2015 Football Preview: Eagles motivated for title chance
By Richard Greene
Hanging in Cole Vaughan’s bedroom is the front sports page of the Messenger depicting him on his knees on the field after the Decatur Eagles’ overtime loss to Graham in the regular-season finale.
“Every day I look at that. I don’t ever want to feel that way again,” Vaughan said.
The loss to Graham that kept Decatur from celebrating a 4-4A Division I title was followed by more heartbreak the following week when Stephenville came from behind to beat the Eagles in four overtimes to end the season.
The frustration of those two losses gives the Eagles plenty of fuel to head into the 2015 season.
“Anytime practice gets hard, I remember that feeling,” said Decatur senior wide receiver and safety Ryan Durdon.
But the two losses in back-to-back weeks to the 4A Division Region I finalists – Graham and Stephenville – did not spoil the Eagles’ first season under new head coach Mike Fuller. They finished 7-4 after installing a new offense and defense and replacing big-time offensive weapons.
And after a rough start against Springtown, the Eagles bounced back to play a pair of preseason top-5 teams past 48 minutes.
“Any team should be better at the end of the season. We play so many guys both ways that it takes twice as long to get everything in,” Fuller said. Heading into a second year with the same coaching staff and not having to rush to install new systems, the Eagles are hoping to hit the ground running.
“They were new last year. We’re more mature and understand what needs to be done,” Durdon said.
The Eagles return major cogs on both sides of the ball. The offense brings back 1,100-yard rusher Payton McAlister and 900-yard receiver Durdon. The defense brings back six starters, including all-district linebackers Mason Baur and Vaughan, and Brandon Garza, Jorge Martinez and Durdon to the secondary.
But the Eagles do have major question marks. They must find a playmaker at quarterback to replace Wise County Offensive Player of the Year Justin Myers, along with rebuilding the offensive line.
Decatur must travel another rough road, facing five 2014 playoff teams in the first five weeks – Springtown, Alvarado, Iowa Park, Ranchview and Bridgeport.
Like last year, the Eagles face their two biggest challenges in 4-4A I in the final two weeks – a trip to Gainesville and a date at home against preseason No. 7 Graham.
But well before the Eagles can think of playing for a district title, Fuller points out they have a lot of work to do.
“I expect us to give great effort,” he said. “We have playmakers. It’s a matter of them all being on the same page. We need to get better focusing on each play.”
As the Eagles painfully learned last year, the whole season can be determined on just one play.
Weapons return for Eagles
With the District 4-4A Division I title on the line against Graham, Payton McAlister ran for 89 yards and a touchdown and hauled in five passes for another 183 yards and four scores.
It was an impressive night for the then-sophomore Decatur running back, considering he was playing with a hip injury that forced him out of action all spring. Now McAlister expects to build on the breakout year that featured his 1,172 yards rushing and 37 catches for 684 yards and once again be a major cog for an explosive Decatur offense.
“I’m fully healthy,” McAlister said. “It’s a big difference.
“This offense is very capable of being very good. We just have to figure out the quarterback.”
The past two seasons, the quarterback play for the Eagles has been key. Grayson Muehlstein led Decatur to the third round of the playoffs in 2013, throwing for 3,079 yards and running for 1,462.
Last season, Wise County Offensive Player of the Year Justin Myers accounted for 38 touchdowns, throwing for 2,305 yards and running for 1,313.
Senior Jake Kemp entered the fall as the only signal caller with experience, seeing limited action behind Myers last year. He is locked in a battle for the job with juniors Tyler Ticknor and Parker Hicks.
Entering the team’s first scrimmage, Decatur coach Mike Fuller said the Eagles needed more consistency from the quarterback job to take advantage of the team’s playmakers.
“We have to have a quarterback to get the ball to them,” Fuller said.
The quarterback who steps forward to win the job will have a talented cast around him, including senior Ryan Durdon at receiver. He caught 57 passes for 900 yards and 10 scores last year. If Hicks doesn’t win the quarterback job, he and Drew Redwine will join Durdon on the outside to add depth to a dangerous group of receivers.
“We’ll be just as explosive, maybe even more,” Durdon said.
The Eagles must rebuild the offensive line that returns one full-time starter from last year – Terry Lee Hogan at right guard. Adrian Cantu is taking over at center. Nate Watkins and Zane Hickey are working at the tackles. Justin Callahan and Kyle Barnett are battling for the other guard spot.
“We need to work on our technique. As smart as they are, that won’t be a problem,” Hogan said. “We’re acting as a family and everyone is taking care of each other.”
Eagles defense looks to make significant strides
With a chance to secure wins against Graham and Stephenville at the end of the season last year, the Decatur Eagles defense couldn’t get the stop.
Both opponents tied the score on their final possessions to force overtime in victories.
“Those last two games against Graham and Stephenville were heartbreaking,” said Decatur senior linebacker Cole Vaughan.
Returning six starters on defense, the Eagles expect to be better than last season. Decatur allowed 416 yards per game – an average that ballooned primarily due to the 620 yards allowed against Graham and 530 in the four-overtime game with Stephenville.
“We definitely should be competing at a higher level,” Vaughan maintained.
He and fellow linebacker Mason Baur return to the heart of the defense. Vaughan led the Eagles with 117 tackles, earning first-team 4-4A Division I and Wise County Defensive Player of the Year. Baur recorded 83 tackles, including 12 for losses and five sacks.
They will be joined by Tyler Ticknor, who is also competing for the quarterback job. Sophomore Josh Sij will also see time at linebacker.
The back end of the Decatur defense returns Jorge Martinez and Brandon Garza at the two corners and Ryan Durdon at safety.
Garza had three picks last year and knocked down another eight, earning all-district. Durdon and Martinez were also all-district selections, adding a combined three interceptions.
“[The secondary] could be really good. We all have experience and a good connection since we’ve played together,” Garza said.
Dru Anderson, Trey Wadlington and Drew Redwine add depth to the talented secondary. Payton McAlister, who will be a workhorse on the offense, may also see time in the secondary.
Last season, the Eagles held opponents to 189 yards per game through the air and five teams under 150 yards.
Several players from the Decatur defensive line rotation graduated, including those who combined for nine sacks a year ago.
Samuel King, Hunter Brandon and Leighton Brooks are working along the line. Decatur coach Mike Fuller said some members of the offensive line could help along the defensive front, going both ways.