LONGVIEW - The Lions entered the 2014 playoffs a bit unsure of themselves, having lost in the opening round the year before and failing for a second straight year to secure a district title.
This year the John Tyler is steamrolling to into the postseason with a bit of swagger on a seven-game winning streak that included the District 16-5A title.
Cujo jerseys make their first appearance this year as JT opens the Class 5A Division I playoffs against Texas High for the second straight year. Kickoff is 2 p.m. Saturday from Lobo Stadium.
"I think last year's team was nervous going into the playoffs because they didn't do what they wanted to do in district," JT coach Ricklan Holmes said. "This team's mentality is a little bit different because they did take care of business in district, they did run the table, they did go 7-0, they did win a district championship and they're going in the direction they need to be going in to be a very successful team and to make a deep playoff run."
After losing their first three games, the Lions (7-3) are on the prowl against a Tigers (8-2) team that has won six of its last seven.
This isn't the first time JT lost its first three games only to right the ship for a district title. In 2011, the Lions went on an 11-game winning streak after dropping their first three contests and Holmes said this year's team is similar in a lot of ways.
"The maturity and growth of the team, not getting down on themselves, not listening to the naysayers," Holmes said of the similarities. "It's great knowing that we took care of our business in 16-5A to win an outright district championship, to bring it back to Tyler.
"The kids have done a great job improving, coaches have done a great job coaching them, getting them better, working hard with them and getting things done, starting to play a little more John Tyler football vs. Rivals.com/Scout.com football."
Last year in the bi-district round, also at Lobo Stadium, the Tigers jumped out to a 17-7 lead and were on their way to going up 24-7 when the Lions came through with a pivotal fumble recovery near the goal line. Eventually JT made adjustments and pulled away for a comfortable 58-23 victory.
Holmes said his team can't afford start the way it did last year.
"That first half we were terrible," Holmes said. "Second half we came out, we took care of business, but that's what we should've done first half."
That win was a springboard to the state semifinal, the school's third such run in four years, with the 2013 bi-district loss to Mansfield Legacy the lone outlier.
To kick-start another playoff run, Cujo will have to slow down Texas High's J'Kardi Witcher. The senior tailback has been a menace to opposing defenses all year and last week crushed Mount Pleasant for 250 yards and three touchdowns.
"Their running back is amazing," Holmes said of Witcher. "Our defense is really going to have to step up to keep him under control."
John Tyler will counter with the running and throwing of Bryson Smith, who is coming off his second best passing performance of the year against Nacogdoches. Smith threw for 288 yards and two touchdowns to reach 2,042 yards on the season. He's added 1,035 yards rushing and 30 total touchdowns.
Smith will be playing his first playoff game under center, though he was a part of last year's run as a receiver.
It's the matchup of JT receivers against Texas High's secondary that Holmes will be watching closely.
Damion Miller leads the Lions with 769 yards and seven touchdowns while Duntayviun Gross has a team-high 54 catches. Miller made his mark in the playoffs last year, accumulating 378 yards on 10 catches in the playoffs.
"Their secondary's pretty good," Holmes said. "I'm ready to see how we match up against them."
The winner of Saturday's matchup will face either Mansfield Lake Ridge or Dallas Samuell in the area playoffs next week. Lake Ridge is 10-0 and ranked No. 7 in the final AP poll of the year. A JT-Lake Ridge meeting would likely take place next Saturday afternoon in Forney.
First, the Lions have to survive another slugfest with Texas High.
"We're ready this year," Miller said.
Texas High Tigers vs. John Tyler Lions
What: Class 5A Division I bi-district playoffs
When: 2 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Lobo Stadium, Longview
Radio: KTBB NewsTalk 97.5-FM, Tyler
Records: Texas High - 8-2 (6-1 District 15-5A); John Tyler - 7-3 (7-0 District 16-5A)
Last Week's Results: Texas High 35, Mount Pleasant 3; John Tyler 28, Nacogdoches 16.
2014 Result: John Tyler 58, Texas High 23 (bi-district playoffs)
All-Time Series: John Tyler leads 22-18-1
Players to Watch: Texas High - RB J'Kardi Witcher (5-7, 170, Sr.), QB Cade Pearson (6-2, 195, Jr.), FS/WR Jaylen Rhone (5-10, 160, Sr.). John Tyler - WR Damion Miller (6-2, 191, Jr.), S Bryston Gipson (5-11, 175, Sr.), LB Shaundrick Williams (5-11, 220, Jr.).
Quick Slant:It's déjà vu all over again for the Lions and Tigers as they square off at Lobo Stadium in the Class 5A Division I bi-district playoffs for the second straight year. Both teams can make arguments they're better this year, with Texas High coming in with more wins and JT boasting a District 16-5A title. The Lions defense will be focused on Witcher, who ran for 120 yards on nine carries in last year's meeting; the JT offense will be looking to emulate its first quarter against Nacogdoches, when Smith threw for 185 yards on 7 of 8 passing for a 21-0 lead.
Quotable: "Everything happens for a reason and God has a plan and I think that was one of the plans He put in place for us to get ready for a time like this. We roll with it, we got better, we won that game then and hopefully we win now." - JT coach Ricklan Holmes on playing on gaining experience for a Saturday afternoon game through a rescheduled Saturday afternoon regular-season game earlier in the year against Jacksonville.
Stadium Address: Lobo Stadium (9,212) - Airline Rd at Hawkins Pwky, Longview.
Next Up: Winner vs. Mansfield Lake Ridge-Dallas Samuell winner, TBD.