It was a wild ride for the Franklin Cougars in 2016. Despite a season filled with multiple injuries and a tough start, the Cougars were able to overcome adversity and grab that fourth and final playoff spot in District 1-6A before running into the buzz saw in San Angelo Central in the bi-district round.
The Cougars have been well known to schedule multiple out-of-town opponents and 2016 was no exception. Games against Midland High, Odessa Permian, and Copperas Cove were tough challenges for Franklin, but it seemed that playing those tougher teams helped Franklin as the season moved along.
Head coach Daren Walker will look to lead the Cougars in 2017 hoping that his team doesn’t have to face nearly the same adversity they faced at the beginning of the year. Even with replacing his starting quarterback and several receivers, Walker has players, especially on offense, who got experience last year and will be ready to step in bigger roles.
The Cougars are also trying to get back to more of their winning ways. After winning nine games and a district championship in 2014, Franklin has only won four games in consecutive years.
QB Kaleb Hatch, ATH Eric Phillips, WR Luis Baca, LB Elijah Ruiz
In 2017, Franklin will have to replace many of their top producers on offense, particularly at wide receiver. Eric Phillips was a versatile weapon out of the backfield and as a receiver, while Baca led the team in touchdown receptions (12). The player who got them the ball, quarterback Kaleb Hatch, will also be gone.
Hatch had a good senior season throwing for 23 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions. When the offense was humming, Hatch was a big part of it in Walker’s spread-style offense.
On defense, Elijah Ruiz departs after recording 100 tackles on the season. The senior linebacker was a playmaker on the field, forcing four fumbles on the year.
RB Seth Dominguez, WR Khatib Lyles, QB Chris Kelley, LB Kaleb Gutierrez
Walker has to be excited about having their leading rusher back for the Cougars. Seth Dominguez was very underrated in the city in 2016, finishing with 1,349 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’ll be the main focus on offense for next season and is projected to be one of the best running backs coming back in El Paso.
As for Hatch, his replacement projects to be Chris Kelley. Kelley did see action in multiple games as a sophomore, primarily as a running threat (think Tim Tebow/Chris Leak from Florida). But, Kelley showed he can throw it a little bit in limited action. As he transitions to the starting job, Kelley will be put into a position to succeed, thanks to Dominguez and fellow rising junior Khatib Lyles.
Lyles was the second-leading receiver behind Baca and has shown multiple flashes of how good he can be. His performance against Eastwood (152 yards, 3 TD) was a breakout game for him and became a more frequent target from Hatch as the season went on. As he takes on a bigger role, look for Lyles to be Kelley’s top target.
On defense, Kaleb Gutierrez is the leading returning tackler for the Cougars. He’ll lead a unit that was up-and-down at times last season. The Cougars will also have a number of players back healthy and that could help in terms of depth.
The Cougars have been right in the thick of the playoff race for the final spot each of the last two years. I would expect that they’ll be playoff contenders again in 2017.
As for how the offense looks, I would expect a greater emphasis on running the football with Dominguez as Kelley gets adjusted to the offense. They’ll still spread it out like they typically do; there will just be a few tweaks for next season.
The key for Franklin will be how long the new skill position players take to adjust to greater roles. Health will also be important as they lost a lot of depth as the season wore on. If the Cougars can stay healthy and find a little bit more consistency, everything lines up to get back above .500 and in contention for another postseason trip.
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