SOUTHWEST LOUISIANA (KPLC) - We are just four weeks away from KPLC’s coverage of Two-A-Days and to get ready we continue our 7-in-Seven countdown.
Countdowns will include topics from McNeese to high school football. A new countdown each week, beginning every Monday.
We continue the countdown with the top seven surprise teams this upcoming season. The only criteria for teams selected is that they must have had a losing record the season before.
7. St. Louis Saints (5-7 in 2018)
St. Louis opens our list at the seven spot in large part thanks to the momentum the team carries over from last season. After a 1-5 start, the Saints rolled off wins in four of their last six games. A younger wave of players was a big factor why and they return this season with 13 starters ready to contribute.
SLC welcomes back seven returning starters on offense including quarterback Cooper Miller. The rising junior took over the job a few weeks into the season and helped lead the Saints to all five of their wins. His poise and even-keeled nature stand out as his strengths. Joining Miller in the backfield is Evan Joubert, Jadon Johnson, Wesley Maze and J'uan Seymore. Joubert will be expected to lead the team in rushing once again due to his limiting of negative plays, while Joubert adds a playmaking versatile style and Seymore is more of a physical runner along with Maze. At receiver, Johnson is expected to contribute, along with Chase Wilson and Charlie Drost at tight end. Drost moved over from tackle and doesn't mind doing the dirty work in the run game. On the offensive line, Timothy Thomason and Win Goodwin will anchor a unit that is still searching for depth.
The defense sees plenty of experience back as well including second-team all-district lineman, Gabe Johnson. Johnson dealt with injuries a year ago, but he's healthy now according to coaches and his power will help him be the anchor on the defensive line. Thomason will be expected to play double duty as will Maze and Drost at defensive end. The Saints lost two strong linebackers to graduation and the team is hoping John Reina and Carson Mixon can fill the void despite the lack of starting experience. The secondary should once again be the team's strength with the return of Gabe Meyers at cornerback (led the team with four interceptions) and safety Joe Percle (finished with 82 tackles last season). Michael LaVergne and Gage Williams will also contribute at corner, while J'uan Seymore joins Percle at safety. Percle is the leader of the defense and has shown to be a dependable defender no matter where he plays.
Special teams is always key to St. Louis' success and Jack Watson should be the next Saint to continue the legacy.
With plenty of returning experience and a more favorable schedule, expect the Saints to bounce back in 2019.
6. Jennings Bulldogs (4-7 in 2018)
The Jennings Bulldogs came into the season a year ago with plenty of expectations. The Dogs were coming off a semifinal appearance and their third quarterfinal trip in four years. However, turnovers, penalties and injuries would plague Jennings as the team limped to a 4-7 record.
But Jennings isn't a school to hold onto a losing record for long and with the talent they possess, the Dogs may turn the ship around rather quickly.
The Bulldogs have plenty of change coming up on the offensive side of the football as the team returns only four starters. The biggest change is at quarterback as the team lost all-district athlete Kole Myers and will now rely on Bub Willridge. Willridge is in a different mold than recent Jennings quarterbacks in that he's more of a traditional pocket passer that relies on a quick release and leadership abilities. As the Bulldogs break in a new quarterback, they'll lean on the running game with Trevor Etienne, who's the younger brother of Clemson star Travis Etienne. He returns off an injury that sidelined him in 2018. According to head coach Rusty Phelps, the LSU target is in great shape and is up to 210 pounds. Etienne will be complemented in the backfield by Jalen Lewis, a rising junior that carved out a role late last season. At receiver, the Dogs will be led by the trio of Trey Williams, Conner Cassidy and Tanner Istre. The offensive line will not be the strength it was last year as the overall unit lacks the size of 2018. The unit will need to rely on solid double teams, their quickness and the experience of Ethan Trahan and Brock Gaspard.
Defensively, the Dogs have a chance to be pretty good with the experience returning. Despite having only six starters back, most of the defense has had plenty of playing time. It all starts up front with behemoth tackle Keenan Landry. The nearly 300-pound lineman already holds offers to LSU and Tulane and is only entering his junior season. Beside him will be Makhi Joseph, which should give the Bulldog interior a nice 1-2 punch. At defensive end, Kye Cary moves down from linebacker to add speed at the point of attack. Linebacker will see plenty of experience as the team returns starter Jacob Cooper and Kolby Estes. The cornerback position will have plenty of length with Northside transfer Ladarian Prejean and Tregan Citizen. Free safety sees the return of Ethan Mack from injury and at strong safety, the duo of CJ Willridge and Will Caraway should solidify the back end of the defense.
Jennings should get back to the type of football that we’re used to seeing, but the team will likely need to rely on its defense early as the offense gets up to speed.
5. Iowa Yellow Jackets (2-7 in 2018)
The Iowa Yellow Jackets have been one of the area’s best teams over the last few years. From 2015-17 Iowa won 29 games and made back-to-back quarterfinals appearances. Last year’s 2-7 record obviously didn’t sit well with both the team and fanbase.
A combination of losing back-to-back strong senior classes (which caused inexperienced players to play major roles) and injuries contributed to the Jackets fall. Five different freshmen started for Iowa team in 2018, so that experience should help the team improve this year.
Offensively, Iowa brings back five starters led by all-district wide receiver Isaiah Donald who totaled 585 receiving yards and three touchdowns in 2018. Iowa will start its third quarterback in three seasons as Gene Natali will take over for Grant Racca. Natali is a dual threat QB that should allow Iowa's offense to play more of the style it did under Zack Jongbloed and Dyami Huntsberry. At running back, starter Tyrone Brass returns off an injury and should help Natali ease into the starting lineup. Dorian Jackson's bruising-style will also be relied on in the running game. Joining Donald in the receiving corps will be the duo of Curtis Deville and Desmond Dugas. Tight end T.J. Cormier is also expected to contribute in the passing game. The offensive line is where the team has to find stability as Ronnie LaFleur and Andrew Bean offer the most experience. Tucker Fontenot was expected to lead the unit before a season-ending injury this summer.
Iowa welcomes back eight starters on defense and the coaching staff is confident this unit can build on what it accomplished last season. The Jackets allowed 23 or fewer points in six of the team's nine games. The defensive line will have plenty of beef up front with ends Payton Aguillard and Dwight Johnson. Squeezed in between them will be Ethan Welcome and Todd Thomas filling in the interior. Linebacker will be a strength with the return of Nick Savoie. Senior Kaedunn Keys will line up beside him at backer. The secondary is well-experienced too with the cornerback trio of Crajaun Bennett, Isaiah Donald and Curtis Deville. At safety, Cejae Ceasar leads a group that contains returning starter Tyler Langley and Brycen LeBlanc. The defense, while still having some young pieces, is more experienced and now knows what to expect of them.
The Yellow Jackets look to be in line to take a step forward this year as Coach Tommy Johns raved about the team’s off-season work ethic and attendance. Despite a tough district that sees numerous members on this list, expect Iowa to be in the thick of the district race.
4. LaGrange Gators (0-10 in 2018)
2018 was just not LaGrange's year. The Gators played up in Class 5A and faced a schedule that included Division III state champion Notre Dame, 2A semifinalist Ferriday and three 5A teams that hosted playoff games.
This offseason the Gators declined to play up in Class 5A and will now re-join 4A along with rival Washington-Marion. The change in scenery and returning experience should help the Gators get back into the win column this season.
Offensively the Gators bring back eight starters from 2018, however, the team has to replace McNeese signee, Antony Johnson. LaGrange will do that with a committee of running backs that includes Cad Victorian and Malik Bertrand. The backs each have their own strength with Victorian showing great vision and Bertrand being a more physical runner with great hands in the receiving game. Leading the offense once again is quarterback Quintorous Jones. The junior flashed ability a year ago and improved this offseason according to coach Marrico Wilson. Jones' footwork, throwing motion and ability to go through progressions have all gotten better. The Gators have plenty of depth at wide receiver with Jaden Johnson, Tyric Davis and sophomore Christian Joshua. The offensive line will be a strength with four returning starters. Tyler Dobson, Jerad Wilridge, Jaisten Vital and Daniel Williams have played together the past two seasons and will be relied on to open holes in the running game.
Injuries plagued the Gator defense in 2018 with the team never starting the same lineup twice. LaGrange is hoping its injury woes are behind it starting on the defensive line. James Christy is back off injury and will anchor the line along with Donaven Hebert. Also joining the duo on the line is projected starter, John Johnson. Linebacker will see a pair of converted safeties in
Kylin Forsythe and Wesley Antoine, who'll be the MIKE linebacker. Trevon Broussard is back at cornerback and will start opposite of Javonte Louis. There is plenty of experience at safety too with Malik Bertrand, Jalyn Williams and Cadiin Johnson expected to lock down the back end.
LaGrange isn’t shying away from a rough 2018, but rather hoping to use it as fuel entering a 2019 season that’s ripe for showing off offseason improvements.
3. Westlake Rams (2-8 in 2018)
There's no denying the success John Richardson had at Welsh. He and the Greyhounds brought home the 2017 Class 2A state title and were runners-up last season. He switched headsets this fall and will now aim to get Westlake back to its winning ways following six straight losing seasons.
Offensively, the Rams will have a blast from the past with the team running the split back veer offense. All-district running back J.J. Ross returns to the fold, as does Jasia Simien. Both backs' styles compliment one another and both are in line for big seasons. Drew Winn is back at quarterback and will use his two-years of starting experience as a foundation to win the job this season. At receiver, Cullen Hamilton had a great spring and should start, while Jamal Guillory is expected to contribute as well. The offensive line will have good size with Payton Elliot (6'0, 230 lbs), Brody Greene (6'4, 270 lbs) and Gavin Cradeur (5'10, 220 lbs) leading the way.
Westlake will deploy the 4-2-5 on defense as the team returns only four starters. The defensive line will be led by defensive end Eli Goss, who was second team all-district in 2018. Dominic Sanchez will also be expected to contribute on the line. At linebacker, Cameron Sittig and Corey Prior are expected to start. The Rams are getting a few basketball players like the Gray twins to add depth. Novan and Trayvon are expected to start at cornerback with Jamal Guillory and Jerrod Manuel expected to split time at defensive back. Noah Young will line up at safety to round out the secondary.
The Rams are confident in their ability to surprise the community this season and are expecting to flip the script quickly.
2. Hamilton Christian Warriors (1-9 in 2018)
The Warriors had a rough 2018 as Hamilton Christian battled both injuries and numbers. The team finished with one win and was outscored during the final three weeks, 123-18. Despite the last winning season coming in 2015, there is a sense of hope for this year’s set of Warriors.
This offseason the school hired Jules Sullen away from 5A power Scotlandville High School to coach the team. Sullen was last head coach in the Lake Area in 2017 as leader of the LaGrange Gators.
Hamilton returns 12 starters with seven coming on the offensive side of the football. All-district performers Adrian Brown and Kendrick Fontenot are back as both were awarded the honor on offense and defense. Quarterback Michael Tizano is back and has improved his progression reads and Sullen praised his intelligence. Behind Tizano at running back is returning starter Dakori Lewis, who missed a chunk of the season last year due to injury. The Warriors are switching to a spread system to better utilize their strong lineup of receivers like Adrian Brown, Derrick Brown and newcomer Michael Thomas. Thomas comes over from basketball and has impressed Sullen during his limited time with the team. The offensive line returns two key cogs as well in Fontenot and Troye Collins.
Sullen is calling his offensive system the 'fast-break offense,' thanks to multiple starters playing both basketball and football. The Warriors basketball team reached the Division IV championship this past season.
Defensively, the Warriors feel confident they'll surprise people. Despite losing all-district performer Brandon Malbrough, the Warriors bring back Fontenot and Troye who are expected to play on both sides of the football. Fontenot posted nine tackles for a loss and five sacks a year ago. Also in the mix will be Mylin Lewis, a 5-10, 260-pound freshman. Hamilton will be led defensively by sophomore Derrick Williams. Sullen praised his skillset and maturity at just 15 years old. Also at linebacker in the Warriors' 3-4 scheme will be Isiah Mormon who had 16 tackles a year ago. The bulk of returning experience for Hamilton will come in the secondary with Derrick Brown and Dakori Lewis at cornerback and Nick Forsythe and Elijah Netty at safety. Thomas will also receive reps at free safety as he progresses.
While the Warriors have limped to losing records the last three seasons, there is hope in Lake Charles that Hamilton can use it’s speed and improved defense to compete for the district title.
1. Grand Lake Hornets (2-8 in 2018)
The Grand Lake Hornets haven’t had much success on the gridiron since it returned in 2013 following a 53-year absence. The Cameron Parish high school is hoping to change that with the hiring of former Sulphur and Kinder coach Jeff Wainwright.
Wainwright, a Cameron Parish native, is bringing his winning experience to the Hornets and it should aid the program right away. He was hired in December, so having that extra time should also benefit Grand Lake in year one.
The Hornets will take a page from the old Kinder playbook this season as Wainwright is running a triple-option flexbone offense to instill a ground and pound mentality and make use of the team's returning talent. Grand Lake has most of its returning experience coming in the backfield.
Grand Lake picked up a senior transfer from South Cameron in quarterback Brayden Richard. The former Tarpon is eligible to play right away with South Cameron shutting down its football program. Richard will bring experience under center and is a natural fit. The Hornets have plenty of depth at running back with all-district performer Logan Granger set to lead as the dive back. Aaron Young and Branson Aguillard will play dive back as well, in addition to Will Kelly and Luke McCardle manning the slot position. The Hornets return plenty of experience on the offensive line as well with Blake LeBoeuf, Cole Castile, Grant Trahan, Coleman McCready, Caleb Stine and Brett King all expected to contribute.
Defensively, the Hornets will run the 50 defense, in hopes of better stopping the running game. LeBoeuf will also be expected to play the nose guard and will be joined on the line by Zach Johnson, Brandon Morgan and Kobe Taylor. At linebacker. Will Kelley, Aaron Young and Aguillard are expected to contribute. The secondary will employ a set of brothers at cornerback in Levi and Nathaniel Murrell. Aguillard will also be asked to play some safety, along with quarterback Brayden Richard.
The Hornets will have their work cut out for them, but Wainwright is hoping that moving over the ‘Kinder recipe’ to Cameron Parish, will help Grand Lake capture the same magic.