Teams look to capitalize on opportunities in restructured District 7-6A

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District 7-6A contains eight teams on the north side of Dallas and is a combination of three districts from a year ago. The Irving ISD schools come over from District 6-6A, the Richardson ISD schools join from District 8-6A, and Dallas Jesuit is the lone addition from what was District 9-6A last season.

In the words of Richardson coach Greg Pels, this district “will be very competitive from top to bottom.” Only three of these teams made the playoffs a year ago and the other five have playoff droughts of four years or longer heading into the season, so there is plenty of opportunity to be had in this district.

Here is a look at the players and storylines to watch for in District 7-6A this season.

Dallas Jesuit Rangers (2232)
Last Season: 9-5; Defeated in regional finals by Spring Westfield
Head Coach: Brandon Hickman: 11th season as head coach
Non-District game to watch: 9/[email protected] Austin Westlake- A road trip for the Rangers down to the Austin area in what should be a star-studded affair. Westlake is coming off their state title last year and will be a formidable test for the Rangers in the last game before they begin district play.
Player to watch: RB Jake Taylor- Rushed for 1,107 yards and added 313 yards receiving a year ago, totaling nine touchdowns. With the Rangers having to replace both their quarterback and leading receivers from a year ago, Hickman expects Taylor to be a key piece for the offense this season.
Storylines: The Rangers are coming off their first ever regional finals appearance in school history but must replace several graduates in key spots. “I think carrying the momentum some from last season into this one is important,” Hickman said. “We understand every year is a new year, but we are expecting guys to step up and lead our team and have really solid seasons.  We lost a lot of seniors but have a good group coming back that learned from the past seniors.” Now graduated quarterback Rance Holman threw 357 of Jesuit’s 365 pass attempts last season, so there will be inexperience at the varsity level at that position. However, Taylor and the new starting quarterback will have highly touted offensive tackles Ryan Lengyel and Matthew Craycraft to protect them. Lengyel was second team all-district last season and currently has 14 Division I offers, while Craycraft, a junior, has an offer from Arizona State. Four out of the five leading receivers are gone as well with Taylor the only returner among that statistical group. Despite this turnover, Hickman said he feels really good about the receiving core. WR Kyle Heckel is a player that the Rangers will look for to step up after he had 162 receiving yards and two touchdowns a year ago. Fellow receiver Charlie Cook is also back after having 14 catches for 137 yards last season. This duo will bring key experience. On defense, there are more holes to fill as eight out of the ten leading tacklers from a year ago graduated. Hickman said the coaching staff has high hopes for the defensive line, which will be led by defensive end Pete Melle. He has six Division I offers and was a second team all-district selection a year ago after having 57 total tackles and 8 tackles for loss. Hickman also believes DB Robert Fitzgerald “will have a big junior year at safety.” He started every game last season and finished with four interceptions and 74 total tackles. “The guys have been working very hard during the pandemic and holding each other accountable which is promising,” Hickman said. The Rangers will hope that hard work pays off as they look to replace several key players and build off of last year’s impressive run to the regional finals.

Irving Tigers (2942)
Last Season: 0-10
Head Coach: Eric De Los Santos: 3rd season as head coach
Non-District game to watch: 9/11 vs. Fort Worth Paschal- These two squared off a year ago with Paschal coming out 33-26 winners. This will be a big chance for the Tigers to get some momentum heading into district play in their lone home game on their non-district slate.
Player to watch: QB Adrian Medina- Took over the starting job as a freshman and threw for 1,265 yards and nine touchdowns. The Tigers will hope he continues to develop as he gets more experience under his belt.
Storylines: With three years of eligibility remaining, the Tigers will look to Medina to be a leader in the turnaround of this program. “I’ve been most impressed about Adrian’s work ethic during the off-season and summer workouts. He’s emerging as a leader,” De Los Santos said. “Adrian will play a big role in our offensive success. He’s smart with a strong arm and can run the ball when needed.” In addition to Medina, RB Nicholas Cole, a Texas Southern commit, returns on offense after being the third-leading rusher for the team last season with 219 rushing yards. The team’s leading receiver junior Jaylon Jackson is back as well after having 366 receiving yards a year ago. On the offensive line, Chris Nevarez will provide crucial protection for these skill players after being a first team all-district selection a year ago. On defense, Cole and fellow senior Trey Rogers are back after starring alongside each other at linebacker last season as both earned a district honorable mention. With Medina still having three years of eligibility to lead the way, the Tigers will look to snap a 22-game losing streak, dating back to 2017, in this new look district.

Irving MacArthur Cardinals (2875)
Last Season: 2-8
Head Coach: Billy Skinner: 1st season as head coach
Non-District game to watch: 9/4 @Lakeview Centennial- The Cardinals’ first road game of the season will be a test against a Lakeview Centennial program that has arguably the best senior running back in the state in Camar Wheaton and is coming off a playoff appearance and 6-5 record last season.
Player to watch: RB Davieon Morris- He will be a key cog for the Cardinals this season, especially as they must replace their starting quarterback and leading receiver from last season. He had 707 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago, earning second team all-district honors.
Storylines: Ronny Mullins retired after four seasons at the helm at MacArthur, calling it a career after over 30 years of teaching and coaching. Billy Skinner comes over from Arlington Lamar, where he had been the defensive coordinator since 2016, and says he has been encouraged by what he has seen in the opening days of workouts. “These are tough kids. They love to compete and push each other,” Skinner said. “There are some incredible leaders on this team. I’ve had some kids really step up and assume that leadership role and it’s refreshing to see.” Morris will be joined in the backfield by 5’7” Demond White, who rushed for 193 yards a year ago. TE Tre Warden, who had 213 yards receiving last season and was a second team all-district selection, and WR Lee Hamilton III, who had 179 receiving yards himself, will provide crucial experience for the new starting quarterback. On defense, senior DE Justin Pierce will anchor the line after leading the team in tackles for loss last season. Junior Quinton Evans is a name to watch in the secondary after having two interceptions at corner a year ago. “I’ve been told that they have struggled to commit to the work required, but since I’ve been here, the buy-in has blown me away,” Skinner said. “These kids do everything with a chip on their shoulder!” With that commitment from his players, Skinner will look to get this Cardinals program heading back in the right direction as they aim to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Irving Nimitz Vikings (2718)
Last Season: 2-8
Head Coach: Brian Rogers: 8th season as head coach
Non-District game to watch: 9/10 @Garland- The lone road trip on the non-district schedule for the Vikings. Both Nimitz and Garland, who also went 3-7 a year ago but is loaded with young talent, will be looking to end their non-district slate with a win in order to carry some momentum into district play.
Player to watch: WR Brandon Wheeler- A shifty slot receiver at 5’9” and 140 pounds. He was a second team all-district selection a year ago after catching 56 passes for 568 yards.
Storylines: The Vikings must replace their starting quarterback, but besides that, they have a lot of experience back on offense. In addition to their leading receiver Wheeler, they also return leading rusher Eric Williams, who had 758 rushing yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore last season. Junior Isaiah Gipson and senior Chris Bennett, who each had over 300 receiving yards a year ago, will bolster the receiving corps alongside Wheeler. Defensive end Tadd Boone will be a key contributor on the other side of the ball after amassing 49 tackles and earning second team honors a year ago. Senior linebacker Eric Velasquez is another important returner on that side of the ball after totaling 52 tackles himself last season. The Vikings will look to find a quarterback to lead their offense as they aim to improve on their 16.4 points per game scored last season and contend for their first playoff berth since 2015.

Richardson Eagles (2771)
Last Season: 5-5
Head Coach: Greg Pels: 5th season as head coach
Non-District game to watch: 9/4 vs. Garland- The second and final home game for the Eagles in non-district play. This will be a chance for revenge against a Garland team that defeated the Eagles 31-24 when these two teams squared off in Garland last year.
Player to watch: LB Marcellus Dennis- A second team all-district selection a year ago after racking up 92 total tackles and two forced fumbles. He will be a leader on defense for the Eagles this season.
Storylines: The Eagles have some holes to fill offensively after their quarterback, leading rusher, and top two receivers from a year ago all graduated. Senior Aaron Bertrand, who Pels described as a “unique talent”, will contribute on offense potentially in multiple roles. He can play receiver or quarterback and also rushed for 269 yards last season. Pels said the team also has two capable starters at slot receiver in multi-sport athletes Judah Allred, a junior who also plays rugby and powerlifts and had 187 receiving yards a year ago, and senior Jagger Schattle, who also plays baseball for the Eagles. On the offensive line, Pels said that Drew Moss and Jaylyn White will be key returners as they will start up front for the third consecutive year. On defense, Pels said the Eagles will “bring back quite a few guys who played for us last season.” Two key players will be Dennis and Marcus Jackson, who had 89 total tackles himself a year ago. They will be a formidable tandem at linebacker. “[Dennis and Jackson] are two awesome kids. They are the guys that get us lined up and make checks,” Pels said. “They are very important for us for victory on Friday nights. The things they do, you can’t measure with a tackle or sack.”At 6’5” and 225 pounds, defensive end Derek Burns will be a force off the edge for the Eagles this season after having 17 tackles for loss a year ago and earning a district honorable mention. The Eagles have been agonizingly close to their first playoff berth since 2012 in the past two seasons with losses to Lake Highlands in the final game of the season denying them both times. “We’ve gotten to the point now where we can compete and function at a high level. We look like a 6A football team now,” Pels said. “The hardest part is getting over that last piece and finding the… one more first down, or the one more touchdown, or the one more stop that you need that can get you that magic win that gets you into the tournament.” Pels has the program going in the right direction after those back-to-back 5-5 seasons. The Eagles will lean on their defense early on and look for their offense to gel quickly as they aim to get over that final hurdle and end their playoff drought that dates back to 2012.

Richardson Berkner Rams (2547)
Last Season: 1-9
Head Coach: Jim Ledford: 21st season as head coach
Non-District game to watch: 9/4 vs. Dallas White- This was a district showdown a year ago but White dropped down to the 5A level at the latest realignment. The Rams will be out for revenge after White defeated them 15-7 in the final game of the 2019 season.
Player to watch: RB/LB Devin Joshua- Had an impact on both sides of the ball last season, rushing for 658 yards and totaling 44 tackles. He will be a key player again for the Rams this year.
Storylines: In addition to Joshua, the Rams also return their leading receiver from last season in senior Denim Jones, who had 215 receiving yards. Daniel Vallejo is back as well and brings a lot of versatility to the offense after throwing for 238 yards, rushing for 377 additional yards, and catching 19 passes for 179 yards. Joshua will be a player to watch on the defensive side of the ball again this season after his impact playing both ways a year ago. “Devin is a high character and academic student who is the consummate teammate.  He leads by example and is totally tuned in to helping his team be the best it can be,” Ledford said. “He is a coach’s dream to coach.  He’s strong, physical, mentally tough and always prepared.” Junior Nick Hallmon had 43 tackles from his safety position a year ago, while on the defensive line, senior Victor Turner is a key returnee after having 11 tackles for loss a season ago. Ledford knows Berkner through and through after two decades at the helm. With that experience, he will look to lead this group of players back in the right direction as they look to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Richardson Lake Highlands Wildcats (2772)
Last Season: 8-4; Defeated in area round by Flower Mound Marcus
Head Coach: Lonnie Jordan: 6th season as head coach
Non-District game to watch: 9/11 @Plano- The Wildcats final game of non-district play will be their lone road trip during it as they travel to Plano. Plano was 5-5 a year ago and will serve as a good road test before the Wildcats head into district play.
Player to watch: QB/WR Mitch Coulson- A better question might be what Coulson can’t do. He rushed for 1,441 yards and 14 touchdowns and threw for 974 additional yards and 10 more touchdowns. These impressive numbers earned him first team all-district honors and recently an offer from Navy.
Storylines: Coulson is sure to be a large part of Lake Highlands’ offense again this year. They must replace leading receiver Dre Eatmond and 1,000-yard rusher Tyson Washington, who both graduated. Senior Cristian Bernal is a key returner at receiver after catching 17 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns a year ago. Fellow senior 5’10” and 195-pound running back Zhmari Edwards will provide some crucial experience at that position. On defense, there is work to be done as eight players who earned district honors on the first team or second team graduated including District 8-6A Defensive MVP NG LaTrell Smith. Junior Jeremiah Richards is back to provide some crucial experience at linebacker after being a second team all-district selection. Lake Highlands has a lot of star players to replace but with Coulson leading the way on offense, the Wildcats certainly cannot be overlooked as they look to make the playoffs for the fourth year running.

Richardson Pearce Mustangs (2386)
Last Season: 5-6; Defeated by Cedar Hill in bi-district
Head Coach: David Collins: 5th season as head coach
Non-District game to watch: 8/27 @Frisco Independence- This season opener will serve to challenge the Mustangs as they take on an Independence team that went 10-3 a season ago and defeated Pearce 57-14 in last year’s season opener. The Mustangs will get a good idea of what they have at their disposal with this test in the first game of the season.
Player to watch: LB Nick Strong- A second team all-district selection a year ago after racking up over forty tackles. He will be a crucial player at linebacker for the Mustangs.
Storylines: Pearce was absolutely decimated by graduation this past year, especially offensively. Their quarterback, leading rusher, and six leading receivers all graduated. Even up front, they lose three offensive linemen who earned district honors. Senior Burke Wahlberg will be an option to take over at quarterback after throwing for 220 yards and a touchdown in limited action last year. Senior Anthony Bohling, 126 yards on 33 carries, is the team’s leading returning rusher from last year and could see an increased role in the backfield this season. Defensively, in addition to Strong, CB Tyriq Stubbs, who can also play running back offensively, and defensive lineman Nicky Pacione bring experience to the Mustang defense after being district honorable mentions last season. The Mustangs will be an intriguing team to watch throughout the course of the season as they gel and develop chemistry after losing so many players to graduation.

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