2017 Football Preview: Could A New Force Emerge in District 7-3A Division II?
District 7-3A Division II didn't exactly set the world on fire in 2016. The four playoff teams combined for an overall record of 23-23 and went 1-5 in the postseason.
Most of the district returns at least half of last year's starters, and some bring back considerably more.
New Diana missed out on the playoffs by two points and returns 16 starters, the most of any of the league's top five finishers from a season ago. The Eagles are primed for a breakout season, and by being surrounded by a great deal mediocrity, a playoff berth is in reach.
The usual suspects -- Daingerfield, Hooks, and Paul Pewitt -- appear poised for playoff-caliber seasons as well.
But don't discount DeKalb, which has qualified for the postseasons in each of the previous two campaigns, or Ore City, which can make some noise if everything falls into place.
It should be a fun ride. Here are our District 7-3A Division II predictions.
District 7-3A Division II Preview
- RB/DB Phillip Dickerson, Sr., Hooks
- WR/DB Marquiz Estell, Soph., Hooks
- RB Labrandon Houston, Sr., Paul Pewitt
- QB Lucas Hungerford, Sr., Paul Pewitt
- RB Jaquan Jackson, Sr., DeKalb
- LB Aron Jahr, Sr., New Diana
- QB Tristen Jamison, Jr., DeKalb
- ATH Reggie Jeter, Sr., Daingerfield
- OL/DL Daniel Keene, Sr., Queen City
- RB/DB Trodarius Lynn, Sr., Daingerfield
- LB Aaron Nigreville, Soph., Ore City
- RB/DB David Price, Jr., Queen City
- QB Jackson Sampson, Sr., New Diana
- RB Garrett Young, Sr., Ore City
- Aug. 31 -- Daingerfield at Hughes Springs
- Oct. 6 -- New Diana at Hooks
- Oct. 20 -- Daingerfield at Hooks
- Oct. 27 -- Hooks at Paul Pewitt
- Nov. 3 -- Daingerfield at New Diana
1. Daingerfield Tigers
- Coach: Mike Waldie
- 2016 finish: 6-5 (3A Division II bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
- ATH Reggie Jeter, Sr., 6-2, 160 (32 of 57, 485 yards, 7 TDs, 6 INTs; 80 carries, 427 yards, 9 TDs; 1 INT)
- RB/DB Trodarius Lynn, Sr., 5-10, 160 (2 catches, 67 yards, 1 TD; 3 INTs)
- OL/DL AJ Carroll, Sr., 6-2, 280
- FB/LB Jose Mendez, Sr. (2 fumble recoveries)
- QB Jakauri Woods, Jr., 5-11, 171 (20 carries, 122 yards, 1 TD)
- RB Elijah Allen, Jr., 5-10, 198
- ATH Jakobe Alexander, Soph., 6-0, 150
- OL Zach Gilmore, Jr.
Offense: Second-year head coach Mike Waldie is hopeful the return of multi-purpose athlete Reggie Jeter and an experienced offensive line can help transform Daingerfield from a good offense to a great one in 2017.
Last season, the Tigers averaged almost 30 points per game, and the offense definitely got better as the year progressed.
Daingerfield scored a total of six points in its first two games of 2016, but ended up posting 38 points on average during district play.
Jeter put up more than 900 yards of total offense and accounted for 16 touchdowns. He'll be joined by senior skill-position player Trodarius Lynn, and strong offensive linemen AJ Carroll and Zach Gilmore.
Defense: The Tigers' defense had its ups and downs a season ago, but with seven players returning with starting experience, consistency will be the name of the game moving forward.
Daingerfield yielded an average of 26 points per game a season ago, but in district play that number dropped to 19.
Lynn was a standout defender last season, finishing with three interceptions. Other potential impact players on the defensive side of the ball include Carroll and linebacker Jose Mendez.
2017 outlook: Daingerfield has rebounded from its stunning 0-10 finish in 2014 with back-to-back playoff appearances.
The Tigers haven't been at the level they were from 2008-13 when they won three state championships and posted a record of 76-15, but Daingerfield improved its win total from 2015 and 2016. So that's a start.
We really won't know how good Daingerfield could be until we see how the Tigers respond to a tough non-district schedule that includes games against Hughes Springs, Atlanta, and White Oak.
Daingerfield lost those three games last season by a combined score of 108-42.
The Tigers went into the 2016 playoffs as the No. 1 seed from the district, but was eliminated rather soundly by Winona, 52-27, in the first round.
Improvements need to be made if Daingerfield wishes to take its game to the next level.
2. New Diana Eagles
- Coach: Robbie Coplin
- 2016 finish: 3-7
- Returning starters: 8 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Jackson Sampson, Sr., 5-11, 165 (189 of 355, 2,698 yards, 25 TDs, 14 INTs; 94 carries, 203 yards, 3 TDs)
- LB Aron Jahr, Sr., 6-0, 199 (100 tackles, 6 for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 1 PBU)
- WR/DB Jacob Choyce, Jr., 6-0, 172 (14 catches, 268 yards, 5 TDs; 44 carries, 357 yards, 8 TDs; 47 tackles, 3 INTs, 3 PBUs, 1 fumble recovery)
- OL/DL Donovan Watley, Sr., 6-0, 215 (15 tackles)
- LB Jared Weeks, Sr., 5-6, 145 (64 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBUs, 1 forced fumble, 2 recoveries)
- LB Kaden Ryan, Sr., 6-0, 180 (64 tackles, 5 for loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovery, 1 PBU)
- WR Cody Payton, Sr., 5-10, 150 (47 catches, 797 yards, 11 TDs)
- WR/DL TJ Rogers, Sr., 6-2, 185 (58 catches, 820 yards, 3 TDs; 31 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 2 recoveries)
Offense: New Diana might only have won three games last season, but a relatively young offense came together quickly.
And with a majority of starters back from an offense that averaged more than 32 points per game in 2016, don't expect a slowdown any time soon.
Back to lead the offense is senior quarterback Jackson Sampson, who passed for almost 2,700 yards and 26 touchdowns in just nine games as a junior. His three favorite targets -- TJ Rogers, Cody Payton, and Jacob Choyce -- all return as well.
If experience means anything, New Diana should posses one of the top offenses in the region this season.
Defense: The Eagles' defense was a definite trouble spot last year, as it surrendered an average of nearly 48 points per game to opponents.
Just like the offense, New Diana's defense brings back eight starters. Second-year head coach Robbie Coplin is hoping the seasoning will result in a much better showing this fall.
Without question, the strength on defense is New Diana's corps of linebackers that includes seniors Aron Jahr, Jared Weeks, and Kaden Ryan.
Rogers and Donovan Watley will be factors on the defensive line, while Choyce is a potential game-changer in the secondary.
2017 outlook: Even though New Diana missed out on the playoffs last season for the second consecutive year, the Eagles showed massive improvement.
New Diana entered Coplin's first year in charge on the heels of an 0-10 campaign in 2015. Not only did the Eagles triple their win total, they also flirted with making the postseason
A district-opening win over DeKalb, which ended up claiming the fourth and final playoff spot from 7-3A, was negated by a crushing 41-39 loss to Ore City -- an outcome that ultimately denied New Diana a playoff berth.
New Diana's 16 returning starters are the second-most of any team in the district, which means the Eagles should be in good shape to break the postseason drought.
3. Hooks Hornets
- Coach: Chris Birdwell
- 2016 finish: 6-6 (3A Division II area finalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 5 defensive
Players to watch
- WR/DB Marquiz Estell, Soph., 6-0, 160
- RB/DB Phillip Dickerson, Sr., 5-9, 140
- OL/DL Alec Smith, Sr., 6-0, 220
- QB Connor Price, Jr., 5-11, 150
- OL Bryce Baird, Sr., 6-7, 235
- OL/DL Victor Hernandez, Jr.
- LB Tavion Rigsby, Sr., 6-0, 165
- WR/DB Logan Murray, Jr.
Offense: Hooks had its good weeks and its bad on the offensive side of the ball last year. The Hornets averaged 29.5 points per game, but on four occasions they were held to less than 20 points.
Head coach Chris Birdwell returns six starters, but among the key losses were the sibling duo of Montrell Estell (Texas signee) and Malik Estell (Arkansas-Monticello).
While Hooks will be searching for new playmakers to emerge, it does welcome back a couple of important pieces in quarterback Connor Price and running Phillip Dickerson, who performed well during most of the 2016 season.
Sophomore Marquiz Estell will be given a chance to star on offense this season.
Defense: For the most part, the Hornets' defense did its job a season ago. In all, Hooks limited opponents to a little more than 25 points per game.
But with six new starters coming in, it will be a challenge for Hooks to keep the positive vibes going on defense.
Marquiz Estell made big plays as a freshman in the secondary, while linebacker Tavion Rigsby will be counted on to patrol the middle of the Hornets' defensive unit.
2017 outlook: Hooks finished tied for second behind Daingerfield in district last year, but advanced further in the playoffs than any team in 7-3A Division II, ultimately falling to state champion Gunter in the second round.
Despite dropping three of its first four games, Hooks came on strong when it counted most and turned things around.
With so much depth and experience in the neighboring 8-3A, it will be incumbent on Hooks to try and avoid a potential first-round matchup with Harmony, Winona, or Edgewood.
In order to accomplish this, Hooks might have to come away with the district's No. 1 seed for the postseason.
4. Paul Pewitt Brahmas
- Coach: Ryan Gentry
- 2016 finish: 6-5 (3A Division II bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 5 offensive, 3 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Lucas Hungerford, Sr., 6-0, 180 (109 of 190, 1,909 yards, 25 TDs 7 INTs; 181 carries, 1,006 yards, 10 TDs)
- RB Labrandon Houston, Sr., 5-8, 184 (180 carries, 1,063 yards, 9 TDs; 9 catches, 63 yards, 1 TD)
- ATH Jackson Fitts, Sr. (59 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 INTs, 3 fumble recoveries)
- OL Zach Shaddix, Sr., 5-11, 199
- WR/LB Jerrett McCollum, Jr., 6-1, 201 (19 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 forced fumble)
- WR/DB Nick Garrett, Sr., 6-0, 185 (15 catches, 301 yards, 3 TDs; 24 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovery)
- OL/DL Devonta Coffey, Sr., 5-6, 235 (52 tackles, 3 fumble recoveries)
Offense: There may not have been a more important player to his team's success in district last year than Paul Pewitt's Tyshun Mitchell, who netted 1,674 yards from scrimmage and scored 28 touchdowns.
Mitchell is gone, and it will be up to players like quarterback Lucas Hungerford and running back Labrandon Houston to pick up the slack in the Brahmas' offense.
Hungerford, a dual-threat weapon, accounted for more than 2,900 yards of offense and 35 touchdowns as a junior. Houston, meanwhile, led Pewitt in rushing with 1,063 yards and nine touchdowns.
The duo is one of the reasons why second-year head coach Ryan Gentry is excited about the future.
Defense: It was a rough go of it on the defensive side of the ball for Pewitt last season, as the Brahmas yielded an average of more than 38 points per game.
Only three defensive starters return to the field this season, so Pewitt will need several new faces to step up.
Senior Jackson Fitts is the Brahmas' top returning defender. He was responsible for five takeaways a season ago.
2017 outlook: Paul Pewitt has been about as consistent as any program in East Texas in recent years. The Brahmas have qualified for the playoffs in all but one season since 1995.
Only eight total starters return from last year's team that finished tied with Hooks for second place in the district.
Hungerford and Houston are good pieces to build around, but Pewitt needs several other players on each side of the ball to make a serious run at the league championship and beyond.
5. DeKalb Bears
- Coach: Eddy May
- 2016 finish: 5-6 (3A Division II bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 7 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
- RB Jaquan Jackson, Sr., 6-1, 173
- QB Tristen Jamison, Jr., 6-2, 160
- LB DJ Gray, Sr., 5-9, 163
- LB Dalton Hanna, Sr., 6-2, 180
- LB Daniel Hendricks, Sr., 5-8, 160
- OL Garrison McKinnie, Sr.
- DB Timon Proby, Sr.
- LB Alex Clark, Jr., 5-7, 160
2017 outlook: DeKalb accomplished something last season it hadn't since 2008, and that's reach the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
The Bears earned the district's fourth and final playoff spot through a head-to-head tiebreaker with Ore City. However, DeKalb's first postseason victory since 2008 had to wait at least one more year.
There's plenty of reason for optimism as the Bears bring back multi-purpose weapon Jaquan Jackson (1,527 total yards, 13 touchdowns) and quarterback Tristen Jamison, who earned valuable experience as a sophomore.
DeKalb suffered district losses to New Diana, Daingerfield, and Paul Pewitt, but a surprise late-season win over Hooks ultimately got the Bears back into the playoff chase.
Another win against one of those four teams is likely needed for DeKalb to reach the playoffs a third straight season.
6. Ore City Rebels
- Coach: Tracy Blankenship
- 2016 finish: 4-6
- Returning starters: 3 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
- RB Garrett Young, Sr.
- LB Aaron Nigreville, Soph., 5-7, 140
- QB Tanner Organ, Sr., 6-2, 160
- LB Keyshawn Kyle, Jr., 6-1, 157
- DL Jose Lopez, Soph.
- DB Jashaun Cook, Sr.
- DB Dillon Young, Sr., 5-9, 165
- ATH Joe Campbell, Sr., 5-7, 134
Offense: The offensive side of the ball was not the problem for Ore City, as it averaged almost 40 points per game last season.
Repeating that kind of production in 2017 could be difficult as fourth-year head coach Tracy Blankenship must replace eight starters from the offense.
Running back Garrett Young, who missed most of last season because of injuries, could be an X-factor, while quarterback Tanner Organ gained some valuable experience behind center a season ago.
Defense: It was a weekly struggle for Ore City's defense in 2016. The Rebels allowed a whopping 44.7 points per game on the defensive side of the ball.
During a five-game losing streak, the Rebels gave up 42, 91, 40, 70, and 35 points in losses to Troup, Tyler Bishop Gorman, Mount Vernon, Paul Pewitt, and DeKalb.
Ore City is hoping that with eight defensive starters returning, including linebackers Aaron Nigreville and Keyshawn Kyle, the Rebels can find much more success in containing opposing offenses moving forward.
2017 outlook: Following consecutive nine-win seasons in 2014 and 2015, Ore City couldn't keep the train moving last year after moving up a classification to 3A.
The Rebels tied for fourth place in the district, but a 35-31 loss to DeKalb was ultimately the difference between reaching the playoffs and staying home.
Work will need to be done on the offensive side of the ball, but if the defense can make significant strides with its level experience, it's not out of the realm of possibility to see Ore City challenge for a playoff spot once again.
7. Queen City Bulldogs
- Coach: Justin Burk
- 2016 finish: 1-9
- Returning starters: 8 offensive, 9 defensive
Players to watch
- RB/DB David Price, Jr., 5-9, 150
- OL/DL Daniel Keene, Sr. 6-0, 220
- OL/DL Copeland Keener, Sr.
- WR/DB Tyler Adcock, Sr.
- RB/DB Nate Burden, Sr.
- DL Austin Lowe, Sr., 6-4, 175
- QB Dylan Scott, Soph., 6-1, 145
- OL/DL Christian Fitzgerald, Sr., 6-3, 176
Offense: The Bulldogs didn't do much winning last season, and the offense contributed to the struggles.
Queen City averaged a little more than 20 points per game in 2016, but there were a few games the young Bulldogs offense began to show signs of life.
In the season finale against playoff qualifier DeKalb, Queen City put up 35 points, easily the most it had scored during district play.
Eight offensive starters return, including junior running back David Price.
Defense: The Queen City defense allowed more than 40 points per contest last season, so there are issues that must be addressed.
Fortunately, the Bulldogs are bringing back the majority of the defensive starters.
Senior defensive back Tyler Adcock is the last line of defense for Queen City, and it will be his responsibility in part to limit big plays, which was in some ways the downfall of the Bulldogs' defense a season ago.
2017 outlook: Queen City is currently mired in an eight-game district losing streak, but with more returning starters than any team in the district, the Bulldogs are confident they can make significant improvements.
It sounds simple, but Queen City must be much better on both sides of the ball if it hopes to be competitive with the rest of 7-3A Division II.
It's year two under head coach Justin Burk, so the players should all be familiar with what's expected.