2017 Football Preview: District 17-5A Might Have Power Players
The 2016 postseason was a forgettable one for fans of Class 5A schools in East Texas.
This region only has two 5A districts and neither group advanced a team beyond the very first round of either the Division I or Division II brackets. Even perennial power Ennis from just beyond the outskirts of our region fell flat once in the big dance.
Everyone in District 17-5A has a sour taste in their mouth, but hope springs eternal. And this district has some numbers that suggest 2017 could be a far better year.
Ennis is now three seasons removed from its last state championship and returns the right parts to the right places to make a serious title run seem feasible.
But is Ennis the top-ranked team here?
Whitehouse is far more experienced and got back into the playoffs last season for the first time since Patrick Mahomes II's graduation. This could be a big year.
Jacksonville, Lindale, Nacogdoches as well as Corsicana make up the rest of this district, one of the state's smallest in 5A. Four teams in total are going to get out and have opportunities to make runs.
Who's in and who's out?
Our District 17-5A picks are just a scroll away.
District 17-5A Preview
- LB Scooter Baker, Sr., Jacksonville
- DB Jaeshun Bush, Sr., Jacksonville
- WR Cameron Cantrell, Jr., Whitehouse
- QB Jake Clemons, Sr., Whitehouse
- DB Kevion Gabriel, Sr., Ennis
- OL Harrison Gibbs, Sr., Nacogdoches
- QB Blake Hoffman, Jr., Corsicana
- DL Trevor Lawrence, Sr., Whitehouse
- DL Melvin Martin, Sr., Corsicana
- OL Jordan McCray, Jr., Ennis
- TE/LB Josh McDowell, Sr., Jacksonville
- DB Javier Neal, Sr., Whitehouse
- RB Jordan Robinson, Sr., Lindale
- RB Tycen Thompson, Sr., Ennis
- DL Ben Whitaker, Sr., Nacogdoches
- LB/DB DaRyan Williams, Sr., Nacogdoches
- Ennis at Whitehouse, Oct. 13
- Lindale at Nacogdoches, Oct. 13
- Nacogdoches at Whitehouse, Oct. 27
- Whitehouse at Corsicana, Nov. 3
- Ennis at Nacogdoches, Nov. 3
- Jacksonville at Lindale, Nov. 3
- Corsicana at Ennis, Nov. 10
- Nacogdoches at Jacksonville, Nov. 10
1. Ennis Lions
- Coach: Jack Alveraz
- 2016 finish: 7-4 (5A D-I bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 5 offensive, 7 defensive
Players to watch
- RB Tycen Thompson, Sr., 5-10, 180 (1,465 rushing yards, 14 rushing TDs, 223 receiving yards)
- DB Kevion Gabriel, Sr., 5-10, 185 (44 tackles, 3 INTs)
- OL Jordan McCray, Jr., 6-3, 295
- LB K.D. Davis, Sr., 6-0, 195 (63 tackles)
- DB Chris McDonald, Sr., 6-2, 195 (59 tackles)
- RB Kyrie Holloway, Sr., 6-2, 200
2017 outlook: Ennis returns 12 starters from its district co-championship team a season ago and is now three years removed from its most recent state championship. This team could be the next big one for the storied Lions program.
Tycen Thompson leads a power run game that is very experienced at the skill positions. Thompson ran for more than 1,400 yards in just 11 games and was a minor threat in the passing game.
Kyrie Holloway will be Thompson's primary running mate this season and offers a change of pace. A hard change of pace. He's 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and will try to bang up the middle portions of opposing defenses.
Ennis led the district in total points scored last season.
Defensively, the Lions have seven experienced players returning and at least one proven playmaker at the linebacker and defensive backs spots.
Utility defensive back Kevion Gabriel, a junior, led the team with three interceptions his sophomore season. He'll be complimented by Chris McDonald at a safety spot.
K.D. Davis headlines the linebackers with nice size for the high school level.
Ennis' season will go with its offensive and defensive lines. Jordan McCray is a nice asset at the left tackle spot, but the two lines are mostly inexperienced.
Forging lines will definitely be the Lions' emphasis here in the preseason.
John Tyler, Dallas South Oak Cliff and Waxahachie are the big teams on Ennis' non-district schedule ahead of a huge district-opening game against an explosive Whitehouse squad.
2. Whitehouse Wildcats
- Coach: Adam Cook
- 2016 finish: 6-5 (5A D-II bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 9 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
- DB Javier Neal, Sr., 5-10, 160 (63 tackles, 7 INTs, 2 TDs)
- DL Trevor Lawrence, Sr., 6-4, 245 (46 tackles, 10 TFL, 3 sacks)
- QB Jake Clemons, Sr., 6-1, 170 (4 starts, 1,135 yards, 10 TDs)
- WR Cameron Cantrell, Jr., 6-1, 175 (521 yards, 2 TDs)
- DL Christian Owens, Sr., 6-1, 240 (69 tackles, 13 TFL, 3 sacks)
- OL Mitchell Melrose, Sr., 6-4, 225
Offense: Whitehouse's signature high-flying offense is almost entirely intact from last season's push into the playoffs, which was the first time the Wildcats got beyond Week 11 since new Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes II's senior year in 2013.
Head coach Adam Cook had some trouble finding a permanent solution at quarterback last year, but graduation knocked out the dilemmas. It's senior signal-caller Jake Clemons' job to lose, and that does not seem likely.
Clemons got four starts last season and averaged 284 yards per game. The offensive line protecting Clemons is a bit more experienced this season, so expect his numbers to go up.
This could be a breakout season for receiver Cameron Cantrell, the brother of Texas Tech reciever Dylan Cantrell and a Texas Tech commit himself. Cameron Cantrell, a junior, is a 6-foot-1 and 175-pound player projected to be significantly bigger by the end of his high school career. Cameron Cantrell caught for 521 yards and two scores with 40 catches last season.
Whitehouse averaged 19.8 points per game against the district. That number could afford to go higher, and it probably will.
Defense: The Wildcats' defensive side is nearly as experienced as the offense with eight returning starters.
This will be senior defensive back Javier Neal's unit. Neal tied for the East Texas regular season lead in interceptions with seven as a junior.
Defensive end Trevor Lawrence had a big summer and is committed to Texas State. Christian Owens is a second very productive player up front.
Not only is Whitehouse experienced, it owned far and away the best defensive unit in the district last season. The team gave up 18.6 points per district game. Ennis, the second-best unit in the district, averaged a surrender of 23.6 points per game.
2017 outlook: Whitehouse is the district's most experienced team and flashed a lot of good signs as a young team a season ago.
Pulling out of the playoff rut wasn't easy. More talented Wildcats teams in 2014 and 2015 failed to get the job done.
Continuity on the offensive and defensive sides should only benefit the team. This is East Texas' most logical chance of winning the district crown.
3. Corsicana Tigers
- Coach: Steve Hoffman
- 2016 finish: 6-5 (5A D-I bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 6 offensive, 3 defensive
Players to watch
- QB Blake Hoffman, Jr., 5-11, 190 (1,350 passing yards, 400 rushing yards, 14 total TDs)
- DL Melvin Martin, Sr., 6-1, 220
- DL Deontae Martin, Sr., 6-0, 300
- WR Ike Hargrave, Sr., 6-2, 200
- OL Chris Valadez, Jr., 6-3, 255
2017 outlook: The Tigers have nine starters back from last season's bi-district round playoff team, six on offense and three on defense.
Quarterback Blake Hoffman, the coach's kid, was a very pleasant midseason surprise for Corsicana in relief of graduated dual-threat Kishawn Kelly. Hoffman started the final seven games of the season and posted a 5-2 record with a clean sweep of the East Texas district teams. The year ended against Temple, the eventual eventual 5A Division I state runner-up.
Corsicana does have to replace some receivers, but Ike Hargrave is back after a 500-yard junior season and should be Hoffman's lifeline to another solid season.
Other than those two skill players, most of the Tigers' experience is along its offensive and defensive lines.
Melvin Martin and Deontae Martin were two of the team's most productive players last season and will play defensive end and defensive tackle, respectively.
Deontae Martin is built like a fire hydrant at 6 feet and 300 pounds. He'll have good leverage against the opposing interior offensive lines.
Corsicana has very impressive non-district contests lined up with Marshall, Tyler Lee and Lancaster. But the squad has the district's worst final two weeks with Whitehouse and Ennis in succession.
4. Nacogdoches Dragons
- Coach: Bobby Reyes
- 2016 finish: 4-6
- Returning starters: 3 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- LB/DB DaRyan Williams, Sr., 6-0, 195 (75 tackles, 5 PBUs)
- OL Harrison Gibbs, Sr., 6-2, 295
- DL Ben Whitaker, Sr., 6-1, 250
- LB Stephan Adams, Sr., 6-0, 220
- WR Jed Morgan, Sr., 5-7, 165 (479 yards)
- WR Dre Rogers, Sr., 6-4, 170
Offense: The Dragons aren't in a great place with eight starters from last season's team lost to graduation. One of them being East Texas' second-lead leading rusher and first among large-sized schools through the regular season in Phillip Jones.
Maybe Nacogdoches will go more aerial this year. Jed Morgan is an important piece and 6-foot-4 Dre Rogers, a fellow receiver, reportedly runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash time.
But to ensure a strong passing game, a new quarterback will have to replace two-year starter Noah Hildebrand. The University of Arkansas-Monticello inherited Hildebrand last month.
Whoever wins the quarterback battle will be protected by left tackle Harrison Gibbs, a returning starter.
Nacogdoches had the district's third-best offense in terms of points scored last season. Lindale trailed by one point.
Defense: The Dragons' defensive unit will be led by an ETSN.fm + APEC Football Recruiting Combine MVP for a second consecutive year. DaRyan Williams won our latest Defensive MVP award and succeeded Nacogdoches-turned-Texas defensive back Josh Thompson.
Williams played linebacker last season, but he might fall back to a safety spot this season. He currently holds one NCAA Division I FBS offer from Texas State and would be the fourth FBS caliber defensive back to play for the Dragons in four seasons.
Nacogdoches had the district's fourth-best defense in terms of points allowed last season. It averaged 26.6 points against its league foes.
Williams is one of six returning starters on the defensive side.
Defensive line could be a real strength this year with Ben Whitaker and Jaylon Flanagan returning.
Stephan Adams highlights the linebackers. He missed half of his junior season due to injury.
2017 outlook: Nacogdoches was a playoff caliber team a year ago and had its hopes stripped by Jacksonville inside the final 10 seconds of its regular season finale.
The Dragons' problem was its inability to win close district games. It only lost a district game by 10 points or more once yet finished the season with a 1-4 league record.
Defense kept the program in games and should be the strong suit again this season. Additionally, there are some promising players on offense.
The biggest thing holding Nacogdoches back today is its unknowns at quarterback and running back. If head coach Bobby Reyes can find first-tier starters at those positions, the Dragons could be the district's best surprise.
5. Jacksonville Indians
- Coach: Wayne Coleman
- 2016 finish: 5-6 (5A D-I bi-district finalist)
- Returning starters: 4 offensive, 8 defensive
Players to watch
- TE/LB Josh McDowell, Sr., 6-3, 210
- LB Scooter Baker, Sr., 6-0, 185 (110 tackles)
- DB Jaeshun Bush, Sr., 6-0, 175 (5 INTs)
- DL Peewee Fuller, Jr., 5-11, 240 (62 tackles, 5 sacks)
- RB/DB Deahvion Spencer, Sr., 5-11, 185 (410 yards, 5 TDs)
Offense: Jacksonville broke through on offense last season, but more than half of its total production came from new Tyler Junior College quarterback Cameron High. The Indians are tasked with replacing a single player responsible for 2,473 total yards and 27 touchdowns.
Running back Deahvion Spencer will probably see his offensive load increase exponentially. He put up a team second-best 410 rushing yards as a junior whereas High surpassed 1,600 ground yards.
Spencer is the clear choice as Jacksonville will probably be forced into a more conventional ground game.
Tight end and linebacker Josh McDowell is a second established skill player on the Indians' offensive side. He owns a handful of NCAA Division I FCS and Division II offers.
Four starters are back in total from a unit that was second-best in the district behind Ennis.
Defense: Jacksonville's defense should hold steady with eight starters back on this side of the ball.
However, there is room to improve. This defense gave up the most points to district competition en route to a 2-3 district record. The team was very lucky to scrape into the playoffs as a result.
Josh McDowell's forte is at linebacker. He'll headline the defense.
Next to McDowell will be Scooter Baker at the Mike linebacker spot. He led the team in tackles a season ago with 110.
Jaeshun Bush recorded five interceptions in 2016 and is the biggest bright spot up top.
Peewee Fuller had a productive season on the defensive line and returns.
2017 outlook: The question is, will the loss of Cameron High be too much for Jacksonville to overcome?
Remember, his running alone accounted for more than 50 percent of the Indians' total offense. The offense will have to rise to the occasion to get the program a second consecutive postseason berth.
Jacksonville also needs improvement on the defensive side. Experience will help.
6. Lindale Eagles
- Coach: Chris Cochran
- 2016 finish: 2-8
- Returning starters: 5 offensive, 6 defensive
Players to watch
- RB Jordan Robinson, Sr., 5-10, 185 (740 yards, 7 TDs)
- WR Colton Brown, Jr., 6-0, 185
- DL Ty McDaniel, Sr., 5-9, 220 (65 tackles, 5 sacks)
Offense: Lindale had the district's fifth-best offense in terms of points scored and brings back five players from the 2016 squad.
Running back Jordan Robinson is a great asset to have and probably will be leaned on as a senior. Three-year starting quarterback Montana Meador graduated the program and is now a walk-on at North Texas.
Finding a quarterback is the biggest issue facing the Eagles. If they can do that, receiver Colton Brown is waiting on the perimeter.
Defense: Lindale had solid defenses the past two seasons, but the players that helped guide the Eagles to the postseason in 2015 and carried over into 2016 are gone. That includes defensive lineman Terrell Cooper and linebacker Kale Ridge.
Cooper now belongs to TCU and Ridge took an offer at Trinity.
Ty McDaniel is now the headliner within the defensive front. He made 65 tackles and recorded five sacks last year.
Of course, former Eagles defensive coordinator Chris Cochran has stepped in as the new head coach. You can bet defense will continue to be an emphasis at Lindale.
2017 outlook: Lindale is in a position where it is forced to replace its most productive players both on offense and defense all at once.
Fall camp will be big for the Eagles as will a non-district schedule that only features Class 4A opponents. Chief rival Van and Gladewater will most likely give the squad its toughest games before district play begins Oct. 13.