ATLANTA, Texas — The Rabbits have their sights set on state.
Atlanta's team statement this year is 'D19', which stands for Dallas in 2019.
"It stands for our goal to get to Dallas in 2019," Rabbits' head coach Matt McClure said. "We have been to the fourth round in three of the last five years. The fifth round is usually at The Star in Frisco, Texas, and obviously, the state championship game is at AT&T Stadium in Dallas."
Atlanta returns many experienced players that McClure hopes will propel them further in the playoffs than they have gone in recent years.
"Expectations are high," McClure said. "We have some really good players back at key positions. We still have some really important spots to see who all is going to emerge there. The main spot is the quarterback position.
"We have to develop some depth on both sides of the ball. I feel really good with where we are. Getting to work out in the summer has helped us advance. We are pretty confident, and we've had a good start at camp. We've had really good practices, and the kids are doing a good job of being on time. We are talented and have a lot of kids coming back who played 14 games for us last season."Gallery: Texarkana Gazette's 2019 Football Edition
Senior Kade Wood and sophomore Cooper McClure are competing for the quarterback position. Wood excelled at wide receiver in the past two years, and the young Cooper McClure is on the varsity team for the first time after starting for the junior varsity last season.
"I think competition anywhere is good," Coach McClure said. "I think when two kids are competing for the same position, it makes them better. It's not like whoever doesn't make it is going to be on the bench. We will have other spots for them. It's a friendly competition, but it is individual competition that they will have to iron out themselves."
Caleb Hamilton and Dra Nelson are expected to get the most totes at running back. Hamilton totaled 1,019 yards and 11 TDs last season, and Nelson rushed for 684 yards with six touchdowns. Sophomore Keith Kinney is also expected to contribute to the run game.
"Caleb is about as skilled a player as I have coached," Coach McClure said. "He has tremendous ball skills and quickness. Caleb is outstanding in the open field, and we are going to have to utilize that by getting him the ball in space. He hard to tackle in space and is a really good competitor.
"Dra is really strong and has done a great job in the weight room," Coach McClure said. "He has a lot of speed and is a solid inside-outside runner for us."
One of the main targets at wide receiver is junior Keyshawn Easter, who started at cornerback last season. JJ Fields, who is also expected to start at safety, will be a main receiver for the Rabbits. Jordan Stiger returns at H-back.
The offensive line is loaded with experienced players including James Joslin at center, Tyrell King at guard, Kade Fant, and Jared Cowgill.
"Our offensive line is obviously a huge part of what we do," Coach McClure said. "We feel pretty good about our guys up front. We have to get some depth there and get those guys rested. We have several who played 14 games for us last year and that's big for the progression of our offense and our team."
Linebacker Connor Samples is Atlanta's leader on defense. Samples racked up over 100 tackles last year.
"Connor is a good kid, has good size, and has started since he was a sophomore," Coach McClure said. "He is a very good leader and is great academically. Connor is smart and has some offers already. He is our cornerstone."
Four of the six defensive lineman from a year ago are back in Tre Adams, DeGregory King, Fant, Tyrell King. Also rotating in will be Cantrell Andrews.
Fields and Easter are the two returning starters for Atlanta's secondary. Xavier Coleman started four or five games last season and is expected to start. Newcomers Trunte Veal and Vonte Frank are expected to contribute at safety and cornerback.
Wood, Cooper McClure, and Marcus Banks will figure into some of the spots in the secondary as well.
"We are trying to develop some depth and combinations," Coach McClure said. "We have to get some rotation going on both sides."
Daniel Hernandez, a sophomore, will be the Rabbits' place kicker.
"Daniel has a really good leg," Coach McClure said. "He kicked for us in the playoffs last year. Daniel has done an outstanding job for us."
HARD WORK AND RELATIONSHIPS
For Coach McClure, coaching is a very rewarding career. He is back for his ninth season at the helm for Atlanta.
"I think it's always fun to get back in the swing of things," Coach McClure said. "The relationships that I build with the coaches and kids is big. It's a family atmosphere. There is a lot of unknowns during the season. Injuries will stack up, and you never know just how games will go. Getting back under the Friday night lights is fun for me, the coaching staff, and the entire community."
Aug. 30, at Gilmer
Sept. 6, Gladewater
Sept. 13, at Pleasant Grove
Sept. 20, Liberty-Eylau
Sept. 27, x-Redwater
Oct. 4, x-at New Boston
Oct. 11, x-Hughes Springs
Oct. 18, x-at Mount Vernon
Oct. 25, x-Jefferson
Nov. 8, x-at Hooks
x-Denotes 7-3A game
All kickoffs at 7:30 p.m.
2018 RECORD: 8-6
HEAD COACH: Matt McClure
YEARS AT SCHOOL: 9th
COACHING STAFF: Charles Bush, off. coordinator; Dave Allen, running backs; David Hooten tight ends; Casey Cauley, receivers; Craig Fant, def. coordinator; Nick Miller, outside linebackers; Joel Morris, inside linebackers; Jessie Biles, secondary.
LETTERMEN LOST/BACK: 18/20
STARTERS BACK: 6 offense, 6 defense
PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB Caleb Hamilton, RB Dra Nelson, WR Kade Wood, TE Cade Fant, FB Jordan Stiger, OL Jared Cowgill, OL James Joslin, OL Tyrell King, DB Keyshawn Easter, LB Conner Samples, DB JJ Fields, DL DeGregory King, DL Kentrell Andrews, DL Trey Adams.
TOP NEWCOMERS: Decorian Parker, Keith Kinney, Jeremiah Jefferson, Alijuah Drayton.