2017 Football Preview: Can Anyone Slow Down Gilmer in 7-4A D-II?
There's something to be said for never folding under the weight of immense expectations. That's a quality Gilmer has carried with it for almost two decades.
Every year, Gilmer is picked to win its district. And just about every time, the Buckeyes make good on those predictions.
We aren't bold enough to go against the trend, but there are five teams willing to challenge Gilmer for supremacy in District 7-4A Division II.
Our complete district predictions are a few scrolls away.
District 7-4A Division II Preview
- WR/DB Dayson Adaway, Sr., Spring Hill
- LB Xavier Benson, Sr., Pleasant Grove
- QB Aaron "Poppy" Brown, Sr., Gilmer
- WR/DB Keontae Burns, Jr., Pittsburg
- RB/DB Isaiah Davis, Sr., Gladewater
- OL/DL Nick Gavriel, Sr., Pleasant Grove
- WR/DB Qua Heath, Sr., Gilmer
- OL/DL Shun Hunter, Jr., Atlanta
- QB/DB Jaylon Jimmerson, Jr., Pittsburg
- WR/DB Red Jones, Sr., Gilmer
- RB/DB Jawan King, Jr., Atlanta
- RB/DB Chauncey Martin, Sr., Pleasant Grove
- TE Michael Sanchez, Sr., Gladewater
- DB Mycah Stephens, Sr., Gladewater
- RB Zach Tulpa, Sr., Spring Hill
- Sept. 23 -- Carthage at Gilmer
- Oct. 13 -- Pittsburg at Atlanta
- Oct. 13 -- Pleasant Grove at Gilmer
- Oct. 20 -- Gilmer at Gladewater
- Nov. 10 -- Gladewater at Pleasant Grove
1. Gilmer Buckeyes
- Coach: Matt Turner
- 2016 finish: 13-2 (4A Division II semifinalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Aaron "Poppy" Brown, Sr., 5-9, 180 (352 of 539, 5,013 yards, 48 TDs, 14 INTs; 81 carries, 334 yards, 8 TDs)
- WR/DB Red Jones, Sr., 5-11, 150 (65 catches, 1,003 yards, 9 TDs; 25 carries, 140 yards, 3 TDs; 20 tackles, 9 PBUs)
- WR/DB Qua Heath, Sr., 6-2, 165 (55 catches, 765 yards, 9 TDs; 18 tackles, 2 INTs, 4 PBUs)
- RB/DB Brannon Webb, Jr., 5-10, 175
- LB Garry Orr, Sr., 6-1, 180 (87 tackles, 12 for loss, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble)
- OL Landon Green, Sr., 6-2, 250
- LB Wilson Nugent, Jr., 6-3, 195 (73 tackles, 22 for loss, 7 sacks, 2 PBUs)
- RB/LB Jamareon Granville, Sr. (12 tackles, 3 sacks)
Offense: The Buckeyes did suffer from losses to graduation on the offensive side of the ball, including leading receiver and Oklahoma State signee LaMarcus Morton.
However, Gilmer returns its record-setting quarterback Aaron "Poppy" Brown.
As a junior, Brown shattered the schools's single-season passing yardage mark with 5,013. He also tossed 48 touchdowns, and added eight more on the ground.
Morton might be gone, but the Buckeyes' second- and third-leading receivers come back in seniors Red Jones and Qua Heath, who combined to catch 120 passes for 1,768 yards and 18 touchdowns last year.
Gilmer averaged a staggering 48.3 points per game in 2016, and with Brown and a talented duo of pass-catchers returning, don't expect too much change in offensive production.
Defense: Graduation hit Gilmer hardest on the defensive side of the ball, as third-year head coach Matt Turner will be replacing six starters.
The defensive line and secondary will need some re-tooling, but the linebacking corps should be excellent with return of Garry Orr, Wilson Nugent, and Jamareon Granville.
Overall, 2016 was an up-and-down season for the Gilmer defense.
The Buckeyes allowed opponents an average of more than 28 points per game. Gilmer gave up at least 48 points on four separate occasions last year.
2017 outlook: It's hard to argue any program in the state at the Class 4A level has been as successful as Gilmer since the mid-2000's.
The Buckeyes have won three state championships, played for two others, and amassed a remarkable record of 180-19 since 2003.
District championships just come with the territory in Gilmer, which has won 15 straight district games and been victorious in an incredible 79 of its last 81 league contests.
The last two teams to defeat Gilmer in district -- Carthage in 2010 and Kilgore in 2013 -- went on to play for state championships.
2. Gladewater Bears
- Coach: John Berry
- 2016 finish: 8-3 (4A Division II area finalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
- RB/DB Isaiah Davis, Sr., 5-11, 210
- TE/OL Michael Sanchez, Sr., 6-5, 327
- DB Mycah Stephens, Sr., 6-0, 186
- OL Andrew Williams, Sr., 5-11, 290
- DL Dre'ka Ransom, Sr., 5-9, 210
- DL Tristan Seahorn, Jr., 5-11, 205
- DB Quincy Bowens, Jr., 6-1, 185
- DB/K Fernando Serrano, Sr., 6-1, 180
Offense: Gladewater's offensive game plan is pretty simple: run the ball until the opposing defense can't stand it anymore.
And fortunately for the Bears, running back Isaiah Davis and Gladewater's top two offensive linemen -- Andrew Williams and Michael Sanchez -- are among the team's six returning offensive starters.
While Gladewater's methods of moving the ball aren't flashy by today's standards, they get the job done.
The Bears made each of their possessions count, averaging more than 35 points per game in 2016.
Defense: Because Gladewater typically puts together its fair share of time-consuming drives on offense, the Bears' defense usually has time to re-group on the sidelines.
And that was beneficial last season as Gladewater limited opponents to less than 20 points per contest.
Seven defensive starters return to the field in 2017, including standout linemen Dre'ka Ransom and Tristan Seahorn, who wreaked havoc in opposing backfields a season ago.
Davis, Mycah Stephens, Fernando Serrano, and Quincy Bowens give Gladewater the potential to be one of the best secondaries in the region.
2017 outlook: Standing in the way of Gladewater capturing a district title are Gilmer, which the Bears haven't beaten since 2001, and a Pleasant Grove squad that defeated them last year and reached the third round of the playoffs.
Because the margin of error for Gladewater will be so minuscule, the Bears won't be afforded the luxury of too many empty possessions on offense or momentarily defensive lapses.
If Gladewater can successfully navigate through a brutal non-district schedule that features games against defending 4A Division I state champ Carthage, Kilgore, Center, Chapel Hill, and Lindale, the Bears will be in a good position to contend for that elusive district crown.
3. Pleasant Grove Hawks
- Coach: Josh Gibson
- 2016 finish: 6-7 (4A Division II regional semifinalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
- LB Xavier Benson, Sr., 6-3, 200 (97 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 1 INT, 1 defensive TD; committed to Texas Tech)
- RB/DB Chauncey Martin, Sr., 6-0, 192 (76 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PBUs, 1 fumble recovery)
- OL/DL Nick Gavriel, Sr., 6-2, 310
- RB TJ Cole, Sr., 6-0, 200
- LB Caleb Porchia, Sr., 6-0, 210 (104 tackles, 2 sacks)
- WR/DB Cameron Wells, Sr., 5-10, 165
- OL/DL Austin Toler, Sr., 6-1, 290
- QB Ben Harmon, Soph., 6-1, 170
Offense: Much like Gladewater, the Pleasant Grove offense won't win any style points. The Wing-T offensive attack isn't for everyone, but it suits the Hawks just fine.
However, a new era could be on the way with new quarterback Ben Harmon, a sophomore who led Pleasant Grove to the quarterfinals of the Division II state 7-on-7 tournament over the summer.
Harmon will be surrounded by six returning starters on offense, including running back TJ Cole and standout linemen Nick Gavriel and Austin Toler.
Expect talented defenders like Xavier Benson, Chauncey Martin, and Cameron Wells to have a bigger impact on offense this season.
Defense: Without a doubt, the strength of Pleasant Grove's team in 2017 will be its defense.
Last season, the Hawks were a force on the defensive side of the ball, especially during a 5-1 stretch to end the season. In those six games, PG limited opponents to an average of just 17.5 points.
And the best parts of last year's unit are back this season.
Benson, a Texas Tech commit, flies to the football and rarely misses tackles. Fellow linebacker Caleb Porchia patrols the middle of the defense, while Martin represents the Hawks' last line of defense from the secondary.
2017 outlook: On paper, the 2016 Pleasant Grove Hawks finished with a losing record. But last season was so much bigger than that.
Pleasant Grove journeyed three rounds deep in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, and if the Hawks can build on last year's breakthrough, PG might temporarily shed its image of Texarkana's third-best team.
Long overshadowed by Texas High and Liberty-Eylau, Pleasant Grove can begin to build its own legacy as a football powerhouse in Bowie County.
A five-game winning streak followed by a close defeat against state power Celina is how Pleasant Grove finished the 2016 season -- more than enough to ammunition to surge ahead toward the next step.
4. Pittsburg Pirates
- Coach: Brad Baca
- 2016 finish: 5-6 (4A Division II bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 3 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- WR/DB Keontae Burns, Jr., 6-3, 175 (24 catches, 261 yards, 3 TDs; 9 carries, 40 yards; 43 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 PBUs)
- QB Jaylon Jimmerson, Jr., 5-11, 180 (119 of 191, 1,632 yards, 19 TDs, 5 INTs; 48 carries, 120 yards, 3 TDs)
- DL Cody Jones, Sr., 6-2, 185 (92 tackles, 22 for loss, 7 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 recovery, 2 PBUs)
- FB/TE Wyatt Logan, Sr., 6-2, 210
- DL Antwon Robertson, Jr., 5-10, 210 (42 tackles, 11 for loss, 2 sacks)
- LB Mason Monts, Jr., 5-10, 175 (63 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 fumble recovery, 1 PBU)
Offense: Graduation was not kind to Pittsburg's offense, which will have eight new starters in 2017.
The good news for Pirates head coach Brad Baca and Co. is that its most talented offensive player returns in the person of junior receiver Keontae Burns, who is already the target of multiple Division I FBS programs.
Burns will likely be the favorite target of quarterback Jaylon Jimmerson, who played well during his sophomore season.
Several other players from the sub-varsity ranks must step up in a hurry if Pittsburg is to contend for the playoffs in the ultra-competitive District 7-4A Division II.
Defense: Pittsburg also said goodbye to its best defender from a season ago in Bradlee Warrick, who eventually signed with Stephen F. Austin.
However, there are five defenders back with starting experience, so the transition shouldn't be quite as difficult as it figures to be on offense.
Cody Jones and Antwon Robertson will be the keys up front, while linebacker Mason Monts returns after a successful sophomore campaign.
2017 outlook: Two seasons and two playoffs berths for Baca, one of the youngest head coaches in all of East Texas.
If Pittsburg is able to extend the streak to three, that would likely be his most impressive feat to date.
With only eight starters from a team that barely qualified for the playoffs returning, the climb back to the postseason could very much be an uphill one.
5. Atlanta Rabbits
- Coach: Matt McClure
- 2016 finish: 6-4
- Returning starters: 4 offensive, 4 defensive
Players to watch
- RB/DB Jawan King, Jr., 5-10, 180
- OL/DL Shun Hunter, Jr., 6-3, 255
- QB/DB Andrew Samples, Jr., 5-10, 170
- WR/DB Luke Anthony, Sr., 6-0, 170
- LB Gerrod Oliver, Sr., 5-10, 185
- ATH Nick Washington, Sr.
- OL Dustin Williams, Sr., 6-0, 300
- DL Reggie Blaylock, Sr.
Offense: Atlanta averaged 28.6 points per game for the 2016 season, but that number dipped dramatically in district play when the Rabbits put up 19.2.
Only four offensive starters return, so it will be up to a handful of newcomers to return the Rabbits' offense to relevance in 2017.
Running back Jawan King will step into the role of featured back after a solid showing as a sophomore.
But Atlanta needs more playmakers.
Defense: Last season was inconsistent at best for Atlanta's defense, which four times limited opponents to seven points or less, but also gave up at least 40 points on three occasions.
Inexperience could play a factor on the defensive side of the ball as well, as Atlanta must replace seven starting defenders.
Junior defensive lineman Shun Hunter and senior linebacker Gerrod Oliver are X-factors. If they have big seasons, Atlanta's "D" could be in for a special year as well.
2017 outlook: Despite finishing with a winning record, Atlanta missed out on the playoffs for the first time in head coach Matt McClure's six seasons on the job.
And while history suggests the Rabbits won't be down for long, inexperience might tell a different story.
Atlanta is tied with Pittsburg for the fewest number of returning starters in the district, and since their Oct. 13 meeting in Atlanta is likely for the league's final playoff spot, the Rabbits will need to use the non-district portion of their schedule wisely.
Henderson, Liberty-Eylau, and Tatum will serve as excellent barometers heading into Atlanta's all-important district opener with Pittsburg.
6. Spring Hill Panthers
- Coach: Kelly Mercer
- 2016 finish: 3-7
- Returning starters: 9 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
- RB Zach Tulpa, Sr., 5-10, 155 (179 carries, 914 yards, 8 TDs)
- WR/DB Dayson Adaway, Sr., 6-0, 168
- QB Gage White, Soph., 5-11, 170 (34 of 80, 280 yards, 0 TDs, 4 INTs; 50 carries, 33 yards, 3 TDs)
- LB Vaughn Bufkin, Jr., 5-7, 180
- OL/DL Tanner Cornell, Sr., 6-0, 260
- K Efren Barcenas, Jr., 6-0, 185
- RB/DB Daryn Beck, Jr., 5-10, 160 (49 carries, 359 yards, 6 TDs)
- WR/DB Morgan Bradford, Jr., 5-10, 154
Offense: Spring Hill had moderate success on offense a season ago, averaging a little more than 20 points per game.
With nine of the 11 starters returning, folks in northwest Longview are excited to see how much progress will be made this fall.
The running back duo of Zach Tulpa and Daryn Beck should have nice seasons running behind an offensive line anchored by senior Tanner Cornell.
Gage White, while not always pretty, gained valuable experience at quarterback as a freshman and should take the next step in his progression this season.
Defense: The defense is where most of the improvement needs to take place.
Spring Hill yielded an average of almost 40 points per game in 2016, but with seven starters on the defensive side returning, third-year head coach Kelly Mercer at least has some experience at his disposal.
Linebacker Vaughn Bufkin, after performing admirably as a sophomore, will be asked to take on more of a leadership role in 2017.
2017 outlook: Sometimes one game is all that is needed to turn things in the right direction. For Spring Hill, that might have come on the last night of the 2016 regular season.
It may have gone down a loss to cement a winless district campaign, but the Panthers were close, dropping their finale to Atlanta, 27-20.
Given that Spring Hill had been outscored by an average of almost 40 points in its previous four league games, the competitiveness displayed might ultimately have given the Panthers program the spark it needed.
No team in the district is more experienced, but still, a lot more work needs to be done.