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Harker Heights Evening Star
Harker Heights Evening Star

District 8-6A football preview, first games start tonight

By Tony Adams,

Sports Editor

There is already a significant amount of buzzing going on in the area about District 8-6A.

With new head coaches in Belton’s Sam Skidmore and Shoemaker’s Toby Foreman, District 8-6A football should be another fun season.

Here is a look at the District 8-6A teams, aside from Belton.

Copperas Cove Bulldawgs

Head coach: Jack Welch. 2016 Record: 4-5, District 8-6A record/placement: 2-4, fifth-place tie.

Coach Welch is the dean of District 8-6A coaches, having been at the Bulldawgs since 1994. Over the years, he has coached some NFL-caliber players, such as former defensive back Charles “Peanut” Tillman and quarterback Robert Griffin III.

The 2016 season was a bit of a struggle for the Dawgs, but 2017 should see an upswing.

When you talk about some of the area’s three-way players, Floyd Connell is in the conversation. The talented wide receiver/defensive back presents a legitimate deep threat on the offensive side of the ball (424 receiving yards, 5 TDs), in the defensive secondary (28 tackles, 3 INTs) and on special teams (22.0 yards per kick return, 7.9 yards per punt return). Connell’s talent gives quarterback Jaylen Smith (32-of-64, 512 yards, 3 TDs) a serious weapon on offense. With running backs Shontez Simmons and Mark Gastello behind him, Smith has good support in the running game. Combine that with an always rugged, tough offensive line and Cove will score some serious point totals again this season.

The defense is going to have to be a key to the success in 2017. An ugly, rain-soaked 56-21 at the hands of Belton at Bulldawg Stadium was a bitter season-ending taste for the Dawg Pound to take after two weeks of tough losses prior. But a healthy defense coming into the campaign will go a long way. Adrian Alejos at defensive back and Juan Jimenez at defensive lineman will be two of the featured defenders in the defense.

Cove’s non-district schedule features a road trip to College Station take on A&M Consolidated on Sep. 1 and to Andrews at Sep. 15 to play El Paso Franklin. The home non-district slate has Universidad Autonoma Nuevo Leon coming the Dawg Pound on Sep. 8 and Garland Sachse coming to Cove on Sep. 22.

The district home games have the Midway Panthers coming in on Sep. 29, Ellison on Oct. 13 and Killeen on Nov. 3 The district away games consists of two at Leo Buckley Stadium (Shoemaker on Oct. 6 and Harker Heights on Oct. 26) and one at Belton (Nov. 10). Cove’s open week this season is on Oct. 20.

Ellison Eagles

Head coach: Trent Gregory. 2016 Record: 6-4, District 8-6A record/placement: 2-4, fifth-place tie.

Coach Gregory still has the Eagles on the upswing with back-to-back 6-4 seasons, which is a far cry from before he arrived. In the previous three seasons before Gregory’s tenure, the team had lost 29 consecutive games.

The offense will have a bit of a new look, following the graduation of talented quarterback Carl Robinson III and wide receiver X’zavier Green. Robinson (211-of-335, 3,043 yards, 32 TDs in 2016) and Green (65-919, 10 TDs, 10.5 yards per punt return) were two of the key cogs in the Eagles’ offensively productive 2016 campaign.

Talented wide receiver Ta’Von Gwynn (45-676, 7 TDs) is a candidate to take snaps, with Breezion Spiller as a projected quarterback in development. Jyaire Shorter (43-743, 9 TDs) was a solid contributor last season and looks to be the feature receiver. Kipshawn Washington, Tye Hill and Terry Gillespie will add speed to the Eagles’ running and passing game. The offensive line, led by Kaleb Luna, performed well in protecting Robinson last season and look to continue the trend in 2017.

Washington was also a big part of the Eagles’ defense last season, pulling down three of the secondary’s nine interceptions. Mike Adams and Rian McKinley will return to help out. While the secondary helped Ellison stay in the middle of the pack in the passing game (170 yards per game), they had trouble containing the run (237 yards per game). Everitt Rogers and Aubrey Kelly as projected to help shore up the run defense.

Special teams is a game-changer for the Eagles and Morgan Button is both the punter and kicker for Ellison. Averaging 33 yards per punt in 2016, Button was the sixth-leading scorer in the district and second-leading scorer as a kicker (45 PATs, 7 FGs, 66 points). McKinley averaged 17.9 yards per kickoff last season for the Eagles.

The Eagles’ non-district road schedule will take them to Leander to take on the Lions at A.C. Bible Stadium on Aug. 31, at Stony Point on Sep. 8 and to Montgomery on Sep. 15. The lone non-district home game is against University on Sept. 22.

The District 8-6A home games feature Buckley home-side tilts against Shoemaker on Sep. 29, Harker Heights on Oct. 20 and Belton on Nov. 2. The district road trips for Eagles will at Copperas Cove on Oct. 13, Killeen on the visitor’s side of Buckley on Oct. 27 and at Midway on Nov. 9.

Killeen Kangaroos

Head coach: Neil Searcy. 2016 Record: 5-6, District 8-6A record/placement: 4-2, third place, D-II bi-district finalist.

Searcy’s Roos had playoff appearance in the 2016 6A Division II playoffs, but it was a short one. Killeen fell to the eventual D-II State Champion DeSoto Eagles 51-7.

One thing that teams will get with a Neil Searcy team is defense. Killeen has lots of it. Linebackers Tula Lefotu and Vrashon Walker are solid run-stoppers and defensive end Isaiah Bennett led the Roos in tackles (83), tackles for loss (12) and sacks (8). Chris Ingram and Amir Ward are two able-bodied linebackers that are solid in the run and pass games. The Roos forced 20 fumbles and scooped up 18 of them a year ago.

Marcellus Johnson is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback who can toss the ball (1,487 yards passing) and run the ball (771) with equal effectiveness. Wide receiver Montego Muckelvaney (920 yards, 10 TDs) was the Roos’ leading receiver last season and is Dave Campbell’s Texas Football’s District 8-6A Preseason Offensive MVP.

Killeen will need to correct the turnover problems that plagued them in games a year ago. The Roos offense had 25 fumbles (13 lost) in 10 regular season games and 10 interceptions thrown, including four in one game to Belton’s Garrison Vaughn. Two of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns.

The Roos have Buckley non-district tilts against Stony Point on Sept. 1 and Leander Vandegrift on Sept. 22. They travel to Waco ISD Stadium to play the Lions on Sept. 8 and to Round Rock McNeil on Sept. 22.

Killeen will have the open week of District 8-6A on Sept. 29. They then open at Belton on Oct. 6. Copperas Cove is a tough road test on Nov. 3. The Roos play at Buckley against Midway (Oct. 12), on the visitor’s side against Shoemaker (Oct. 19), back to the home side against Ellison (Oct. 27) and finish up with Harker Heights on Nov. 10.

Waco Midway Panthers

Head coach: Jeff Hulme. 2016 Record: 8-3, District 8-6A record/placement: 6-0, first place, D-II bi-district finalist.

One thing that you can be sure of with the Midway Panthers: You better score a bunch of points because their offense will catch you if you don’t.

Midway’s high-powered offense is in tact and ready for another run. The last year’s run had the Panthers on an eight-game winning streak and undefeated run through district before falling to Cedar Hill at Midway ISD Stadium in the opening of the 6A Playoffs.

Quarterback Tanner Mordecai had 2,500 combined yards (1,800 passing, 700 rushing), despite missing the first two games due to injury and was a key component for the Panthers offense. Running back James Fullbright has alarming breakaway speed. Wide receiver C.J. Johnson and tight end David Priebe are legitimate Division I talents in the passing lanes that help the Panthers roll. Add in a quality offensive line and this team continues to be one of the premier teams, not only in the district, but the state as well.

Linebackers Matt Barnhill and Grant Graves are a pair that have tenacity and Jaxon Player (88 tackles and eight sacks) is the anchor of the defense. Player was named DCTF’s Preseason Defensive MVP for District 8-6A. Grant Parnell, David Benton and Jackson Hicks are also three members of the Panthers’ defense to watch for.

The Panthers scored 376 points in 11 games last season (34.2 points per game) and allowed 333 points (30.3 points per game). The losses were by a total of 114 points, which skews the points allowed number. They only allowed 159 points in district play versus scoring 289.

The Panthers have a chance to redeem their two opening losses from last season, as they travel to Cedar Park on Sept. 1 and host Cedar Ridge on Sept. 8. They travel to Temple to take on the Wildcats on Sept. 15 and round out the non-district docket against Waco on Sept. 22.

The district ledger has the Panthers traveling to Copperas Cove on Sept. 29 and to Buckley to play Killeen on Oct. 12 and Shoemaker on Nov. 3. Midway hosts Harker Heights on Oct. 6, Belton on Oct. 20 and Ellison on Nov. 9.

Shoemaker Grey Wolves

Head coach: Toby Foreman. 2016 Record: 0-10, District 8-6A record/placement: 0-6, seventh place.

To say that the 2016 season for the Grey Wolves was frustrating would be an understatement.

One season removed from a 9-3 finish, a playoff run and near win against North Mesquite in the area playoff round, Shoemaker landed on very hard times.

The schedule started with a shocking loss to Autonoma de Nuevo Leon 23-14 and had two late losses to Ellison (24-21) and Killeen (16-13). To make matters more frustrating, they lost to Belton and Midway to round out the season by a combined score of 108-7.

Shoemaker has a great deal to play for this season, including playing for the school’s namesake, former Army General and Bell County Commissioner Robert M. Shoemaker, who passed away on June 21.

Foreman, who guided Beaumont Central to a 5-6 record and a playoff berth in 2016, takes over for Johnnie Fair. He will be helping build back up an offense that scored just 113 points a year ago (11.3 points per game) and 65 points in six district games (10.8 points per game, all district lows. Cameron Bausley and Tiji Paul both play two-way football, with Bausley serving as running back and linebacker and Paul as wide receiver and defensive back. Both are players capable of big plays. The Grey Wolves always have solid linemen on both sides of the ball. The big question will be who emerges at quarterback. The winner of that job will most likely be a dual-threat athlete and need to be a locker room leader and field general. The Grey Wolves averaged 164.4 yards per game on the ground and 165.2 yards per game on the ground, which was the district’s closest pass-to-run ratio in the district last season.

Although the offense is a work in progress, the strength in the Grey Wolves lies in the defense. Nathalohm Nanai (6-2, 270) is a big-bodied defensive lineman that has deceptive speed. Darel Crowder and DeAnte Gaffney are speedy linebackers that can make waves in the passing lanes.

Despite not winning a game in 2016, Shoemaker had the second-best defense, averaging 330 yards allowed per game. Talk about pass-to-run ratio, the Grey Wolves allowed the same amount of yardage passing as they did rushing: 1,650.

Shoemaker hosts Nuevo Leon at Buckley to open up the season on Sept. 2. They host College Station (Sept. 8), travel to Cedar Ridge on Sept 14 and wrap the non-district schedule against San Angelo Central on Sep. 21.

The Grey Wolves get the benefit of playing five of their district games this season at Buckley. They will be on the visitor’s side against Ellison (Sept. 29) and Harker Heights (Oct. 13) and the home side against Copperas Cove (Oct. 6), Killeen (Oct. 19) and Midway (Nov. 3). The only road trip away from Buckley in district is to Belton on Oct. 27. Their open week is at the tail end of the schedule, meaning the Grey Wolves will play 10 weeks before a break.

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