LUFKIN — John Tyler opens a new season against an old rival.
When the Lions kick off against Lufkin Friday (7:30 p.m.; John Outlaw Memorial Field at Abe Martin Stadium), they’ll do so with a new mindset from last year.
The superstars who accounted for 86 percent of JT’s offense in 2012 are now in the college ranks and there are no lofty preseason rankings.
Instead, Lions coach Ricklan Holmes said he has a group of disciplined, well-conditioned athletes with something to prove.
“They’ve got a chip on their shoulder,” Holmes said. “With all the superstars that left, they feel like the state of Texas doesn’t feel like they have an opportunity to do what last year’s team did.”
John Tyler enters the 2013 season ranked No. 8 in the preseason Associated Press Class 4A poll, though that counts as second among District 16-4A schools behind No. 6 Whitehouse.
Seven JT players signed Division I scholarships from the 2012 team that spent time ranked No. 1 and finished 13-2 after reaching the state semifinals — standouts such as quarterback Greg Ward (5,053 yards, 56 TDs), receiver Fred Ross (1,580 yards, 22 TDs) and defensive lineman Tyus Bowser (22 sacks, 33 tackles for loss).
The current crop of Lions starts with a stout test against the Panthers, who finished 2012 with a 9-4 record after a run to the regional round of the playoffs.
“It’s a great measuring stick,” Holmes said of Lufkin. “Anytime you’re going against an old 5A opponent, you’re going to have the mindset for your kids that this is going to be what the rest of the year is going to be like.”
JT replaces Ward with junior Geovari McCollister, who has shown his potential in the Blue-White spring game and the preseason scrimmage against Longview. He combined to complete 39 of 59 passes for 385 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in those appearances.
While McCollister won’t have receivers like Ross, Darion Flowers or Justice Liggins to throw to, the 6-2, 200-pound signal-caller has his share of weapons in juniors Nick Cain, Jeremy Wilson and Rodney Bendy. Sophomores Duntavion Gross, Kadarius Henderson and Quaylan Brown are youngsters to watch with plenty of play-making ability.
Offensive weapons are something of a strength for Lufkin, which features two standout receivers in Texas A&M commit Jamal Jeffery and Texas commit Keke Coutee. Quarterback Trey Cumbie will be tasked with getting the ball in their hands.
“They have a lot of great skill guys like we do,” Holmes said. “We feel like we have to contain their guys.”
Holmes said he thinks the game will come down to his offense against the Panthers defense, which features a strong defensive line led by D.J. Williams.
“They’re very athletic,” Holmes said. “I think we’ll be able to catch them off guard with their aggressiveness.”
And despite graduating a wealth of talent, the Lions hope to catch the state off guard with another successful season.
No. 8 (4A) John Tyler Lions at No. 17 (5A) Lufkin Panthers
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: John Outlaw Memorial Field at Abe Martin Stadium, Lufkin
Radio: KTBB 600-AM, Tyler
All-Time Series: 26-24-3
2012 Records: John Tyler — 13-2 (5-0 District 16-4A); Lufkin — 9-4 (5-1 District 14-5A)
2012 Result: John Tyler 35, Lufkin 21
Players to Watch: John Tyler — QB Geovari McCollister, CB Isaac Warren, SS Greg Johnson. Lufkin — WR Jamal Jeffery, DL D.J. Williams, WR Keke Coutee.
Quick Slant: The Lions will have to contend with the standout receiving duo of Jeffery (Texas A&M) and Coutee (Texas), who will have a new quarterback throwing them the ball in Trey Cumbie. Warren, along with safeties Terry Ausborne and Greg Johnson, will be tasked with slowing the Panthers playmakers. On offense, McCollister’s first true varsity action will come against a strong defensive front led by Williams. McCollister will look to distribute to his playmakers, including Reggie Gipson and Nick Cain.
Notable: Since moving to its current Houston-area district in 2004, Lufkin is 49-4 in league games. In addition to JT, the Panthers also play longtime East Texas rivals Robert E. Lee, Nacogdoches and Longview in non-district play again this year.
Quotable: “We’re just as excited as we were when the season was over with and we knew we were going to have to get ready for this season. We had a great fall practice leading up to this first scrimmage. I think we’ve done a lot of good things, shown improvement.” — John Tyler head coach Ricklan Holmes
Stadium Directions: Abe Martin Stadium (Lufkin) — From Tyler, take Highway 69 south to Lufkin. Go east on Loop 287 about 3-4 miles and take the Lufkin Avenue exit. The stadium is on the left.
Next Up: Lancaster at John Tyler, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7; Lufkin at Robert E. Lee, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 6.