 yards, 3 TDs; committed to Oklahoma State)
- QB/WR Patrick "Buddy" Jackson, Sr., 5-9, 160 (74 of 127, 952 yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs; 138 carries, 1,151 yards, 9 TDs)
- DL Demorrea Richardson, Sr., 6-0, 240 (76 tackles, 23 for loss, 9 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, 2 blocked punts)
- WR Deiontrae Wheat, Jr., 6-1, 150 (17 catches, 198 yards, 2 TDs; 22 carries, 103 yards, 2 TDs)
- QB/ATH Jaiden Zackery, Jr., 5-9, 165
- RB/LB Isaiah Smith, Sr., 5-8, 175 (81 tackles, 7 for loss, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles, 6 PBUs, 4 blocked kicks)
- OL Austin Adams, Sr.
- LB Ty Wallace, Sr., 5-9, 180 (44 tackles, 5 for loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 PBU)
Offense: Kilgore lost its leading rusher and most of its offensive line from last year, but things are still looking up for the Bulldogs offense in 2017.
Back are the trio of dual-threat quarterback Patrick "Buddy" Jackson, a 1,000-yard rusher, and receivers Jonathan Shepherd and Deiontrae Wheat.
Jackson was asked to throw a bit more last season, which was his second to start at quarterback. His role is likely to increase again as a senior, and he might split time with junior Jaiden Zackery, a move-in from Fort Worth Arlington Heights.
Shepherd is a tall, rangy receiver who has already committed to Oklahoma State, while Wheat is one of the fastest pass-catchers in the district.
Isaiah Smith might get his shot as the featured running back after playing mostly defense in 2016.
Defense: Kilgore is typically very good on the defensive side of the ball, and we expect that trend to continue this season.
With more than half of last year's starters back, Kilgore might improve on its defensive scoring average of 26.2 points per game.
It all starts up front for Kilgore where senior pass-rushing specialist Demorrea Richardson returns after he racked up nine sacks and an additional 14 stops behind the line of scrimmage as a junior.
Linebacker Ty Wallace, who burst onto the scene as a sophomore, missed a good portion of last season, so expect the Bulldogs senior to make up for lost time with a big campaign.
2017 outlook: Kilgore defeated both Carthage and Henderson in district play last year, and if not for a one-point upset loss to Center, would have been the outright "District of Doom" champions.
The loss didn't affect Kilgore's playoff seeding, but it did snap an impressive four-game winning streak that came on the heels of a 1-3 start to the year.
The four-game non-district slate should be challenging again, as Kilgore begins with Class 5A Nacogdoches, Gladewater on the road, and home games against 5A's Pine Tree and Texas High.
We'll have a pretty good idea of how Kilgore will stack up in 9-4A before its league opener Sept. 29 at Palestine.
3. Henderson Lions
- Coach: Phil Castles
- 2016 finish: 11-2 (4A Division I regional semifinalist)
- Returning starters: 3 offensive, 3 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Trae Hall, Sr., 6-3, 185 (128 of 189, 2,016 yards, 24 TDs, 4 INTs; 80 carries, 749 yards, 6 TDs)
- TE/DL Keivie Rose, Jr., 6-3, 242
- WR/LB Tyrek Blanton, Sr., 6-2, 190
- RB Lynn Freeney, Sr., 5-11, 180 (72 carries, 488 yards, 6 TDs)
- WR/DB Treylun Blanton, Sr., 5-11, 165
- LB Garrett Lybrand, Sr., 6-2, 200
- RB/LB D.Q. Murphy, Sr.
- ATH Keuntaye Dunham, Jr., 5-8, 150
Offense: It won't be easy saying goodbye to running back La'Kendrick Van Zandt or receiver Trestan Ebner, who put up monster seniors seasons in 2016 and signed with TCU and Baylor, respectively.
Van Zandt ran for 1,500-plus yards and 21 touchdowns in 13 games, while Ebner went over 1,000 yards and caught 16 TD's.
But at least the player who touched the ball on every snap returns in quarterback Trae Hall, who burned defenses with both his arm and legs as a junior. He totaled more than 2,700 yards and accounted for 30 touchdowns in helping the Lions notch their second 11-win season in three years.
Starting running back Lynn Freeney returns as well, but there are wholesale changes almost everywhere else on the offensive side of the ball.
Defense: Graduation hit Henderson hard on defense as well, as the Lions will be breaking in eight new starters in 2017.
Junior defensive end Keivie Rose, who already has a few Division I scholarship offers, is poised for a breakout season.
With the return of linebacker Garrett Lybrand and the duo Tyrek and Treylun Blanton, Henderson coach Phil Castles at least has some good pieces to build around.
2017 outlook: The good news for Henderson is that its non-district schedule features two games against teams in similar situations. Atlanta and Pittsburg are both dealing with heavy turnover.
The Lions also face teams on the rise in Tatum and Class 5A Pine Tree before opening district play at Chapel Hill.
Then, Henderson plays host to defending state champ Carthage, and has its bye week before going on the road to face Kilgore.
We should know by the midway point of the season how much the loss of Henderson's 2017 graduating class will cost.
4. Center Roughriders
- Coach: Barry Bowman
- 2016 finish: 6-5 (4A Division I bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
- WR/DB Jaterious Evans, Sr., 6-1, 180 (28 catches, 500 yards, 5 TDs; 30 tackles, 4 INTs; committed to Stephen F. Austin)
- WR/DB Kameron Elmer, Sr., 5-11, 145 (10 catches, 111 yards; 55 tackles, 3 for loss, 1 forced fumble, 2 recoveries, 2 PBUs)
- RB/DB Katavious Evans, Jr. (48 tackles, 7 for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 PBU)
- OL/DL Logan Holloway, Jr. (36 tackles, 8 for loss, 2 sacks)
- WR/DB Jeremiah Hightower, Sr.
- QB Jayden Hicks, Soph., 5-8, 150
- WR/DB Jamarh Johnson, Sr., 5-10, 165
- OL/DL Alex Hooper, Jr., 6-3, 225
Offense: The Roughriders might have six offensive starters returning, but they will certainly miss the graduated duo of quarterback Kyle Parks and receiver Octavius Evans.
Parks passed for almost 2,220 yards and ran for nearly 400 with a combined 30 touchdowns in 2016, while Evans -- a Boise State signee -- led the team with 77 catches for 1,085 yards and six TD's.
Sophomore Jayden Hicks figures to take the reins as quarterback this season, and he'll rely on the talents of Stephen F. Austin commit Jaterious Evans, the team's second-leading receiver from a year ago. Fellow senior Kameron Elmer should see an expanded role at wideout as well.
The offensive line should be steady after Center gets both Logan Holloway and Alex Hooper back following impressive sophomore seasons.
Defense: Center's defense is a bit of a mystery at the moment as the 'Riders are having to replace seven starting defenders from 2016.
Jaterious Evans and Elmer will see double duty and play the secondary. Evans led the team with six interceptions last year, while Elmer was responsible for forcing one turnover.
Katavious Evans is a versatile player capable of holding down both the linebacker and safety spots.
Defending offenses in this district is serious business, so Center will need several fresh faces to step in and get the job done.
2017 outlook: So far, so good for the Barry Bowman era in Center. In two seasons, he's guided the Roughriders to back-to-back playoff appearances.
Center won 10 games and advanced three rounds deep in the postseason at the 4A Division II level in Bowman's first year, and went 4-2 against the mighty 9-4A a season ago.
In order for the good vibes in Center to continue, though, a field full of newcomers must rise to the occasion.
Home games in Week 2 and 3 against Gilmer and Gladewater, respectively, will provide a good litmus test for the 2017 'Riders.
5. Palestine Wildcats
- Coach: Robby Clark
- 2016 finish: 5-5
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- TE/DL T.J. Dever, Jr., 6-3, 218 (13 catches, 295 yards, 7 TDs)
- WR/DB Josh Williams, Jr. (102 tackles, 20 for loss, 1 INT, 2 PBUs, 1 fumble recovery)
- ATH Tyler Gray, Jr., 5-7, 155 (20 catches, 288 yards, 2 TDs; 17 carries, 93 yards, 1 TD)
- DL Tra'vell Bryant, Sr., 5-11, 225
- LB Roderick Deyon, Sr., 5-9, 180 (74 tackles 16 for loss, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 PBUs)
- OL Deonundre Hatton, Sr., 6-0, 214
- DL Jakobe Pursley, Sr. (44 tackles, 13.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 recovery)
- DL Waylon Nickerson, Sr. (39 tackles, 10 for loss, 3 sacks, 1 fumble recovery)
Offense: Palestine showed flashes of brilliance on the offensive end last year, like its 49-point outburst against Jacksonville in Week 2, or when it put up and 38 and 34 points in consecutive wins over Bullard and Chapel Hill.
The trick will be learning consistency, which could be challenging after Palestine lost its most dynamic player on offense to graduation -- running back Irric Deyon, who ran for 1,100 yards and 11 TD's as a senior.
Six offensive starters return, but their roles might be different.
T.J. Dever is listed as tight end, but is athletic enough to split out wide, and head coach Robby Clark is considering moving Tyler Gray, a receiver in 2016, to the quarterback spot.
Defense: It was a mixed bag of sorts for Palestine on the defensive side of the ball as well a year ago.
The Wildcats allowed almost 28 points per game, but at times, they were much better. In wins over Mabank, Fairfield, Bullard, and Center, Palestine surrendered a total of only 39 points.
It's that kind of production Palestine needs on defense if it's to reach the next level.
The defensive line will be the backbone of the unit with players like Tra'vell Bryant, Jakobe Pursley, and Waylon Nickerson leading the way.
2017 outlook: The return to respectability in Palestine has been slow, but steady.. Back-to-back 1-9 campaigns fed into a four-win improvement a season ago, year two under Clark.
And with 12 total starters back from last year's 5-5 squad, the playoffs are on the minds of Wildcats fans this season.
Palestine might still be behind the district's "big three" of Carthage, Kilgore, and Henderson, but there's no season to think the Wildcats couldn't contend with Center, Bullard, and Chapel Hill for the league's final postseason spot.
The Wildcats' final three non-district games against Class 5A Jacksonville, and 4A powers Fairfield and Van lead into Palestine's most crucial stretch of the season -- district games against Kilgore, at Center, Bullard, and at Chapel Hill.
Palestine likely needs to win three of its first four district games to secure a berth in the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
6. Bullard Panthers
- Coach: Scott Callaway
- 2016 finish: 3-7
- Returning starters: 7 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- WR/DB Ty Crayton, Sr., 5-8, 165
- RB/LB Luke Bowman, Sr., 5-9, 180
- QB Cleet Bowman, Sr., 6-1, 190
- OL/DL Weston Roach, Sr., 6-5, 260
- LB Thomas Brooks, Sr., 6-0, 180 (77 tackles, 9 for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, 1 PBU, 2 defensive TDs)
- WR/DB Nic Costas, Sr., 5-10, 155
- LB Brody Mullican, Sr., 6-0, 195
- WR Dustin Dover, Jr., 6-3, 180
Offense: Scoring was an issue for Bullard last year, as the Panthers averaged right at 21 points per game. In district, that number fell to 15.7.
Seven players with starting experience on the offensive side of the ball return, including quarterback Cleet Bowman and running back Luke Bowman.
The receiving corps has a chance to break out this season behind the trio of Ty Crayton, Nic Costas, and junior Dustin Dover.
Senior tackle Weston Roach gives Bullard some measure of size up front.
Defense: Bullard wasn't the biggest or most athletic defense in the district last year, but the Panthers' defense may have played the hardest and performed with the most discipline.
Improvement still needs to be made, however, after Bullard yielded more than 31 points per game to opponents.
Senior linebacker Thomas Brooks is Bullard's top returning defender. What he lacks in size, he more than makes up for with a high football I.Q.
Brody Mullican, Crayton, and Costas will also be important players on defense.
2017 outlook: Following the most impressive seven-year run in program history, led by coach Shannon Wilson, Bullard has brought in a new head coach with deep ties to East Texas.
Scott Callaway led Big Sandy to a state championship appearance in 2005 before leading the Gladewater program from 2006-09. Before taking the Bullard job, he served as the offensive coordinator at Class 6A Mesquite.
Bullard was winless in district last season, but with 13 starters back and the energy a new coaching staff seemingly always provides, the Panthers have their sights on a return trip to the playoffs.
7. Chapel Hill Bulldogs
- Coach: Jason Hooker
- 2016 finish: 2-8
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- RB/LB Adrian Berry, Sr., 5-10, 190
- RB/DB Hunter Branin, Sr., 5-10, 178
- WR Demarcus Attaway, Sr., 5-9, 160
- OL Sammy Cintron, Sr., 5-11, 220
- WR Robbie Williams, Jr., 6-3, 180
- DL Khristion Little, Jr., 5-11, 220
- WR/DB Kaine Perkins, Sr., 6-1, 170
- QB Khalan Griffin, Soph., 5-10, 180
Offense: It was a struggle on the offensive side of the ball in 2016. Chapel Hill averaged a district-worst 16 points per game overall. The Bulldogs were held to single digits in half their games.
A receiving corps of Demarcus Attaway, Robbie Williams, and Kaine Perkins has the potential to stand out this season, but the Bulldogs must find someone to get them the ball.
Odds are the new quarterback will be either senior Billy Maddox, a converted defensive back, or sophomore Khalan Griffin.
Sammy Cintron is Chapel Hill's top returning lineman, who will be paving the way for the team's top returning rusher, Hunter Branin.
Defense: The Bulldogs' defense wasn't terrible last year, but an underperforming offense didn't do it any favors.
Five starting defenders return to a unit that allowed opponents an average of 28 points per game a season ago.
Senior linebacker Adrian Berry posted more than 100 tackles last year, while junior lineman Khristion Little has the makings of a future defensive star.
2017 outlook: Chapel Hill's 2-8 record last year was its worst since 2002, and when the school's all-time winningest coach Thomas Sitton left to become defensive coordinator at Converse Judson, a successful era had officially come to a close.
Sitton won 56 games in his eight seasons with the Bulldogs, including the team's 2011 state championship.
Jason Hooker, the head coach at Brownsboro the previous three seasons, takes over hoping to breathe new life into the program.
A tough non-district schedule against Wills Point, Whitehouse, Tatum, and Gladewater -- all playoffs teams in 2016 -- awaits.