Liberty-Eylau vs. Gilmer; 7 p.m., Thursday; Christus TMF Rose Stadium, Tyler
This is a premier season-opening matchup between a couple of East Texas heavyweights. Both made deep runs in the playoffs a year ago and are ranked high in the 2016 preseason polls. Coming off a 12-2 record and reaching four rounds deep in the postseason for the second year in a row, Liberty-Eylau wants more. The Leopards, with several new faces in key positions, enter tonight’s showdown against Gilmer ranked 8th in TheOldCoach’s 4A, DI preseason rankings, while the Buckeyes are third in the DII poll.
Liberty-Eylau DE Lagaryonn Carson, a Texas commit, returns to anchor the Leopards defense. The 6-5, 280-pounder is coming off a season in which he had 122 tackles, 14 sacks, a fumble recovery and an interception. He is a playmaker with the ability to change the complexion of the contest at any given moment. Other defensive players to keep an eye on against the Buckeyes are LBs Michael Lindley and Scooter Hoof, RB/S Kevin Florence.
Offensively, Coach Steve Wells will be call on to replace his QB and a key RB from last year. Expect Decorian Phillips to step in as the signal caller, while Florence and RB Kameron Levingston will be asked to carry the bulk of the rushing attack. OT Franklin Smith and OG Dewaven Bowden are two of four returning starters on the offensive line.
Gilmer is led by a couple of FBS commits in WR LaMarcus Morton (Oklahoma State) and S Kollin Hurt (La. Tech). Morton had 34 receptions for a team-high 589 yards a year ago, and Hurt led East Texas in interceptions with 11 to go along with 114 tackles and 2 defensive touchdowns.
Gilmer DE/RB Kelton Collier poses a problem on both sides of the football for opponents. He rushed for 822 yards and 12 touchdowns as part of the RB by committee the Buckeyes used in reaching the state semifinals, and is a three-year starter on defense.
Gilmer held off a late comeback bid a year ago to beat the Leopards 50-45. JOE’S PICK: Gilmer by 7
Carthage at Gladewater; 7:30 p.m., Friday, Jack V. Murphy Bear Stadium
This is another good early-season 4A matchup, pitting Carthage, No. 7 in TheOldCoach’s DI preseason poll, against No. 24 Gladewater, a team that’s reached the playoffs each of the last three years, advancing several rounds deep in 2013 and 2014 under Coach John Berry.
A year ago when these rivals met, Carthage rallied behind then-backup QB Kason Davis, who came on for injured Jarod Blissett in a 29-28 victory. Now, Davis is the Dawgs’ starting QB. The beginning of the season also marks the return of Keaontay Ingram to the starting lineup. Ingram, who rushed for 637 yards on 74 carries a year ago as a sophomore, missed several games, including the season-ending playoff loss to Waco LaVega in the DI semifinals. WR Dee Bowens, who caught 17 passes for 308 yards and 5 touchdowns, and OL Tanner Elliott are a couple of leading offensive returnees.
DE Tre Gatlin (66, 225), along with LBs Mykel Gates and Ahmad Brown should prove to be thorns in any of the opposition’s plans to move the football.
Gladewater returns an experienced offensive line, anchored by LT Jaden Jackson and RT Trent Gerrs, the offense should benefit by the move of former WR Cameron Callaway Jr., a do-it-all playmaker, back to QB. Berry is expecting RB Darnell McKnight to get most of the carries as the feature back in the 2-back set.
Austin Hawley in the secondary, along with S Clint Starling, and LBs McKnight and Bryson Oliver should lead the Bears’ defense. JOE’S PICK: Carthage by 10
Atlanta at Henderson; 7:30 p.m., Friday; Lion Stadium
Expectations are high for both of these teams, going into the season opener. Coming off a 9-5 campaign, Atlanta returns 10 starters from a state quarterfinalist team a year ago that lost to Gilmer. Among the leaders will be OLB Tristan Allen (6-3, 220), who was credited with 108 tackles as a junior, and OLB Desmond Robinson. Allen has FBS offers from La. Tech and UTEP.
Offensively, the Rabbs will be led by QB Layton Henson, who was 46 of 105 passing for 689 yards besides rushing for 346 yards in 2015, and OT Christian Oliver. RB Kelton Young should get most of the rushing carries.
While Atlanta seeks to continue its deep playoff runs, Henderson, coming off a 7-3 season with a team that suffered numerous key injuries a year ago, looks to return to the postseason in Coach Phil Castles fourth season at the helm. Henderson is ranked 13th in TheOldCoach’s 4A DI preseason poll.
The Lions will be led by a couple of early FBS commits to TCU of the Big 12 in WR/S Trestan Ebner and RB/CB La’Kendrick Vanzandt. Ebner and Vanzandt both missed four games apiece last season. Despite that, Ebner had 14 receptions for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Vanzandt rushed for 511 yards and 6 TDs. … Matthew Childers is returning at QB where he led the team in rushing with 956 yards and 16 touchdowns, and passing (33 of 72) for 558 yards and 4 scores. Childers may split time, at least early in the season, with Trae Hall, who saw most of the playing time in both preseason scrimmages. Another couple of mainstays Castles is counting on will be OL Raini Dorman and CB Tariq Gray.
This marks the third year in a row the teams have met. Henderson won last year’s contest, but Atlanta won 28-14 the last time the Lions and Rabbs played in Henderson. JOE’S PICK: Henderson by 7.
Kilgore at Nacogdoches; 7:30 p.m., Friday; Dragon Stadium
Nacogdoches head Coach Bobby Reyes is beginning his 5th season at NHS. He is a 1968 graduate of Kilgore High School. His Dragons have won the last three meetings against his alma mater, including in 2014, the last time they met in Nacogdoches on a field goal as time expired, 27-25.
QB Noah Hildebrand, an Arkansas-Monticello recruit, completed 50 percent of his passes a year ago as a junior. He will be joined in the backfield by RB Phillip Jones, who rushed for 1,259 yards last season. Hildebrand has a stable of capable receivers in Kris Ward, Jaylon Maxie and Jaylon Douglas.
Expect the Dragon defense to be a legitimate test for Kilgore. The Nacogdoches D is anchored by DB Josh Thompson, like his former teammate 2015 standout Brandon Jones, a Texas commit, DL Benjamin Gibbs, Brad Phillips and De’Vaunte Johnson, along with LBs Derrick Wright and Stephan Adams-Woodson. Thompson had 33 tackles, 19 PBU and 2 interceptions a year ago, while Phillips was credited with 60 tackles and 5 sacks.
Buddy Jackson returns for his second season as the Bulldogs’ starting QB and his second in the pistol option offense. The playmaker rushed for 924 yards and was 50 of 93 passing for 689 yards as a sophomore, guiding Kilgore to the playoffs. LG Dylan Scarlett will anchor a veteran O-line along with seniors Jackson Hatcher and Braden Honzell. … Expect Melek Hamilton and Rodney Coleman to share a lot of the carries in the run-first offense with their QB. Jackson has capable receivers in Cole Wood, Jonathan Shepherd and Kamron Carbonneau.
Key contributors on the Ragin’ Red defense will be DT Kevin Tinney and LB Ty Wallace, along with S Mateo Meraz and CB A.J. Henson. Wallace had 106 tackles as a sophomore and Meraz had 80 tackles to go with 5 interceptions.
This should be a good test for both teams. JOE’S PICK: Kilgore by 3.
Rusk at Center; 7:30 p.m. Friday; Roughrider Stadium
Coming off a 2-9 campaign a year ago, Rusk opens the Jowell Hancock Era against a very formidable opponent in the Center Roughriders, who are coming off a 10-3 season, their first under Coach Barry Bowman.
Returning to lead the Roughriders’ spread offense will be QB Kyle Parks and a couple of talented receivers in Octavious Evans and Jaterrious Evans. Parks (6-1, 190) threw for 2,261 yards and rushed for 1,186 as a junior. His favorite receiver was Octavious Evans, who had 76 receptions for 1,016 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Defensive leaders for the ’Riders will be LB Adrian Johnson and CBs Jadus Johnson and Keyshawn Barnes.
The cupboard at Rusk isn’t bare for Coach Hancock as Rusk returns 15 starters, including QB Jake Hugghins (154 of 278 for 1,976 yards and 21 touchdowns), WR Adrian Morris (21 receptions for 227 yards) and RB Sam Thompson (883 yards) on offense.
Jace Rogers and Jerimiah Lopez are back to anchor the defensive line. Also returning are formidable pieces in LB Bailey Dosser and DB Jonathan Long. Lopez was credited with 55 tackles, and Rogers 45 a year ago. JOE’S PICK: Center by 21