John Tyler will move up to Class 6A next year, once again joining the biggest schools in the state in what is probably the country's most difficult classification.

After six years of playing in the second-largest class, the Lions have left a mark on the division, even if they'll have hoped for a longer run this year.

Cujo ran into a buzzsaw on Saturday, preventing them from making a run to the state semifinals as they had done three of the four years prior.

Nonetheless, 63 wins in six years is an impressive haul, one that coach Ricklan Holmes will hope to replicate as the competition grows tougher, or at the very least bigger, next year.

As John Tyler players, coaches and fans settle down for Thanksgiving dinner, there's a lot to look back on to be thankful for from a 2015 season that featured a district championship and an eight-game winning streak.

Though the Lions struggled early, losing tough games to Plano, Longview and rival Robert E. Lee, they turned things around for a memorable run through District 16-5A and a bi-district championship over Texas High.

John Tyler won't be playing past Thanksgiving for the second time since 2011, but coach Ricklan Holmes' squad continued to be one of the standard bearers of East Texas football.

The season turned around with a 65-32 victory over rival Whitehouse as the Lions nearly doubled their offensive production from the three games prior.

That kick started the Cujo mojo, first with a come-from-behind 30-20 victory over playoff-bound Lindale, an instant-classic 41-38 win at Lufkin with Fox Sports Southwest on hand and an impressive 40-29 win over defending state champion Ennis that wasn't as close as the final score indicated.

JT closed the regular season with comfortable wins over Corsicana (36-14 on a rare Monday nighter), Jacksonville (57-21 on a Saturday afternoon) and Nacogdoches (28-16 after going up 28-0 early).

The playoffs began similar to last year, when JT reached the Class 5A Division I semifinals. This year the Lions played a close first half against Texas High before blowing out the Tigers in the second half, winning 48-21.

This year, however, instead of playing a 7-4 Mansfield Summit team in the area round, JT was matched up against 11-0 Mansfield Lake Ridge.

Lake Ridge remained unbeaten but not unchallenged after facing the Lions in the area playoffs Saturday. The Eagles gave up two touchdowns more than they had in any other game this season. Unfortunately for the Lions, they surrendered 77 points, losing 77-51.

The loss prevented a repeat of 2011, when a first-year quarterback surrounded by plenty of talent on both sides of the ball led the Lions to the state semifinals after a 0-3 start. Greg Ward was the engine on that 2011 team while Bryson Smith was the man for the 2015 squad.

After playing varsity as a sophomore at receiver, like Ward, Smith put up big numbers in his first year at quarterback.

Smith completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,437 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also ran for a team-high 1,441 yards and 21 touchdowns. Of John Tyler's 4,982 total yards, Smith accounted for 3,878, 78 percent. He played a part in 41 of JT's 62 offensive touchdowns.

Smith had two go-to receivers, both filling different roles.

Senior Duntayviun Gross led the team with 63 receptions despite missing the Lake Ridge game with an ankle injury. He tallied 781 yards and five touchdowns, also scoring on a rush and a punt return. The man crowned homecoming king was Smith's top option for moving the chains.

Junior Damion Miller, on the other hand, was the game-breaking deep threat, leading JT with 916 yards on 42 catches, nine of which went for touchdowns. His 21.8 yards per catch average was nearly double that of Gross' despite 21 fewer catches. And the Texas commit will have another year to blossom with Smith.

Aside from Smith, the Lions used a running back-by-committee approach running the ball. Three backs received at least 60 carries, four topped 100 yards and eight players scored a rushing touchdown.

Senior James Allen came on strong in the middle of the season and led the running backs with 486 yards on 107 carries. Senior Dejuan Beal (64-194, two TDs) and sophomore Martrevious Allison (60-146, six TDs) were also constants in the backfield while senior Ka'Darius Henderson (18-151, one TD) had the team's best yards per carry average. And then there's Pierre Leonard, the senior defensive lineman who amassed seven touchdowns on 13 carries as the team's top short-yardage back.

And it was Leonard who was the heart and soul of the defense that was key to John Tyler's eight-game winning streak.

After allowing 45 points per game in their non-district slate, JT held opponents to 24 points per game in district competition.

The defense started with the stout front line of Leonard and Braylon Jones and was protected by senior safety Bryston Gipson, who led the team with 97 tackles.

Leonard tallied 79 tackles, nine tackles for loss, five sacks and 33 quarterback pressures while his bash brother Jones, a Houston offensive lineman commit, finished with 70 tackles while playing both ways for much of the year.

The defense was aided by the growth of several varsity newcomers, notably safety Da'Quaylon Kennedy, linebacker Dewayne Jones and corners Javontavius Mosley and Kieran Freeman, though sophomore defensive ends Dekalen Goodson, Gregorio Guerrero and Tabias Marshall also played large roles. Marshall led the team with seven sacks, Jones with four fumble recoveries, Freeman with five interceptions and Mosley with 12 pass breakups.

The stop unit proved vital in earning JT's first district title since 2012, but was less successful in the season finale against Lake Ridge, when the Eagles averaged 7.9 yards per play, a total topped only by Lee's 10.5 mark in Week 3.

Each year John Tyler sets three primary goals for itself: a city championship, district championship and state championship. Only a district championship was attained this year, having lost 69-38 to Lee and losing in the area playoffs.

Holmes, his staff and his players will have the same goals and perhaps greater challenges ahead of them next year, with 21 seniors and nine starters graduating ahead of the move to 6A.

But the growth the team showed from Week 1 to Week 13 this year leaves Cujo with plenty to be thankful for on a rare Thanksgiving spent at home instead of on the gridiron.


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