It might be tempting for high-achieving members of the Stephenville Yellow Jackets football team to take it easy this summer.
But instead of lounging around, returnees are already focused on reaching a higher level in preparation for the 2018 season. Not only are they working in the weight room, but also in 7 on 7 competition and at a multitude of summer camps.
Gage Graham and Blu Caylor are leading by example just as they did last season when they earned two of the top superlative honors in District 3-4A, Division I as juniors. They’re part of the large crop of incoming seniors who contributed greatly to the successful 2017 campaign in which coach Greg Winder’s 12-3 Yellow Jackets reached the state semifinals.
Graham and Caylor, along with two fellow juniors — defensive lineman Pacen Parker and center Jacob Poston — earned honorable mention all-state from the Associated Press Sports Editors in 2017 along with senior cornerback Cole Pettit and senior wide receiver Blake Aragon.
Parker, linebacker Zane Walker, center Jacob Poston, offensive lineman Devon Roeming, receiver Kyle Lindsey, place-kicker Chase Carrillo and a two-year starter at running back, Krece Nowak, were all first-team all-district as juniors in 2017.
They are expected to make the Jackets even more formidable in 2018, along with other others from the strong junior class. They include second-team all-district performers Lane York, Scott Gill, Jonathan Gutierrez, Dylan Garber, Cody Storrs and Carrillo (second team as a defensive back).
Other incoming seniors who lettered as juniors in 2017 include Tyler Schouten, Kenny Carlson, Victor Moreno, Tyelir Brown and Nathan Diedrich. Sophomores who lettered on last year’s varsity squad included Cole Stanley, Quentin Walker, Caleb Smith, Austin Stidham and Adrian Cervantes. Schouten and Stanley competed for the starting quarterback spot early last season when senior Easton Jones was recovering from his elbow injury.
Graham was a starting safety on defense for the Yellow Jackets. He also took on a starting role on offense as a slot receiver. That wasn’t the original plan, but Mason Holstein was lost for the season because of an injury, and Clay Krause also was sidelined for a while.
Graham’s impact was impossible to ignore for the District 3-4A coaches, who voted him as the overall Most Valuable Player.
Graham ranked second on the team in tackles with 146, and in interceptions, with five. As a receiver, he was second in reception yards behind Aragon with 678, and third in both catches (38) and receiving touchdowns (six). Graham received the team’s Defensive MVP honor — by vote of the players — at the football banquet, and was on the All-Big Country (Abilene Reporter-News) defensive first team along with Caylor.
“Gage is a fantastic player,” Caylor said. “We could not be the team were without him — from defense to offense to special teams (as punt returner).”
Graham stays busy year-round, also lettering in baseball and track and field. He earned first-team all-district honors this season in baseball as an outfielder. In track he was this year’s district champion in the triple jump, advancing to the area meet.
As a starting linebacker, Caylor earned the district’s Defensive MVP award. Caylor led the Jackets in tackles with 189 in their 15 games, and was also first in quarterback sacks, with 10.
“They’re the leaders of the defense,” Winder said of Caylor and Graham. “Blu makes all the (defensive calls), and Gage does too.”
Caylor also contributed on offense, becoming the go-to running back in most of the team’s short-yardage and goal-line situations.
When the 6-1, 215-pound Caylor was inserted as a running back, he was usually successful, scoring 15 touchdowns — making him the team’s second-leading scorer (92 points) behind Nowak (150 points).
Winder noted, “Blu is going to fight his butt off to get that one yard. He’s a great kid to be around. With the team we have, they (Caylor and Graham) lead by getting on the field and playing.”
“Blu does a great job leading by example,” Graham said. “He’ll do what you ask him to do, and create momentum for the rest of the team.
“They’re both great practice players too,” Defensive Coordinator Cody Moore said of Graham and Caylor. “The other guys kind of follow them. For strength and conditioning, they’re usually at the front of the line.”
Graham’s family has a couple of football standouts who are in the SHS Athletic Hall of Fame. Both were two-way players. His father, Roy, was known primarily as a running back, and uncle Keith made his name more as a safety on defense.
Winder said that Graham’s football savvy is a key factor that makes the 5-11, 178-pounder such a valuable performer.
“Gage Graham is one of the smartest football players I’ve been around,” Winder said. “We needed a slot receiver last year, and he stepped right in there. He was returning punts — he did it all. He’s not a big rah-rah kid. He led by example.”
Winder said that outgoing SHS Athletic Director and longtime Yellow Jacket coach Mike Copeland told him that the way Gage plays reminded him of Keith, an all-state defensive back who earned a scholarship to play at Abilene Christian University.
“They encourage me all the time,” Graham said of Roy and Keith. “They’ll give me hints and tips. I’m lucky to have them. They know what they’re talking about.”
The 4-2-5 alignment that coach Moore learned while playing for TCU and installed before the start of the 2017 season takes advantage of the Jackets’ strengths — mobility and quickness rather than bulk size.
Another plus is that the Jackets won’t have to start learning a new system this fall.
“Last year coming in we were learning the defense, learning the basics and fundamentals,” Caylor said. “Now we already know the fundamentals of the defense. We’re already putting on new blitzes and coverages. It took some time for everyone to get on the same page. It was a learning process throughout the season.
“Coach Moore made it simple. It’s a great defense, and obviously it showed. Everybody loved the new defense.”
Winder said that while the offense is settling on a new starting quarterback — and adjusting to life without three-year starter Easton Jones — the experienced defense should be able to carry its share of the load.
“The defense is going to have to step up for a little bit — and they will,” Winder said. “They were one reason we were successful last year. Defense wins championships. We have a great group coming back, and they support each other.”
Caylor has lost count of how many times he has talked with his teammates about the dream of winning the state championship as seniors.
“I want to go back to that Cowboys Stadium so bad, and I want to win it,” Caylor said.
Graham said, “We’re looking pretty good, especially linebacker-wise, and how much experience we have now with the defensive line. They just go get it. It makes my job easier because they know what to do.
“If somebody makes a great play, you just feed off of it and you build so much momentum through the whole team.”
The Yellow Jackets have qualified for the Division II state 7 on 7 tournament (Class 4A and 3A schools), June 28-29 in College Station.
In between the 7 on 7 Tuesday night league play and the state-qualifying tournaments, many players also attend camps. Most are the more affordable day camps, making it possible for players to attend on multiple dates.
They also find time to come in to lift weights, stretch and work on conditioning at the school on their own — while other teenagers may be either swimming, boating or just getting comfortable with an air conditioner.
“Our kids are dedicated kids,” Winder said. “They won’t just sit at home. They’re going to come in and get their workouts done. We really don’t have to worry about them getting their work in.”