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Texas Longhorns commits weekly preview: State Championship edition

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Temple’s Taquon Graham aims to be the latest in a long line of future Longhorns to win a high school football state championship ring

DE commit Taquon Graham at AT&T Stadium after Temple’s upset win over Manvel in the regional final round on December 3.
Joe Cook (Inside Texas)

The 2016 Texas high school football state championship games will take place this Thursday through Saturday, and, as usual, one of the games will feature a Texas Longhorn commit. This didn’t seem all that likely to happen a few weeks ago, and I probably said as much in this space in one of my last few posts. When the playoffs began five weeks ago two of UT’s seven commits had already turned in their equipment because their teams didn’t reach the playoffs, one commit was injured and believed to be out for the season (Sam Ehlinger), and another was suspended from his team and had not played in a month and a half (LaGaryonn Carson).

Montrell Estell’s Hooks team lost badly in the second round to Gunter, a still-undefeated team that will play for the 3A Division II state title on Thursday. Damion Miller’s Tyler John Tyler team escaped the first round by the skin of their teeth (they beat Lufkin 50-49), then was blown out in the third round. That left Taquon Graham’s Temple team, who had a close call in the second round (a 17-14 win over Pflugerville Connally), had one of their most decisive wins of the season in Round Three against Port Arthur Memorial, then upset unbeaten and state ranked foes in the next two rounds to reach this Saturday’s 5A Division I state championship game. If Temple wins on Saturday it will continue a long streak of seasons in which at least one Texas high school football state championship team included a future Longhorn on their roster. More on that in next week’s post.

Since Graham is, as of this writing, the only Texas commit playing this weekend, I’ll start with notes on his team and their opponent, tell you a little about UT’s Juco kicker signee Joshua Rowland, and conclude with several state championship weekend tidbits.

All of this weekend’s state championship games - beginning with the Class 2A Division II final at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday and ending with the 6A Division I final, which is scheduled to begin at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, will air live on Fox Sports Southwest. If you can’t catch a game live or aren’t able to record it, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see it later, as FSSW typically re-broadcasts the championship games multiple times in the weeks and months following the state championships.

DE Taquon Graham (Temple)

Last week: Made seven tackles in a 31-24 win over Richmond Foster in the state semifinal round of the 5A Division I playoffs.

This week: 5A Division I state championship game vs. Highland Park on Saturday, December 17 at 12:00 p.m., at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium.

Notes: If Saturday’s 5A Division I state championship game between Temple and Highland Park goes down to the wire, Temple should have the advantage based on its extensive recent experience in playing close games, as six of their last eight games (beginning with a 48-45 win over Waco on October 14) have been decided by seven points or less.

After outlasting unbeaten Manvel - Class 5A’s third-ranked team - by a score of 24-23 in Round Four, Temple again won a close game over a previously unbeaten foe in the state semifinals last week, beating Richmond Foster - Class 5A’s fifth-ranked team in the AP’s final regular season poll - by a final of 31-24.

The score was tied at 10 at halftime. The teams traded score for score during the 3rd quarter and the game was again tied at 24-24 after a Foster touchdown pass with 11:14 left in the 4th quarter. Temple scored what would be the game-winning TD on a two-yard run by junior running back Anthony Jefferson with 8:52 left in regulation. Foster had chances to tie the game in its remaining minutes, but Temple’s defense prevented them from reaching the end zone.

Foster’s senior receiver CeeDee Lamb, an Oklahoma commit who was recently offered by the new Texas staff, caught nine passes for 135 yards and a touchdown (his 33rd receiving TD of the season), but he was also involved in two crucial turnovers late in the game that ended Foster drives and preserved Temple’s lead. A pass from Foster’s senior QB Alex Ramart (who came into the game having thrown for 44 TDs and just 6 interceptions in his team’s first 14 games) intended for Lamb was intercepted by Temple safety Ben Norman to kill a 4th quarter drive following Temple’s go-ahead TD. Then in the game’s final minutes Foster drove from their side of the field up to Temple’s 16-yard line, and on the final play with ten seconds left on the clock, Ramart hit Lamb at the 5, but Temple safety Ashton Logan (a one-time Arizona State commit who pledged to Central Arkansas in November) tackled him and forced a fumble that was recovered by Norman as time expired. You can see the game-ending play at about the 0:40 mark in this video at the website for KWTX-10, the CBS affiliate covering the Waco-Temple-Killeen area.

That win earned Temple its ninth berth in a state championship game, and a win on Saturday would give the school its third football state title. The Wildcats were 4A state champs in 1979 and 5A Division II state champs in 1992, and in their most recent state final appearance they lost 49-45 in a back-and-forth shootout against Aledo in the 2014 5A Division I title game.

This year’s 5A Division I state final will feature a matchup between two of the state’s four all-time winningest football programs. Temple’s 12 wins so far in 2016 have brought its all-time total to 749, which is fourth-best in state history, while their opponent, Highland Park, sits atop that list having just won its 800th game, which is thirty more than second place Amarillo. This will be Highland Park’s seventh state championship appearance, and they have previously won two titles outright (1957 and 2005) and shared another (they tied Waco 7-7 in the 1945 2A championship and the schools were officially co-champions).

Highland Park will come into the game with an overall record of 13-2. The two blemishes on their record are a 40-37 loss in Week Two to Jon Kitna-coached Waxahachie (a team that scored 40 points per game and began the season 6-0, then dropped its last four games and missed the playoffs), and a 20-9 loss in their regular season finale against Wylie East (whose offense was led by recent Texas RB offer Eno Benjamin, and advanced three rounds into the playoffs before losing to Lancaster).

Highland Park made quick work of their first two playoff foes by a combined score of 115-5, then eliminated 2015’s 5A Division I runner-up Mansfield Lake Ridge 41-27 in the third round, before winning their regional final 14-7 over Mansfield Legacy. Like Temple, Highland Park faced an undefeated and state-ranked opponent in the state semifinal round: Denton Ryan, Class 5A’s fourth-ranked team. And like Temple they beat said opponent by a score of 31-24.

Neither Temple nor Highland Park received enough votes to make the top ten in the AP’s rankings for Class 5A at the conclusion of the regular season, and TexasFootball.com’s final regular season rankings had Temple at #13 and Highland Park at #20. The latter outlet ranked future Temple postseason victims Manvel, Richmond Foster, and Port Arthur Memorial at #1, #5 and #16, respectively. It also had Highland Park ranked below the last two playoff opponents it vanquished, #2 Denton Ryan and #11 Mansfield Legacy. Needless to say, this is not the 5A Division I championship pairing that anyone would have predicted when the playoffs began five weeks ago.

Highland Park isn’t a team loaded with college prospects; the only current players who show up in Rivals’ recruit database are senior linebacker Matt Gahm, a two-star Virginia commit, and junior offensive lineman Thomas Shelmire, who was named to the AP’s Class 5A All-State first team this week and holds an offer from SMU. A Dallas Morning News article this week highlighted the team’s corps of linebackers and lauded how they’ve been the leaders of its defense. But what Highland Park lacks in D1 talent it makes up for in tradition and steady leadership. Randy Allen is in his 36th season as a head coach and has led Highland Park’s football program since 1999. HP has finished with double-digit win totals sixteen times and never had a season with more than two losses in Allen’s 18-season tenure. Allen is the state’s fourth all-time leader in coaching wins, with last week’s victory over Denton Ryan being his 360th. The lone state championship on Allen’s resume as a head coach is Highland Park’s Class 4A Division I crown in 2005, when the team was quarterbacked by future #1 overall NFL Draft pick Matthew Stafford.

The most notable player on the current Highland Park roster - at least from a curiosity standpoint - is junior quarterback John Stephen Jones, who will quite literally be playing Saturday’s championship game in his grandfather’s house, that grandfather being Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. The younger Jones, the son of Cowboys executive Stephen Jones, is only 5’10” and 170 or so pounds, so he’s probably not a D1 prospect, but he has had a productive year in his first season as Highland Park’s starting QB, completing 60% of his passes for just over 3,000 yards, 30 TDs and 7 interceptions. And he has spread the ball around like a Sterlin Gilbert daydream, with six different Highland Park players having caught 24 or more passes, and five having over 400 receiving yards.

On paper, this Temple team doesn’t have the offensive firepower that its 2014 state runner-up squad had at its disposal, but the same could easily be said about this Highland Park team compared with the very talented 2014 Aledo team that scored the winning TD with 47 seconds left to beat Temple 49-45 for that year’s 5A Division I title. Should be a good game.

New 2017 commit: K Joshua Rowland

In case you missed it, Texas offered and got a commitment from junior college kicker Joshua Rowland over the weekend. Rowland, a 2015 graduate of Madison Central High School in Madison, Mississippi, earned all-conference honors in both of his two seasons kicking for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. As a freshman in 2015 he was named to the NJCAA All-America second team, and this fall he earned both first team all-conference and all-region accolades. Though stats indicate that he didn’t hit any really long range field goal attempts (his longest made FG in two seasons was from 44 yards out), he was pretty consistent overall, making 25 of 31 field goal attempts and missing on just one of his 77 extra point attempts over his two seasons at MGCCC.

He earned All-State second team honors as kicker during his senior season at Madison Central, but was at least as accomplished on the soccer field. Madison Central won Mississippi’s Class 6A state championship in soccer in each of Rowland’s last three years of high school, and he was the starting goalie during at least his senior year and was tabbed as an honorable mention all-state player by Jackson, Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger.

As long as Texas’s special teams unit can properly block for extra point attempts for the next two years, he should be fine. Welcome to Austin, Mr. Rowland!

Players holding Texas offers in the state championship round

I won’t make a detailed list of players to watch in all ten state championship games, but I wanted to mention the ones who, as of now, are known to hold offers from Texas, though several of those offers date back to Charlie Strong’s tenure and may not be committable at this point.

6A Division I championship

2017 TE Cade Brewer (Lake Travis) - committed to SMU

6A Division II championship

2017 QB Shawn Robinson (DeSoto) - committed to TCU

2017 OL Edward Ingram (DeSoto) - committed to LSU

2017 OL Xavier Newman (DeSoto) - committed to Colorado

2018 S Caden Sterns (Cibolo Steele) - committed to LSU

5A Division I championship

2017 DE Taquon Graham (Temple) - committed to Texas

5A Division II championship

2017 OL Chuck Filiaga (Aledo)

3A Division I championship

2018 WR Joshua Moore (Yoakum)

2018 S/Ath Jordan Moore (Yoakum)

State Championship weekend notes

  • We’re guaranteed to have at least one first-time state champion this weekend, as the two 3A Division I state finalists, Mineola and Yoakum, will be fighting for their first championship. Depending on the outcome of the other nine 11-man state championship games, there could be as many as five teams that take home their first state championship trophy. The other finalists who have not previously won a title are: The Woodlands (6A Division I), DeSoto (6A Division II), Corpus Christi Calallen (5A Division II). and Gunter (3A Division II).
  • Both of the 5A state championship games offer an interesting contrast in experience on the part of the opposing head coaches. In the 5A Division I final, Highland Park is led by the aforementioned Randy Allen, the state’s fourth all-time winningest coach who is in his 36th season as a head coach, while Temple is led by first-year head coach Scott Stewart, who took over the program after Mike Spradlin left in January to become Athletic Director of Magnolia ISD. If Temple wins, it will not only give Stewart as many state championship wins in one season as a head coach as Allen has in 36, but it would be the first time in Allen’s 18 seasons at Highland Park for one of his teams to finish with more than two losses.

Friday night’s 5A Division II state final pitting top-ranked Aledo against ninth-ranked Corpus Christi Calallen likewise has a hilariously lopsided experience advantage in one coach’s favor, at least on paper. Patrolling Aledo’s sidelines will be third-year head coach Steve Wood, a longtime Aledo assistant who took over the program in 2014 after head coach Tim Buchanan (who’d led the Bearcats to five state titles) stepped down, and Aledo promptly won its sixth state title in Wood’s first season. On Calallen’s sideline will be 68-year-old Phil Danaher, who is about to conclude his 43rd season as a head coach, and who earlier this year passed G.A. Moore to become the state’s all-time winningest football coach. Among Danaher’s 432 career wins are 80 playoff wins, which is 15 more than any other coach. But none of those 80 postseason wins came in a state championship game. Calallen’s only previous appearance in a state championship game came in 2005, when they lost 28-0 to Hebron in the 4A Division II final. If Danaher wins his first state title to cap off the season in which he broke the state’s coaching wins record it will be reminiscent of when Fort Worth Dunbar won the 2003 4A boys basketball state championship less than a month after its head coach, Robert Hughes, broke the national record (since surpassed) for high school basketball coaching wins.

  • Speaking of Calallen and coaching records, were the Wildcats to win on Friday it would also create a bit of state coaching record symmetry. As stated in the previous paragraph, Calallen beating Aledo Friday night would give the state’s all-time winningest football coach, Phil Danaher, his first career state championship, as well as his school’s. As it happens, the state’s - and nation’s - all-time winningest high school basketball coach Leta Andrews (who retired in 2014 with 1,416 wins to her name) spent 12 years as the head girls basketball coach at Calallen. Her 1989-90 team won the first and only state basketball championship in Calallen’s history, and it would also be the only state title Andrews won in a coaching career that spanned a half-century.
  • The 6A Division II championship game between DeSoto and Cibolo Steele features opposing head coaches who took over their respective programs in the past few years after the previous head coach left for the college ranks. DeSoto head coach Todd Peterman, who has led his team to its first state championship berth in school history, is in just his second season leading the Eagles, having taken over following Claude Mathis’s departure in 2015 to become SMU’s running backs coach. Steels’s head man Scott Lehnhoff is in his fourth season leading the Knights after Mike Jinks left to become Texas Tech’s running backs coach in 2013. Jinks just completed his first season as head coach at Bowling Green.

Lehnhoff is a third-generation head football coach, and in just his fourth season in his first head coaching job he has taken his team all the way to a state championship game, something his father Robert Lehnhoff and grandfather Fritz Lehnhoff were able to do just once in 45 combined seasons as high school head coaches. His grandfather’s 1968 Poth team came the closest to bringing the family a state championship ring; it reached the 1A state final but lost 9-0 to Sonora, which had probably the state’s best 1A program of that era.

  • Of the head coaches leading the twenty schools playing for state championships from Class 2A up to 6A, four have 25 years or more of head coaching experience: Phil Danaher (Corpus Christi Calallen, 43 years), Randy Allen (Highland Park, 36 years), Hugh Sandifer (Abilene Wylie, 31 years), and Mark Kirchoff (Iraan, 25 years). Six of the twenty have been head coaches for five seasons or less: DeSoto’s Todd Peterman, Cibolo Steele’s Scott Lehnhoff, Temple’s Scott Stewart, Aledo’s Steve Wood, Sweetwater’s Shane Mobley, and Boling’s Stephen Dorr.
  • Phil Danaher’s 43 years of head coaching experience is more than the combined total of the nine least-experienced 2A-6A head coaches whose teams will play for a state championship in Arlington this week, which is nearly half of them.
  • Hank Carter (Lake Travis), Steve Wood (Aledo), Scott Surratt (Carthage), Cornell Thompson (West Orange-Stark), and Joe Kasowski (Bremond) had won ten state championships in a combined 28 seasons as head coaches going into this year. Randy Allen (Highland Park), Phil Danaher (Corpus Christi Calallen), Hugh Sandifer (Abilene Wylie) and Mark Kirchoff (Iraan) had 131 seasons of head coaching experience between them when the 2016 season began, but as of this writing they have just three combined state championships
  • The top-ranked team in Class 4A, West Orange-Stark, will be aiming for its second consecutive state championship when it takes on Sweetwater Friday at noon in the 4A Division II championship. A win would also give the Mustangs their school’s fourth state football title; they won back-to-back 4A state crowns in 1986 and 1987. This year’s WOS team features one of the most dominating defenses the state has seen in recent years. They have shut out eight of their fifteen opponents, allowed only two teams to score more than seven points against them, and have won their games by an average margin of 48 points. They beat every foe by at least 24 points, and only two opponents kept the margin under 33 points. The playoffs haven’t presented much more of a challenge to them than their regular season opposition did, as the Mustangs charged through their first five playoff opponents by a combined score of 266-33.

For the season WOS has outscored teams 787-63. On the Utter Domination Scale, that’s not quite up to the level of the legendary 1983 Daingerfield Tigers, who allowed eight points all season and none in a playoff run that culminated in a 42-0 win over Sweeny in the 3A state championship game. Their season is comparable though to last year’s Katy Tigers, who won the 6A Division II crown and boasted a historically great defense, and outscored their opponents 778-62.

  • The Class 2A Division II final is the only 11-man football state championship game that will feature two unbeaten teams. 15-0 Iraan will attempt to win its second state title over 15-0 Bremond, the two-time defending 2A Division II state champions and a school that has lost exactly one game since its current senior class arrived as freshmen in 2013. The biggest reason for their success in these past three seasons has been senior QB and all-around athlete Roshauud Paul, a Texas A&M commit who, according to his MaxPreps page, has produced over 12,000 offensive yards in his career and scored 114 touchdowns (107 of them rushing) while passing for 69 more.

Iraan won the 2A state title in 1996, its only previous state championship appearance. They don’t have a Roshauud Paul-level prospect on their roster but they do have plenty of talent on their roster, including three offensive players who were voted to the AP’s Class 2A all-state first or second team this week, and four defensive players who made honorable mention all-state. That group of seven doesn’t include versatile senior tight end/defensive lineman Canon Andrews, who as a junior was named an All-State third team tight end and honorable mention defensive lineman by the Texas Sports Writers Association, and in the spring he finished 3rd in the discus at the 2A state track and field meet.

Bremond and Iraan were ranked 1st and 2nd in TexasFootball.com’s final regular season rankings for Class 2A Division II, so this may be the least surprising championship matchup of the whole weekend, and both teams had to beat multiple tough opponents to get this far. Bremond won its last two playoff games over Tenaha and Burton, DCTF’s 3rd and 10th ranked teams in that classification, while Iraan owns playoff wins over Albany, Munday and Wellington; that publication’s 4th, 6th, and 9th ranked teams. Iraan also had an impressive run through its non-district schedule, beating six teams that eventually reached the playoffs in classifications larger than their own, including wins over a Mason team that reached the fifth round of the 2A Division I playoffs, and a Sonora team that advanced four rounds deep in the 3A Division II bracket.

Iraan will be the sentimental favorite for many unaffiliated observers and fans due to a recent tragedy that made headlines around the state. After Iraan defeated Munday in their regional final on the night of Friday December 2, a small bus carrying Iraan’s cheerleaders back to school from the game in Colorado City collided with an 18-wheeler, and the crash resulted in the death of Liz Pope, an Iraan teacher who served as a cheerleading sponsor. The six students in the van who were members of the cheerleading squad suffered numerous injuries, as did the bus’s driver, Pope’s sister Christina Garlock, Iraan’s head cheerleading sponsor, whose son Steven Garlock is a senior offensive lineman on the team and was named this week to the AP’s All-State first team for Class 2A. The injured cheerleaders were hospitalized in nearby Big Spring, with some later transported to Lubbock, and all were released by Tuesday December 6th. Garlock was reported to be in critical condition at one point but had improved to “satisfactory” condition by the Tuesday following the accident, though I’ve found no reports more recent than that indicating whether she had been released from the hospital yet.

In a show of support for the grieving community and its wounded cheerleading squad, hundreds of fellow cheerleaders from schools around the state as well as New Mexico converged on Abilene last weekend for a pre-game rally before Iraan’s regional semifinal at Shotwell Stadium against Wellington, then they made up a good chunk of Iraan’s supporters at the game itself. Estimates on the number of cheerleaders who came to support Iraan ranged from 700 to over 1,000. Included among their out-of-town supporters were the cheerleaders from Munday, the school Iraan had beaten in the playoffs a week earlier just hours before the deadly crash. And at halftime of the state semifinal game, the cheerleaders from Iraan’s opponent, Wellington, presented Iraan’s cheerleaders with a $3,000 check from a fund set up in Pope’s honor.

I wouldn’t be surprised if AT&T Stadium hosts a similar scene Thursday morning at 10:00 when the Iraan-Bremond state final kicks off.

It’s state championship time, folks! Which means there should be some great football on tap, but also that after this weekend we’ll have to wait eight months before high school football season cranks up again. If anyone attends one or more of the games in person or watches some of the state championship action on TV, feel free to jump into the comments section to share your reaction to the games or your impressions of players who stand out to you.

This column will conclude next week with a recap of the Temple-Highland Park game, and likely some notes from the other games.