It seemed fitting for Robert E. Lee seniors Zacchaeus Page, Deontay Walker, Lumi Kaba and LaQuintas Wallace to be photographed on a runway in front of a private plane.
“We are looking to take off this season,” said Kaba, a three-year starter at kicker. “We want to leave the last two years behind.”
The Red Raiders managed a combined three wins in 2010 and 2011 and missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2005.
This prompted a shakeup of nearly the entire coaching staff.
Out went longtime defensive coordinator and interim head coach Randy Huffstickler (now a defensive coordinator with Lindale), offensive line coach Gary Fleet (retirement), and receivers coach Dow Wynn III (retirement).
In comes Darrell Piske, Lee’s 10th head coach in the program’s 53-year history. Piske comes to Tyler from Fairfield, where he led the Eagles to a 9-2 record in 2010 undefeated regular season in 2011.
The Red Raiders are just three years removed from going three rounds deep in the Class 5A Division I playoffs and eight years from celebrating a Division I state championship.
The resounding feeling in the Lee locker room is the past two years have simply been a rough patch and Piske has a history of getting programs back on track.
Before to Fairfield, Piske overhauled a Valley Mills football team that hadn’t won more than four games in a season for the previous seven years. He led Valley Mills to the state semifinals in 2006 and was a Gordon Wood Coach of the Year finalist in 2006.
Piske has been in this position before and admits there is not a genie in a bottle that will fix things immediately.
And even if things turn around sooner rather than later, the ultimate goal is to progress forward.
“We’ve got some good pieces to the puzzle, but we’ve got to overcome that mentality because losing is a habit, just like winning is,” Piske continued. “That was the hardest thing to overcome at Fairfield.
“They’d been down and that first year we went 3-7, which was more games than they’d won in three years, but the next year we lost the first nine games and they were wanting to (hang me out to dry); it was just one of things where something went wrong at the end of every football game.”
Piske said Fairfield came together and upset Crockett, which he believes helped turn the whole thing around.
“Counting that Crockett game, we were 20-3 the next 23 games.”
The Red Raiders open their season at home against Sulphur Springs before a road test at Lufkin and the annual clash against defending 4A semifinalist John Tyler.
Piske brought with him Dan Roberson from Fairfield as his offense coordinator. Roberson has decades of coaching experience at programs such as Jersey Village and Cypress Springs. Shane Anderson is Lee’s defensive coordinator after being a secondary coach the past four years at Waco Midway, helping the Panthers reach the 4A Division I state final last season.
Other new coaching faces are Brandon Denson (offensive line), Clint Walraven (quarterbacks) and Donnie Leach (tight ends/freshmen). They join an experienced group of assistants that were kept on after Huffstickler’s departure, beginning with Willie Williams (safeties/special teams), Elgin Johnson (running backs/special teams) and Jerry Reed (defensive line), all of which whom were a part of Lee’s 2004 state championship staff. Brent Young (inside linebackers), Jeff Miller (cornerbacks), Brian Lawson (defensive line/freshmen) and David Howard (tight ends/freshmen) all have multiple years with the Red Raiders as well.
Page, a member of the Tyler Morning Telegraph and Longview News-Journal Preseason Dream Team, believes the players and staff can achieve something special.
“Last year we had a lot of downs, but this year I just hope everybody can come together and we can do a lot better,” Page said. “People may see us as the underdog, but we know what we can do. We are going to (try) and beat everyone on (that schedule). We are going to try to take it hard, go full speed and just show what we can do.
BREAKING IT DOWN
Offensive Line – LT Zacchaeus Page (6-4, 285, Sr.), LG William Hults (6-2, 250, Jr.), C Josh Wyscarver-Smith (Sr.), RG Lane Haeger (6-2, 270, Sr.), RT Ian Chase (Sr.)
Robert E. Lee traditionally boasts a sizeable and powerful offensive front and this year’s group fits that mold. Page is at the forefront, along with returners Haeger and Hults. The Red Raiders may have struggled to score points last year (12.9 ppg), but its line helped pave the way for REL to rush for 228 yards per game, highlighted by a victory over John Tyler in which three ball carriers passed the century mark.
In its scrimmage last Friday against Marshall, REL’s line picked up where it left off as a slew of REL ball carriers combined to rush for 281 yards and score four touchdowns. More impressive is Lee’s offensive line incurred one penalty throughout the entire scrimmage.
“Everyone talks about LaQuintas (Wallace) and he has a chance to be really special, but really to me, it’s that O-line,” Piske said. “The guys up front; they’re big and physical and will make anyone running behind them (look good).
Tight Ends – Justin Eweni (6-2, 230. Sr.), Matthew Weeks (6-5, 270, Soph.)
While teams move further and further away from tight ends, the Red Raiders have always embraced the position. Eweni and Weeks are the next in a long line of productive REL tight ends (Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions). Piske said Eweni is a versatile player while Weeks is in a word, “huge.”
Running Backs – TB LaQuintas Wallace (5-10, 205, Sr., 4.5), TB Marcus White (5-6, 185, Sr., 4.8), FB Juwan Banks (Soph.)
The Red Raiders have traditionally been a run-first football team and Piske admits with returning backs like Wallace and White, he has no intention of interrupting what has been a successful status quo.
Wallace was hampered by injuries and unforeseen happenings that limited his production last year. He still managed to rush for five touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
In last Friday’s scrimmage, Wallace only touched the ball 12 times, but it was enough to rack up 154 yards, highlighted by a 48-yard touchdown.
“If you hold your block for a second, you’ve done your job,” Page said about Wallace. “He’s going to take off so fast; you just see him go by. He usually makes a hole himself and just runs through there.”
Piske believes Wallace has a chance to produce a special senior season but said he must keep doing “the little things.”
Wallace is entering his fourth year as a varsity player for the Red Raiders, but has yet to play every game during a season. He put in extra work during the summer in preparation for his senior year and hopes it all pays off in the end.
“I am just going to try and put the speed, the power and all of it together and just do what I can do, and try to do my best,” Wallace said.
Offensive coordinator Dan Roberson said Wallace is the first option, but adds that White and Banks are also going to play a big role in the running game.
“We’re expecting great things out of LaQuintas, but right behind him is Marcus who is a go-getter,” Roberson said. “Banks is a pretty good size player who is real physical. I think we have a chance to have a real good running attack.”
White finished as Lee’s leading ball carrier last season with 668 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 8.5 per carry.
Wide Receivers – Diondre Allen (5-9, 165, Jr., 4.5), Marquiston Williams (5-11, 155, Jr., 4.6), Cedric Brown (Sr.), Bryce Wilkerson (5-7, 144, Jr., 4.4).
Twenty – that is not the number Lee receivers averaged per game, it is the total number of receptions combined by all receivers for the entire season!
Allen is the only returner from last season’s receiving corps who contributed to that number, as Allen finished with four receptions for 47 yards.
If last Friday at Marshall is an indication (10 receptions by receivers) of what is to come, Lee’s receivers are going to have a much bigger role to play in 2012.
“I’ve got four receivers that I feel real confident with,” Roberson said. “They can go in on any play. They are all really good ones.”
Added Piske, “Everyone knows Diondre is fast and he looks fast while Cedric is so slow, they can’t catch him. On the inside is Wilkerson and Williams and they are going to be able to do something with the football; throwing it to those guys underneath and then throwing some fly sweep stuff.”
Against Marshall, Williams led the way with four catches for 100 yards while Wilkerson finished with four receptions for 68 yards, highlighted by a 56-yard touchdown.
“Offensively, we’ve got some potential,” Piske said. “These receivers have us excited because we’ll be able to spread the field if they load up trying to (stop the run).We just have to figure out who’s going to operate and pull the trigger.”
Quarterbacks – Christian Diosdado (Jr.), Raleigh Poster (Jr.), Jordan Richardson (6-0, 175, Sr., 4.5)
Lee held a quarterback competition during the spring and things looked to be falling into place as Richardson edged out ahead of Diosdado and Poster. An injury in the final days of spring took Richardson out for the rest of the summer.
Diosdado and Poster took advantage, alternating quarterbacking duties this summer during 7-on-7 play to lead the Red Raiders to the championship bracket of the Fox Sports Net 7-on-7 state tournament.
Page knows understands the strengths of each quarterback and said Diosdado, Poster and Richardson each provide something a little different.
“It depends on what kind of look we’re going for,” Page said. “If we want speed, we’ve got Jordan; if we want a pocket passer, we’ve got Raleigh (and Christian). But really it’s whoever gets the job done.”
On Friday against Marshall, Poster got the start and finished with a solid 6 of 8 throwing for 130 yards and a touchdown while Diosdado threw for 85 yards and a score.
“We’ve got two quarterbacks working right now with another one of them (recovering from injury),” Roberson said. “
Added Piske: “Both Poster and (Diosdado) throw a really pretty deep ball. Right now both are in the mix until we can figure out who can lead us down the field and manage the offense.”
Defensive Line – DE Amier Wilson (Jr.), NG Triston Taylor (6-1, 255, Jr., 4.9), DE Keith Anderson (6-1, 220, Jr., 5.0).
Lee’s defensive front traditionally stymies opposing offenses by creating space in its 3-4 set that enables linebackers and safeties to blitz in behind them.
Piske said new defensive coordinator Shane Anderson has a philosophy he’s instilling in the entire unit: play fast and get to the football. Take care of your responsibility and get to the football.
None of the three starters finished high up in tackle statistics last season, but Piske is optimistic about this group and the overall depth at the position.
“Those kids are going to be good; they have strong technique and they use their hands well,” Piske said.
Linebackers – Marcus White (5-6, 185, Sr., 4.8), Delkei Derrett (6-1, 240, Sr., 4.7), Britton Ezell (6-0, 215, Sr.), Deontay Walker (5-11, 205, Sr.), Delkei Derrett (6-1, 240, Sr., 4.7),
On paper, Lee was supposed to have graduated nearly all of its starting linebackers, but coach Anderson observed during the spring and found out many players that were playing defensive line, tight end or even fullback could be converted to a linebacker.
The first was moving Derrett from defensive end to inside linebacker.
“I got tired of watching him chase everybody on the field down from defensive end,” Piske said about Derrett. “So we said let’s put him in the middle and let him start from there, giving him a chance on both sides.”
Ezell was moved from strong safety to outside linebacker and Deontay Walker was moved from defensive line to strong safety.
“When we got here in the spring, I kind of let the kids play where they had play in the past,” Anderson continued. “After evaluating some kids and watching them run to the football, we made a few personnel changes.”
The biggest change is at the strong inside linebacker position where tailback Marcus White will go both ways.
“We’re hoping that LaQuintas can carry the load on offense and we can use Marcus quite a bit on defense,” Anderson said. “He’s too good a football player to not work him on both sides of the ball.”
Secondary – CB Bryce Stewart (6-1, 170, Sr., 4.6), CB Davier Harris (5-10, 150, Sr.), S Jay Roberson (Sr.), FS Rezzin Pullum (5-11, 170, Sr., 4.7).
Lee’s secondary allowed opponents to pass for 176 yards per game last season and 17 touchdowns while tallying one interception.
The Red Raiders have already duplicated their turnover mark in the first scrimmage with Stewart notching an interception. Pullum is the unit’s top returning tackler with 26.
Lee suffered through a litany of missed tackles last season and Anderson said that has been a point of emphasis.
“We talk to our kids about gang tackling; about getting 11 hats to the football,” Anderson said. “Very seldom do you get that perfect form tackle. If we can get 11 of them there, we’ve really got a good shot of making the play.”
K Lumi Kaba (Sr.), DS Josh Wyscarver (Sr.), P Kaba, PR/KR Davier Harris (Sr.).
The biggest ooh’s and ahh’s from the crowd last Friday during Lee and Marshall’s scrimmage came when Kaba stepped up for his first punt and launched one into the stratosphere for seemingly an eternity, forcing the Marshall returners to scramble back and try to field the ball as it landed just in front of the goal line.
It was Kaba’s first punt in a varsity game as the returning placekicker takes over both kicking duties this season.
“He’s got such a good leg that a lot of times he might outkick his coverage and that is the only thing that makes you nervous,” Piske said.
Kaba was 4 of 6 on field goals last season and 13 of 19 on extra points. Also a varsity soccer player for Red Raiders, Kaba re-dedicated himself and it showed during spring practice.
“I know he made three in a row from 56 (yards) during spring ball one day,” Piske said. “I didn’t think he could do it again, and he did it again. He feels pretty comfortable from 40 yards and in.
“He’s going to be a pretty good weapon. There is going to be a time when we are at the 50-yard line and there is a decent wind and we are going to try a field goal.”
Back to return will be Harris with Piske also slotting in other backs, receivers and defensive backs.
The main thing Piske stresses should be the first thing a return guy should worry about.
“You want a guy back there who can catch the football; you hate to see that ball hit the ground and roll another 30 yards,” Piske said. “We’ve got guys who can catch the ball and then also do something after they catch it.”
Robert E. Lee Red Raiders
Head Coach: Darrell Piske
2011 Record: 1-9
Last Year’s Results: Euless Trinity L 30-7; Lufkin L 38-20; John Tyler W 39-30; The Woodlands L 23-15; Beaumont West Brook L 37-7; Mesquite Horn L 55-21; DeSoto L 66-13; Mesquite L 38-7; Longview L 45-19; North Mesquite L 28-17.
Records since 2007: 5-6, 7-5, 6-6, 2-9, 1-9
Last Playoff Appearance: 2010
All-Time Playoff Appearances: 17
Returning Starters: 6 offense / 6 defense
Players To Watch: CB Davier Harris, K Lumi Kaba, WR Bryce Wilkerson.
What’s New: The real question is what’s the same? Everything is new with a new head coach, offensive and defensive coordinator. Several players like senior linebacker Marcus White are playing new positions. REL hopes all of the change produces better results.
Team Strengths: offensive line, running game.
Mark Your Calendar: Lee vs. John Tyler: The Red Raiders have an opportunity to even the all-time series with a victory while JT will be looking to avenge last year’s loss to Lee.