DISTRICT 27-6A PREVIEW: Loaded Judson solid pick to dethrone Steele

Predicting the District 27-6A race

The top four teams from each district advance to the University Interscholastic League playoffs, which start on Nov. 16. The two schools with the largest enrollments compete in the Division I bracket and the two smaller schools advance to Division II.

(School enrollments are in parentheses.)

1. Judson (3,728): District favorite is 0-7 against defending champ Steele.

2. Steele (2,256): Knights starting season with first-year head coach David Saenz.

3. Smithson Valley (2,541): Larry Hill starting 25th season as Rangers’ head coach.

4. Clemens (2,607): The Buffs must replace dynamic QB Frank Harris.

5. New Braunfels (2,336): Unicorns coming off first winning season since 2010.

6. Wagner (2,361): Thunderbirds looking for first winning season since 2012.

7. New Braunfels Canyon (2,451): Cougars have gone 2-8 in each of past three seasons

8. East Central (3,078): Hornets looking to bounce back from 1-9 season.

Preseason Offensive MVP: Judson quarterback Julon Williams

Preseason Defensive MVP: Steele safety Caden Sterns

Here is a breakdown of each team in District 27-6A:

1. Judson Rockets

Coach: Sean McAuliffe, 32-10 in three seasons at Judson
2016 records: 9-3 overall, 5-2 in 27-6A (third)
Last playoff appearance: 2016, lost to Austin Westlake 24-21 (OT) in 6A Division I second round
Starters returning (O/D): 7/9
Season opener: vs. Lake Travis, Sept. 1, Rutledge Stadium
District 27-6A opener: at New Braunfels, Sept. 22

Outlook: Picked by Texas Football magazine to win the Class 6A Division I state title this season, the Rockets return outstanding talent on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Julon Williams, who started 13 games as a freshman, is a senior now and one of the state’s top college recruits. He leads a cast of seven returning offensive starters. Williams finished last season with 1,364 yards rushing, 820 yards passing and had a hand in 26 total touchdowns. The best in Judson’s deep stable of running backs is junior Sincere McCormick, who has been on the varsity since his freshman year. One of the more versatile athletes in the San Antonio area, McCormick had 603 yards rushing, 277 yards receiving and 11 total TDs last year. The anchor of the defense is highly touted end Demarvin Leal (6-5, 270), a junior who already has scholarship offers from Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Houston and Baylor, among others. Coach Sean McAuliffe says Leal could wind up being better than former Judson defensive end Alton Robinson, who signed with Texas A&M in 2016 before legal problems off the field cost him his scholarship. Leal had 52 tackles, 10 sacks and one interception as a sophomore. He is one of eight juniors, six on defense, who started as sophomore last season. Senior linebacker Brody Stoepler, a three-year starter, and senior cornerback Chris Mills II and junior back Rashad Wisdom are other standouts on the defense. Judson has won six state titles, including one by forfeit, but hasn’t taken home the championship trophy since edging Midland 33-32 in 2002.

2. Steele Knights

Coach: David Saenz, first season as head coach
2016 records: 14-2 overall, 7-0 in 27-6A (first)
Last playoff appearance: 2016, lost to DeSoto 38-29 in 6A Division II state final
Starters returning (O/D): 6/4
Season opener: vs. Madison, Sept. 1, Lehnhoff Stadium
District 27-6A opener: vs. Smithson Valley, Sept. 22, Lehnhoff Stadium

Outlook: Saenz starts his first season as a head coach after serving as the Knights’ co-defensive coordinator since 2012. He succeeds Scott Lehnhoff, who went 53-7 in five seasons as Steele’s coach. He resigned to become athletic director of the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD. Saenz, 38, has been on the Knights’ coaching staff since 2007. He takes over a program that has ranked among the best in the state since 2010, winning one state title and playing in two other state finals. Steele has gone 96-11 since 2010, when it started competing in the UIL’s largest classification, and hasn’t lost more than two games in the same year since 2009. The Knights have some empty saddles to fill after losing such standouts as quarterback Xavier Martin (Texas Tech), slot receiver CJ Williams (Navy) and defensive tackle Josh Croslen (Bowling Green) to graduation. But the return of blue-chip senior safety Caden Sterns, who has committed to Texas, and prolific senior running back Brenden Brady, should help keep Steele tough on both sides of the ball. Sterns, who was named Texas Football magazine’s preseason defensive player of the year for all UIL classes this summer, had 89 tackles, four interceptions and four touchdowns on returns last season. Sterns also will see spot duty at wide receiver. Brady had a breakout season last year, rushing for 1,685 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also has received plenty of attention from recruiters this summer. Other players the Knights will rely on heavily are senior cornerback JayVeon Cardwell (7 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries), senior defensive end Juan Henry, junior offensive lineman Stanley Mark, senior wide receiver Onyx Smith (50 catches, 801 yards, 8 TDs) and senior safety JT Woods (90 tackles). Cardwell has committed to Oklahoma State, and Woods and Smith have pledged to Baylor and Bowling Green, respectively.

3. Smithson Valley Rangers

Coach: Larry Hill, 237-67 in 24 seasons at Smithson Valley
2016 records: 8-3 overall, 6-1 in 27-6A (second)
Last playoff appearance: 2016, lost to Austin Travis 40-21 in 6A Division I second round
Starters returning (O/D): 3/7
Season opener: at Pflugerville Hendrickson, Sept. 1
District 27-6A opener: at Steele, Sept. 22

Outlook: Only a 24-17 loss to powerhouse Steele in their District 27-6A opener kept Smithson Valley from winning the league title last year. The Rangers routed Judson 44-14 in their penultimate district game, essentially securing the runner-up spot in the standings. Hill must rebuild his offense after losing eight starters to graduation, including steady quarterback Josh Adkins, who started for three seasons. Adkins, who signed with New Mexico State, was one of the San Antonio area’s most prolific quarterbacks last year. He passed for 2,084 yards and 22 touchdowns, and rushed for 544 yards and 10 TDs. While Adkins will be tough to replace, Smithson Valley’s cupboard is hardly bare. Highly recruited senior Trevon Moehrig-Woodard, who has committed to TCU, is back to make big plays as a cornerback, wide receiver and kick returner. In addition to being the Rangers’ top coverman, Moehrig-Woodard scored six TDs on returns (4 punt/2 kickoff) and caught 11 passes for 378 yards and four TDs. Moehrig-Woodard leads a returning cast of defensive starters that includes linebacker Jaden Deaton, end Alex Flores, tackle/end C.J. Kuehler (9 sacks), cornerback Mason Pierce (5 interceptions), free safety Ricky Rios and outside linebacker Jacob Zuber. All are seniors. One of the three players back on offense is senior wide receiver Edwin Martinez, who caught 32 passes for 512 yards and 9 TDs last year. Junior running back Nick Akin and senior tight end Adoryzel Hunter are two other players being counted on to contribute offensively.

4. Clemens Buffaloes

Coach: Jared Johnston, 29-27 in five seasons at Clemens
2016 records: 5-5 overall, 3-4 in 27-6A (fifth)
Last playoff appearance: 2015, lost to Steele 35-14 in 6A Division II state quarterfinals
Starters returning (O/D): 6/8
Season opener: at Round Rock, Sept. 1
District 27-6A opener: at East Central, Sept. 22
Outlook: Prolific dual-threat quarterback Frank Harris graduated with the Class of 2017, taking a big chunk of the Clemens offense with him to UTSA. Harris rushed for 4,258 yards, passed for 3,896 and had a hand in 101 touchdowns in three seasons as the Buffaloes’ starting quarterback. He helped lead Clemens to the state quarterfinals as a junior, but his senior season ended prematurely when he injured his left knee in the first half of the Buffs’ eighth game. While Harris’ departure leaves a big void, the return of 14 starters should be enough to help Clemens back it back to the playoffs after missing the postseason last year. The headliner among the veterans is highly recruited senior wide receiver Tommy Bush (6-5, 195), who has received scholarship offers from practically every Power 5 school in the country, including Alabama and Florida State. Bush caught 25 passes for 395 yards and five TDs last year. Bush, senior linebacker Anthony Graham, senior defensive tackle Savien Jenkins and senior strong safety Darius Van Dyke are all three-year starters. Graham had 106 tackles last year and Van Dyke finished with six interceptions. Senior end Carter Breu and junior defensive tackles Daniel Williams and Shadane Brown are among the Buffs’ eight returning defensive starters. Senior running back/wide receiver Marshawn Brown is one of the top players on offense. Junior kicker Noah Taylor, who converted nine field-goal attempts, including a 52-yarder, is also back.

5. New Braunfels Unicorns

Coach: Glenn Mangold, 12-19 in three seasons at New Braunfels
2016 records: 6-5 overall, 4-3 in 27-6A (fourth)
Last playoff appearance: 2013, lost to Madison 63-10 in 5A Division I bidistrict
Starters returning (O/D): 7/6
Season opener: vs. Alamo Heights, Sept. 1, Unicorn Stadium
District 27-6A opener: vs. Judson, Sept. 22, Unicorn Stadium
Outlook: The Unicorns snapped a string of five consecutive losing seasons last year and finished with a winning record for the first time since 2010. With 13 starters back, New Braunfels should have enough talent and experience to contend for a playoff spot again. The best of the returnees is senior quarterback Ryan Redding. A dual-threat operator, Redding passed for 1,890 yards and 11 touchdowns and led the team in rushing with 758 yards and seven TDs. Junior Piale Thomas is expected to start at running back, and senior tackle Weston Wright (6-6, 290) will anchor the offensive line. Wright has committed to Texas Tech. Senior wide receiver Tanner Steele will be one of Redding’s primary targets. Senior linebackers Jonathan Pierce (91 tackles, 8 sacks) and Will Coronado (65 tackles, 2 sacks) are the Unicorn’s defensive ringleaders, and senior cornerback Joey Thomas heads the secondary. Thomas finished last season with 43 tackles, two fumble recoveries and one interception. Formerly offensive coordinator at Madison, Mangold is starting his fourth season as head coach at New Braunfels.

6. Wagner Thunderbirds

Coach: Charles Bruce, 9-31 in four seasons at Wagner
2016 records: 4-6 overall, 1-6 in 27-6A (seventh)
Last playoff appearance: 2012, lost to Madison 37-21 in 5A Division I bi-district
Starters returning (O/D): 3/3
Season opener: at Laredo United South, Aug. 31
District 27-6A opener: vs. New Braunfels Canyon, Sept. 22, Rutledge Stadium
Outlook: Wagner won two more games in 2016 than it did in 2015, but still fell short of a winning season for the fourth year in a row. Still, any opponent taking the Thunderbirds lightly this season could get burned. The strength of the offense lies up front, where senior tackle Spencer Burford-Watts (6-4, 270) and senior center/guard Wendell Banks lead the way. Burford-Watts, who has committed to UTSA, had 12 pancake blocks and 87 knockdowns last year. Banks recorded four pancakes and 49 knockdowns. Junior Tobias Weaver is projected to be the starting quarterback. End Sedryk Hernandez (5 sacks) is the leader on the defensive line, and juniors Javon Barnes and Kavon Barnes head the secondary.

7. New Braunfels Canyon Cougars

Coach: Joe Moczygemba, 6-24 in three seasons at Canyon
2016 records: 2-8 overall, 2-5 in District 27-6A (sixth)
Last playoff appearance: 2013, lost to Reagan 49-21 in 5A Division II bi-district
Starters returning (O/D): 5/5
Season opener: at Round Rock Cedar Ridge, Sept. 1
District 27-6A opener: vs. Wagner, Sept. 22, Rutledge Stadium
Outlook: Canyon finished 2-8 for the third year in a row last season, but the Cougars showed flashes of promise in district play. They went toe to toe with state power Steele before falling 21-14, and ended the season with a 17-9 loss to Judson. A 42-35 defeat to rival New Braunfels, which made the playoffs as the district’s fourth-place team, is further proof that Canyon wasn’t that far from making the postseason. Moczygemba was Larry Hill’s defensive coordinator at Smithson Valley for 21 seasons before succeeding Matt Elliott at Canyon in 2014. Smithson Valley became one of the best high school football programs in the state during Moczygemba and Hill’s stint together, going 213-55 and playing in three state finals. Not surprisingly, Moczygemba has made defense his program’s top priority at Canyon. Senior defensive backs backs Fabian Facundo and Klayton Steele, senior linebacker Martin Davis and senior lineman Josh Heiser are the top returning starters. Facundo and Steele also will see considerable playing time as wide receivers. Junior tackle Adam Alcorta (6-6, 310) is back to help anchor an offensive line that will block for junior quarterback Zavier Perez and senior running back Oscar Dean.

8. East Central Hornets

Coach: Joe Hubbard, 1-9 in one season at East Central
2016 records: 1-9 overall, 0-7 in District 27-6A (eighth)
Last playoff appearance: 2015, lost to Stevens 43-6 in 6A Division I bi-district
Starters returning (O/D): 3/4
Season opener: at San Marcos, Sept. 1
District 27-6A opener: vs. Clemens, Sept. 22, Hornet Stadium
Outlook: Hired at East Central in mid-April last year, Hubbard had a tough go of it in his first season as a head coach. Competing in one of the toughest districts in the state, the Hornets went winless in league play. East Central is pinning its hopes for a turnaround on the shoulders of four returning defensive starters – backs Allen Dukes and Damion Quick, linebacker Daveon Johnson and end Jordan Shedrock. All are seniors except Quick, a sophomore. Dukes had 78 tackles last year and Quick finished with four interceptions. Junior running back Michael Stephens and senior tight end Tanner McKay are the offensive veterans. Stephens rushed for 600 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Sophomore Charles Oglesby, senior Blade Strzelczyk and junior Austin Trainer will compete for the starting spot at quarterback. Strzelczyk passed for 700 yards and five TDs last year.   

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