John Tyler dropped its season opener, and out of the state rankings for the first time in the last 13 polls, but stopped short of thinking it can’t play until late December for a third consecutive year.

The Lions left Lufkin having made a keen impression on one of the winningest coaches in all of East Texas. JT scored three touchdowns of 60 yards or more before the Lions fell short in a 34-31 loss to a team listed No. 13 in Class 5A. 

“They’re very, very athletic,” said longtime Lufkin head coach John Outlaw. “Their kids played their hearts out. They’ve got a chance (to go far). They just need to keep the right guys healthy.”

A number of positives resulted for JT, which unveiled an explosive offense, gained valuable experience against a top-notch rushing attack, played short-handed at the linebacker position and applied lockdown coverage in the secondary for the most part besides giving up a late 28-yard touchdown pass in the three-point setback against the Class 5A state football power.

As expected, JT’s offense, returning six starters, carried the load for a team which lost eight defensive regulars from a memorable stop unit, one which forced 49 turnovers and allowed only 14 points per game.

JT came to play, evidenced by its early 14-0 lead eight minutes into the game after junior receiver Fred Ross thrilled the visiting crowd with an 89-yard TD reception, and a 73-yard scoring moments later after he reversed the field on a handoff in motion. Ross missed the final 16 minutes of the first half, and JT failed to pick up a first down until he returned in the third quarter, and later scored again on an 18-yard snag.

The offensive standouts proved many for the explosive Lions, from Ross (2-87 rushing, 4-112, 2 TDs receiving) to junior slot receiver Darion Flowers (8-132), to senior utility back DeVonte Haggerty (159 all-purpose yards, TD) and junior quarterback Greg Ward (19-27, 261 yards, 3 TDs). Haggerty stepped in momentarily for a shaken-up Ward to score on a 62-yard keeper in the third quarter.

“They’re very, very athletic,” Outlaw said. “The Ward kid and No. 8 (Ross) are special.”

For those unfamiliar with Ross prior to Friday, mark his name down as one to watch the next two seasons, along with several other of the 17 underclassmen who played key roles Friday for a depth-depleted JT team with only 45 players on the roster. The game’s physical nature, combined with the heat — right at 100 degrees at kickoff — affected several other Lions, with more than a handful going down throughout the night.

“Ross was the leader,” JT head coach Dereck Rush said of his 6-2 target. “We knew he had the potential to be a big time player and he showed up.”

Although the defense gave up 20 more points than its average in 2010, JT showed signs of promise on that end. The JT defense matched up tit for tat with Lufkin’s passing attack, limiting the Panthers to six completions for 78 yards.

JT held Lufkin without points twice after the Panthers penetrated the 40 and the red zone on another.

With apologies to Longview, Robert E. Lee and Kilgore’s backfields, JT will be hard-pressed to find another rushing attack harder to stop than one led by Lufkin’s Jamarcus Walker, who stepped off 189 yards and scored four TDs.

After last year’s loss to Lufkin, JT responded with 12 straight victories to reach the state quarterfinals a second straight year, a point not lost on Outlaw. JT gets an immediate chance to right the ship on Saturday when the Lions entertain Longview, ranked No. 8 in Class 5A, in the Trinity Mother Frances Football Classic. JT won last year’s meeting 28-14 on the road. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.

“If you remember a year ago we stole one from them and that didn’t stop them from going four deep,” said Outlaw, who led Lufkin to a state championship in 2001 and semifinal appearances three times since. “That’s one heck of a football team.” 

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