Lions look to live up to high expectations

John Tyler players participate in the first day of fall practice at the Lions' practice field. (Christopher R. Vinn | Tyler Morning Telegraph)

John Tyler rolled out of bed wide awake, at the break of dawn, and all ready to put to bed last year's close call with a breakout season. Back among the state's elite programs after 24 wins and six playoff victories the previous two years, JT arrived on schedule for early morning two-a-days, believing their time to end a 17-year drought without a state championship may be close to ending.

The Lions practiced for the first time last Monday, along with all other schools who conducted spring drills. JT worked out twice from 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m., with an hour break in between. An estimated 115 players, including 40 freshmen, participated.

With the offense primed to put up points in bunches with a host of skill players back, and the defensive line as strong as ever, the Lions look to finish what the 2009 and 2010 editions started by making the state quarterfinals. The Lions lost their two games last year by a total of seven points, both in the closing seconds, including a 20-16 defeat to Wylie in the round of eight.

“When you look at the expectations and the hunger to keep them high, they have it burning inside them,” said fifth-year JT head coach Dereck Rush, who is 31-19 at JT, including 7-3 in the postseason. “You look at the team as a whole; we have a lot of offensive linemen and (linebackers and defensive backs) who have not played. In order for us to get back to the point where we want, to win a district championship and a state championship, everyone has to have a breakout season.”

Devonte Haggerty, a senior garnering Division I interest, returns as JT's top touchdown producer. Haggerty scored nine times last year on 51 touches, including seven rushing and two receiving.

JT brings back five key offensive playmakers from a year ago, four juniors: quarterback Greg Ward and wideouts Darion Flowers, Fred Ross and Dequante Woods. The quartet combined to score 14 TDs last year as JT played a total of 14 games for the second straight year.

“Last year we had some receivers that could take it the distance,” Haggerty said. “This year everybody on offense can take it the distance every play.

Everybody showed up on time (Monday). I think we’re all locked in.”

Eric Davis, a senior defensive lineman committed to Texas A&M, heads a front four with three starters back, including senior Tydarious Johnson and junior Tyus Bowser. The trio totaled 23 sacks, three interceptions and a safety last year.

JT, however, faces the task of replacing its entire back seven of defense, and with it the 28 interceptions they totaled as the Lions allowed teams less than 15 points per game.

“Our eyes are going to be glued on them a lot until I feel they understand the overall defense,” Rush said of the eight new defensive starters getting broken in. “We’ve got a lot of young kids eager to get on the field and show their talent.”

The Lions lean on several juniors, meaning Haggerty, Davis and other seniors such as offensive lineman Jarren Gipson, an all-district first-team performer last year, need to assert themselves.

“With (Davis) on defense and me on offense, we have to step up and take on leadership roles,” added Haggerty, who looks forward to giving rousing pregame speeches reminiscent of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. “We can’t depend on underclassmen or anybody else to take our job. We have to step up and lead.”

JT continues working out in T-shirts and shorts the next three days, putting on pads for the first time on Friday. Haggerty, one of the team’s fastest players with 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash, wants to pick up the pace.

“We’ve got a lot of conditioning we need to do,” said Haggerty, who plays in the slot, backfield and backs up at quarterback. “I don’t like going slow. I like getting defenses tired, going full speed.”

A scrimmage against highly touted DeSoto stands on the horizon next Friday in Tyler, with the season opener against traditional power Lufkin on the road around the corner on Aug 26.

“We don’t have time to waste,” Rush added. “We have to focus on the small details of things because the season’s here.”

LIONS’ TALES: The JT coaching staff gained three new members to replace Marlon Byrdsong, a former defensive ends coach who accepted the head basketball coaching job at Atlanta; Sam Padgitt, the ex-running backs coach now at Richardson; and James Fielden, who oversaw the freshmen team. The new coaches, along with their titles and previous school include: Richard Compton (running backs/Mabank), the father of JT offensive coordinator Will Compton; James Croley (defensive ends, Brownsboro); and Daniel Penrod (running backs, freshmen/Rowlett). ... JT will hold its photo day at 9 a.m. on Friday. … The Lions are set to scrimmage DeSoto on Aug. 19 on Earl Campbell Field at Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium, with the freshmen and junior varsity playing on a split field at 5 p.m., followed by the varsity at 6 p.m.

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