Judson football coach Sean McAuliffe hasn’t bought his copy of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine, but he’s heard the buzz around the community that’s grown accustomed to seeing the Rockets make long playoff runs since the early 1980s.
“There’s a little bit more this year, and it probably has a lot to do with the quarterback,” McAuliffe said, referring to senior Julon Williams, who has started since his freshman season. “If I had 100 bucks for every time a parent has stopped me in the parking lot in the morning to tell me what we’re fixing to do and this is the year, I probably wouldn’t have to coach anymore.”
Texas Football, which hit the newsstands recently, has Judson pegged No. 1 in its preseason Class 6A state rankings. The Rockets are picked to win the 6A Division I state championship and Steele, their district rival, is favored to take the 6A Division II title. The Knights are No. 4 in the Texas Football Top 40.
Although Judson hasn’t won a state title since 2002, expectations are always high for the Rockets. The top billing by Texas Football has only added to the anticipation for another season.
“I think it’s a credit to the program as a whole and what we’ve done the last four years or so,” said McAuliffe, who is preparing for his fourth season as the Rockets’ head coach. “In all actuality, it’s just a start. It just means we’ll be everybody’s Super Bowl, like we’ve been, I don’t know, nearly 35 years.
“The only No. 1 I’m really concerned with is the one on the third Saturday in December at about 8 o’clock. I’ll be a happy camper if we’re No. 1 then. But this preseason stuff is exciting. Everybody wants to be relevant. I’m glad for our kids. Hopefully, we do it justice.”
The 6A Division I title game kicks off at 3 p.m. on Dec. 23 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, with the Division II final following at 7 p.m.
Steele, which played its first varsity season in 2006 and moved up to the UIL’s largest classification in 2010, is 7-0 against Judson. The Rockets host the Knights on Sept. 29 this season.
“Judson is going to be good,” first-year Steele head coach David Saenz said Wednesday. “Judson’s always good. Coach McAuliffe does a great job over there. It’s always a battle when we play those guys. I don’t expect anything different this year. Our whole district is tough. You’ve got to prepare and be ready to play every week.”
Smithson Valley, which competes in District 27-6A with Judson and Steele, is No. 22 in the Texas Football rankings. Favored to win the 28-6A crown, O’ Connor is No. 29 and the only other Greater San Antonio team in the 6A rankings.
Williams made Texas Football’s preseason 6A All-State team and is the magazine’s 6A Offensive Player of the Year. Steele senior safety Caden Sterns, also on the All-State squad, is Texas Football’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year for all classes. Sterns has committed to Texas.
Sterns is the only San Antonio-area player on the first unit of the magazine’s Super Team. Smithson Valley senior cornerback/safety Trevon Moehrig-Woodard, who has committed to TCU, and Clemens senior wide receiver Tommy Bush made the second team.
Senior cornerback Zaire Taylor (Houston) and senior defensive back Millard Bradford, both of O’Connor, and Clemens senior running back Brenden Brady (Rice) landed spots on the third unit.
Judson returns 16 starters, seven on offense and nine on defense, from a 9-3 team that lost a 24-21 overtime thriller to Austin Westlake in the second round of the playoffs.
Any discussion of the Rockets starts with Williams, who made Texas Football’s preseason 6A All-State team. Recruited heavily, Williams completed 85 of 145 passes with six interceptions for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. He also rushed for 854 yards and 16 TDs on 135 carries.
“Julon has looked just a whole lot more comfortable this summer,” McAuliffe said. “He knows it’s his last hurrah. He’s done what we’ve asked him to do and done things on his own, too. He’s growing into more a leadership role.
“He’s not a very vocal kid when he’s on the field, but he’s one of the more competitive kids I’ve ever been around. It’s just a different personality type. He’s not a rah-rah type of guy, but he’s evolving more and more into a leader.”
Judson’s defense will be anchored by 6-foot-5, 260-pound junior end Demarvin Leal, who had 10 sacks last season. To hear McAuliffe tell it, Leal could develop into a better defensive end than Alton Robinson, a standout on the 2015 team that lost in the state semifinals.
“He’s got offers from every school in a Power Five conference,” McAuliffe said. “I think he’s got a chance to be better than Alton Robinson was, and that’s a big, bold statement because that guy was unbelievable. He’s bigger than Alton and he does some of the same things Alton was able to do.”
Judson’s football tradition is second to none in Greater San Antonio history. The Rockets have won six state championships, including one by forfeit, and played in five other state finals.
Saenz, co-defensive coordinator at Steele since 2012, was promoted to head coach in mid-February after Scott Lehnhoff resigned to become athletic director of the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD.
Lehnhoff went 53-7 in four seasons, guiding Steele to the 6A Division II state final last year and the state semifinals two other times. Saenz has been on the Knights’ coaching staff since 2007.
Steele returns 10 starters, six on offense and four on defense, from a team that finished 14-2 last season. Sterns finished his junior season with 88 tackles and four interceptions. He also saw spot duty at wide receiver, catching 17 passes for 302 yards and five TDs.
“Caden always has been an extremely hard worker, but now he’s taking a little more initiative as a leader,” Saenz said. “He’s more vocal. He’s holding himself, along with his teammates, accountable. He understands what it takes. A lot of guys on the team understand what it takes to get to where we want to go."
“The way that Caden goes about his business, not only in athletics but in the community and in the classroom, is impressive. We’ve been lucky at Steele to have players of that caliber who take pride in that. They’re not selfish kind of guys.”
Brady was the Knights’ leading rusher, gaining 1,685 yards on 240 carries for a 7.0 average and scoring 20 TDs. He also caught 16 passes for 277 yards and three TDs.
“Without a doubt, the sky is the limit for Brenden,” Saenz said. “He has great patience as a running back. He’s a great kid. He does well in class. He’s committed to Rice, and that’s a tough academic school. He’s a lot like Sterns. He’s very intelligent.”
Steele has been the San Antonio area’s dominant program since it won the 2010 Class 5A Division II state championship in only its fifth varsity season. The Knights have gone 96-11 since moving into the UIL's largest classification in 2010, and haven't lost two regular-season games in the same year since stumbling to a 1-2 start during their title season.
“Our goal is to continue the tradition and the culture we have at Steele,” said Saenz, 38. “Our kids are buying in and working hard this summer. We know it’s a process.”