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Texas Longhorns commits: Week One preview

The next wave of future Longhorns will begin their senior season this week.

2017 QB commit Sam Ehlinger (left) and freshman QB Shane Buechele in July 2016
Justin Wells (Inside Texas)

Texas high school football fans (and players) are no doubt rejoicing at the fact that the 2016 season is just hours from kicking off. As during last season, BON will strive to keep you up to date on the weekly goings-on of the Texas Longhorns football commits, starting with a preview of where and who they’ll be playing in Week One.

A year ago at this time the program had ten commits, eight for the 2016 class and two for 2017. Of that group, only 2016 Navasota WR Tren’Davian Dickson is no longer associated with the program as a member or commit (he signed with Baylor and enrolled early this past spring, but left BU and transferred to Houston in the wake of that program’s scandals that led to the ousting of head coach Art Briles).

By the time the week of the 2015 state championship games arrived the program had 16 commits, of which only 2016 CB Obi Eboh (who would flip to Stanford in late January) and 2017 TE Major Tennison (who decommitted in July but remains in contact with the Texas staff) are not currently part of the program as a player or commit.

The 2017 class now boasts seven commits, while none as of yet from the 2018 class have pledged to UT. Those numbers should tick up a bit as the season goes along, though the 2017 class is shaping up to be a smaller one for the Texas Longhorns than either of the previous two.

Head coach Charlie Strong takes a much more deliberate approach to recruiting and plays the long game more effectively and more often than Mack Brown did. So it wouldn’t be surprising if a significant chunk of the 2017 class committed in December or later.

As I did in last season’s series of weekly UT commit recap/preview posts, I’ll be adding bits of commentary and historical anecdotes related to UT and/or Texas high school football, and spotlighting some under-the-radar recruits.

2017 commits

QB Sam Ehlinger (Austin Westlake)

This week: Friday, August 26 at 7:30, vs. Katy

Notes: The reigning Class 6A Offensive Player of the Year and Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine cover boy will lead his 5th-ranked Westlake Chaparrals — last year’s Class 6A Division I state runner-ups — as they open the season at home in a marquee matchup with Katy, the defending 6A Division II state champions and the state’s #1 ranked team in the AP’s preseason 6A poll.

Westlake’s drive toward the 2015 state championship included an upset of three-time defending state champion Allen, but ended with an overtime loss to Galena Park North Shore in the 6A Division I state final.

Meanwhile, Katy rode a historically great defense (the Tigers allowed just 62 points for the season and outscored their six playoff opponents by a combined score of 309-44) as it bulldozed its way to the 6A Division II crown in 2015, the program’s eighth state title. Katy graduated a lot of big-time talent, including current Longhorn freshman running back Kyle Porter, but still has plenty of future D1 athletes on its roster, including five seniors who are already committed to FBS programs.

Westlake returns some talented pieces aside from Ehlinger, namely four-star senior LB Levi Jones, but will be going to battle with a largely new corps of receivers. Their top two WRs from 2015, Reed Klubnik and Chase Cokley, are now at Yale and Abilene Christian, respectively, and Westlake graduated four of its top five receivers and every running back who had more than 16 carries last season. Its offensive line also suffered a blow when highly-recruited senior Stephane Zabie was ruled ineligible by the U.I.L. because of its “four year rule” (he started high school at a young age and academic struggles forced him to repeat 9th grade at the school he attended prior to Westlake) and his appeal for an eligibility waiver was denied three weeks ago.

So Westlake will probably need Ehlinger to produce something in the neighborhood of the 5,200 total yards and 71 touchdowns he accounted for last year if they want to approach that same level of success in 2016. Anybody want to bet against that happening?

WR Damion Miller (Tyler John Tyler)

This week: Saturday, August 27 at 12:00, vs. Plano West

Notes: Miller has averaged well over 20 yards per catch in his two varsity seasons, and going into his senior year he’ll be the no-doubt #1 target of senior QB Bryson Smith, a Houston commit. John Tyler has made the playoffs in every season since 2008, but for the Lions to reach the postseason in 2016, Miller, Smith, and the rest of the team will have to be at the top of their game, as the school moves up to Class 6A and will share a district with east Texas foes Longview and Tyler Lee, and quality east Metroplex teams Rockwall, Rockwall-Heath, Mesquite, Mesquite Horn, and North Mesquite. Miller will be challenged by his share of talented future college defensive backs as the season goes along.

OL Xavier Newman (DeSoto)

This week: Friday, August 26 at 7:30, vs. Dallas Jesuit

Notes: Newman is joined on DeSoto’s offensive line by highly-rated seniors Edward Ingram (an LSU commit) and Hyrin White (a Missouri commit), so the Eagles can lay claim to one of the state’s most talented O-lines. The rest of their offense is pretty loaded too. At wide receiver they will line up four-star seniors Laviska Shenault (a Colorado commit) and K.D. Nixon (a former Tennessee commit). And at quarterback DeSoto had perhaps the most notable incoming transfer of any school in the state: 2017 TCU commit Shawn Robinson, who had spent the previous two seasons at Denton Guyer, and who, in the preseason’s most unsurprising headline, was named DeSoto’s starting QB this week.

DeSoto will attempt to avoid a repeat of week one in 2015, in which they fell 46-26 on national TV to Arlington Martin. A DeSoto win to open this season would also deny Jesuit a repeat of their 2015 season-opening fortunes, in which they embarrassed a far more athletic Arlington Bowie team 35-0.

DE LaGaryonn Carson (Texarkana Liberty-Eylau)

This week: Thursday, August 25 at 7:00, at Gilmer (at Rose Stadium in Tyler)

Notes: Carson goes into his senior year as the reigning Class 4A Defensive Player of the Year. In July he was named preseason Defensive Player of the Year on the East Texas Dream Team, a team voted on by writers from multiple newspapers covering major towns in east Texas. Previous athletes to receive that honor include former Longhorns Dalton Santos, Steve Edmond, and Ashton Dorsey.

That Carson is even preparing to play senior season is good news in itself, as his eligibility for this season was in doubt until recently. He’s old for his class and turned 19 earlier this month. Because he turned 19 before September 1, he had to apply for a waiver from the U.I.L. to be eligible to compete in athletics during the 2016-17 school year, and his appeal was granted last week.

Carson’s Liberty-Eylau team is ranked 9th in the AP’s Class 4A preseason poll, and they’ll begin the 2016 season with a matchup against 6th ranked Gilmer. This will be the third straight year for the two teams to play each other in week one. Gilmer won last year’s edition in a 50-45 shootout. Gilmer and Liberty-Eylau are 77 miles apart and rarely paired in the same district, but the two East Texas powers still meet frequently either in the playoffs or in non-district play. Gilmer owns an eight-game winning streak in this rivalry, with Liberty-Eylau’s last win being a 39-36 victory in the first round of the 2006 playoffs, which began a postseason run that ended with a 35-34 win over Robinson in the 3A Division I state championship game four weeks later. Opening the 2016 campaign with the program’s first win over Gilmer in a decade would certainly bode well for their state title chances, though they’ll be replacing over half of their 2015 starters on both sides of the ball, including practically all of their significant offensive skill position contributors from 2015.

DB Kobe Boyce (Lake Dallas)

This week: Friday, August 26 at 7:00, vs. Denton

Notes: Boyce was one of four defensive backs named to the Dallas Morning News’s Preseason All-Area Defensive Team (not counting Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Jeffrey Okudah). His Lake Dallas team started off the 2015 season 1-2, then reeled off eleven consecutive wins and reached the state semifinal round of the playoffs before losing in a wild 55-49 overtime shootout to eventual 5A Division II state runner-up Frisco Lone Star. Lake Dallas graduated star QB Dagan Haehn (now at Kansas) but is predicted to field a solid squad in 2016, with DCTF slotting them 22nd in its preseason Class 5A rankings.

2015 was the first time in school history that its football team advance beyond the third round of the playoffs, and though the school hasn’t really been a powerhouse it has been enjoyed moderate success for the entire lifespan of its current athletes, which is no small thing. Since 1999 the school has missed the playoffs just twice, and all ten of the program’s playoff wins in football have come since 2006.

DB Montrell Estell (Hooks)

This week: Friday, August 26 at 7:30, at New Boston

Notes: Estell does a little of everything for Hooks on the football field. He was a playmaker at wide receiver, gaining over 1,400 yards and scoring twelve touchdowns, while on defense he recorded six interceptions, three of which he returned for scores. Expect to see more of the same from him in 2016. He also is a noted fishing enthusiast.

In 2015, Hooks ran the table on its opponents in district 7-3A Division II, outscoring them by an average of 26 points to win the school’s first district championship since 1997. They’re favored to repeat as district champions in 2016, and if they advance to the playoffs it will be the first time for Hooks to reach the postseason in three consecutive seasons since they did in 1996-99. A win in the playoffs would be the program’s first since 2006.

DB Josh Thompson (Nacogdoches)

This week: Friday, August 26 at 7:30, vs. Kilgore

Notes: Thompson may not be a five-star All-American level stud like his former defensive back teammate, Longhorn freshman safety Brandon Jones, but he’s a very talented athlete in his own right. He was named to the aforementioned East Texas Preseason All-Defense Dream Team, along with Carson and Estell. He committed to TCU in mid-June, then flipped to Texas six weeks later. Aside from those two Big 12 programs he also holds offers from Houston, Kansas, Kansas State, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Utah, and Washington State, among others. At the + APEC Football Recruiting Combine in May, he checked in at 5’11.5” and 182 pounds, ran a 4.48 forty-yard dash, bench-pressed 15 reps of 185 pounds, ran a 4.22 shuttle, and recorded a 10’4” broad jump and a 36” vertical jump.

Nacogdoches, a 5A program, will open its season versus Kilgore, a Class 4A Division I team, before facing off against two tough 6A teams in Lufkin and Tyler Lee, and they’ll also play 4A Division II powerhouse Gilmer in late September before beginning district play. Nacogdoches went 4-6 in a tough district in 2015 and missed the playoffs after advancing to the postseason in the two prior seasons, which was the first time the school reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1965-66. The program has appeared in the postseason in football just eleven times in the last 95 years, and its last playoff win came in 1992.

Unheralded senior athlete of the week: RB Ted Fuller (Harleton)

Back in 2012, my first year as a contributor to BON, I did a recurring series of posts on unheralded senior athletes who’d caught my eye for one reason or another. All were quality high school players, some were very good players who competed at a high level at the highest classifications, but all suffered from a lack of exposure or genuine college interest. In most cases, it turned out that they really weren’t FBS-level talents, but a few of the players featured in 2012 have gone on to have nice college careers, if at lower levels, most notably running backs Kade Harrington (Lamar) and Richard Cooper (Texas A&M-Commerce).

I’m no professional scout but I’d like to think my eye for talent has improved a lot since 2012, and since I’ll always have a soft spot for under-the-radar talents needing exposure, I’m bringing that feature back.

Our Unheralded Player of Week One is Ted Fuller, a running back, defensive back, and sometime quarterback at small 3A Division II school Harleton, which competed in 2A Division I before it moved up one level in last spring’s U.I.L. realignment. Fuller is one of the most talented running backs in east Texas, regardless of classification, but may also be one of the least well known to fans of schools not in Harleton’s district.

As a junior he rushed for over 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns and helped lead his team to a 6-6 overall record and a berth in the area round of the playoffs for the first time in eight years, and he was subsequently named the MVP of District 9-2A Division I. His junior highlights (see below) show him to be an excellent one-cut runner who can run with power, play with physicality, and accelerate to top speed very quickly (see the plays in his highlights that start at 1:17, 2:11, 3:25, and 5:57).

One of my favorite non-running back clips of his is the one that begins at around the 3:50 mark, where he’s in on the field goal blocking unit and the opposing team has a bad snap on a PAT, which the holder picks up and tries to run around the right end for a two-point conversion, but Fuller puts his closing speed to great effect and stops the guy a yard or two short of the goal line.

When watching athletes run wild at the lower classification levels, it’s natural to wonder if the athlete is really that fast or if his competition is really that slow. In Fuller’s case, I think his acceleration and the suddenness with which he puts distance between himself and would-be tacklers who are within a couple strides of him is real.

Harleton’s head football coach Terry Ward says Fuller reminds him of another small town East Texas athlete of recent vintage: Mount Enterprise alum Kevin Pope, who played both linebacker and running back at SMU and appeared in 49 career games for the Mustangs from 2010 to 2014. Though Ward believes Fuller is faster than Pope was.

At the aforementioned + APEC Football Recruiting Combine in May, Fuller measured in at 5’10” and 200 pounds and ran a laser-timed 4.58 forty and a 4.25 shuttle. And this was at an event that took place while he was still in the midst of baseball season.

On the diamond, Fuller hit second in the lineup and played right field for a Harleton team that was ranked 15th in Class 2A at the end of the regular season, then advanced to the regional semifinal round of the playoffs before falling to top-ranked Beckville, the eventual state runner-up. For the 2016 baseball season, Fuller hit .413 with six extra-base hits, 19 RBI, 43 runs scored, and 23 stolen bases.

Off the field, he is described as a high-character kid whose grades put him in the top ten percent of his class.

He hasn’t been completely off the football recruiting radar, but his recruitment has been very quiet of late, much more quiet than it deserves to be.

Louisiana-Monroe became the first school to offer him on May 11, and Wyoming followed suit just under three weeks later, but no schools have since thrown their hat into the ring, and Fuller tells BON that those two schools are the only ones he’s been hearing from recently.

His summer work schedule prevented him from making the rounds on the summer camp circuit, though he did attend a July camp at Abilene Christian and enjoyed the experience. His lack of camp appearances, plus the size and rural location of his school (15 miles northwest of Marshall on state highway 154, some 8 miles south of Lake O’ The Pines) and its lack of a noted football tradition are all likely factors that have hampered his recruitment from taking off. That’s not to suggest Harleton has a bad football team; the school has actually reached the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including each of the last four, but they’ve advanced beyond the first round only twice in the past decade, and there probably aren’t a ton of college coaches who could locate the town on a map.

A good senior year should help him pick up more D1 offers, though he’ll have to work a lot harder to gain his yards in 2016, as Harleton is now aligned in District 9-3A Division II along with a set of foes that includes Arp, Beckville, West Rusk, and two-time defending 3A DII state champion Waskom.

Those four schools had a combined record of 46-10 in 2015 and all advanced at least three rounds into the playoffs. Leading his team to the playoffs out of such a competitive district would no doubt help raise his profile a bit.

As of this writing, Ted Fuller still doesn’t have a recruit profile on Rivals, and his 247Sports profile links to no articles mentioning him and doesn’t even list his Wyoming offer. And, in one of the weirdest omissions I’ve ever seen in any Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine, Harleton’s capsule preview in the current issue lists nine “players to watch”, but Fuller wasn’t one of them, and his name is mentioned precisely nowhere in the magazine.

He hasn’t been completely absent from the recruiting media, as he has been championed to an extent by Scout writer Gabe Brooks and the East Texas Sports Network, which named him as one of three running backs on its 2016 Preseason East Texas Super Team and said of him, “There might not be a better pure running back in all of East Texas.”

You can watch his junior highlight video below and see if you agree with ETSN’s assessment.

If you’d like to see Fuller and his Harleton teammates in a game this fall, here is their 2016 schedule:

August 26 - vs. Linden-Kildare
September 2 - at Gladewater Union Grove
September 9 - vs. Redwater
September 16 - at Big Sandy
September 24 - vs. Elysian Fields (at Longview)
September 30 - at Beckville
October 7 - vs. West Rusk
October 14 - at Troup
October 28 - vs. Arp
November 4 - at Waskom