The spotlight shines bright on John Tyler to start the 2012 football season. The stars aligned just right for John Tyler, with four of the area’s top players suiting up for the Lions in their pursuit to play on the big stage in December. The Lions auditioned for the state championship role the previous two seasons in Class 4A, making it deep in the talent pool with trips to the state quarterfinals (2010) and state semifinals (2011).
Multiple prognosticators predict JT’s current cast, led by a new director familiar with the blueprint for success at the school, and a proven past, is capable of performing through Week 16.
Four key senior members of the current team — Tyus Bowser, Darion Flowers, Fred Ross and Greg Ward — compared notes from the close calls in hopes of breaking through on their final try together. They lead a team now under the guidance of Ricklan Holmes, a JT alumnus who was a freshman on campus when the Lions last won it all in 1994, and a member of the 1997 state semifinalists at the school.
All four earned a spot on the Preseason Dream Team voted on by the Tyler Morning Telegraph and Longview News-Journal. Ross rates as the state’s No. 28 recruit by one service, with Bowser at No. 51 and Ward at No. 68. The foursome elicits comparisons to ’94 when the quartet of Morris Anderson, Marc Broyles, Michael Price and David Warren warranted heavy attention.
“We’re trying to get that state championship,” said Bowser, who holds close to a handful of offers from major universities. “We came up short last year. That just gave us motivation to work harder and try to get it this year, our last year.”
The potential weekly showcase, expected to be fueled by a high-powered offense, tours a stadium near you soon. The stops include five in front of the home crowd, and road dates at Lancaster, Mesquite Horn, Corsicana, Lindale and Nacogdoches.
The ultimate plan: to travel to the Metroplex for the state championship game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
“We’re trying to take it all home, be at Cowboys Stadium in December,” JT senior defensive back Traven Johnson said. “If we stay focused, humble, we can win it all.”
JT last won state in 1994, literally a lifetime ago for the senior class born around the same time.
“We want to be known as one of the best teams to come through John Tyler,” said Ross, an Oklahoma State commit who is ranked in the ESPN 300 and Rivals250. “They compare us to the ‘94 team. We have to live up to expectations.”
The Four Tops
When the dust settled last year, the 2011 Lions entered the school annals for most points in a season (645) among several other feats.
Bowser, Flowers, Ross and Ward all played in a 5A district as freshmen and won district titles together in football and basketball their first three years on campus.
The tandem of Ward and Ross rank among the best in the state and nation. The pair hooked up for three touchdowns in JT’s scrimmage, with Ward totaling 345 yards and Ross scoring four TDs on five touches while making four grabs for 176 yards.
Ward turned in the best individual season in school history when he passed for 3,729 yards and 34 touchdowns and rushed for 1,271 yards and 20 scores. The 5,000 total yards ranked first in the state.
Ross established a JT school record for receptions (100) and receiving yards (1,320) last year.
Bowser brings an all-around talent not often seen, his five rushing TDs and five sacks reminiscent of the days when talents like Broyles, Brandon Dillard and Aaron Jackson helped on the D-line and rotated in the backfield at JT. Bowser, also the backup quarterback and deep snapper, earned all-tournament honors as a receiver at the FSN Southwest 7-on-7 state championships, helping JT win the consolation title after a national crown weeks earlier. His AAU basketball team won its bracket at the national championships in Florida during the summer.
Flowers figures to start on both sides of the ball after a 1,000-yard receiving campaign. He totaled 10 touchdowns last year while becoming a sure-handed target. His versatility showed as he scored rushing and receiving and made a mark on defense.
“They make me comfortable,” Ward said of having familiarity in the program. “Coming back with the same offense, and the defense has some experience, it’s going to be amazing for us.”
Lights, Camera, Action
Wanting to leave their own mark once their junior seasons ended, the team adopted a three-word slogan, inspired by members of LSU’s national finalists. Several players incorporate “ERA” into their twitter handles, another nickname for a school already well-known by two more: ‘JT’ and ‘Cujo.’
The “Era” phrase unites the offense, defense and connects to the fan base. It became the Lions’ rallying cry during the offseason and at 7-on-7 competition.
“Era began when we started becoming more together as a team in the offseason,” Flowers said. “It stands for unity and togetherness.”
With the changes occurring over the previous four months, highlighted by Dereck Rush taking a job at Conroe Oak Ridge after leading JT to 35 wins the three previous seasons, the slogan felt natural.
“We’ve got a new mindset,” Flowers said. “We’re ready to go out there and play as a team. We’re coming out with more confidence.”
Viewing the next few months as a new era means the 2012 Lions want to leave their own mark.
“Era means a new beginning,” JT senior receiver Justice Liggins said. “Last year’s the past. It’s a new coach, new everything.”
Getting one round from the final game last year taught the third-ranked Lions another lesson in finishing the course.
“We talk about (winning state) but we can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Ward said of the championships aspirations. “We mess up one week and that can cost our future. We have to practice hard during the week and take care of our business on Friday.”
As with any show scheduled to perform, however, the Lions advertised their intentions for the fall.
“It’s going to be a new era; problems for everybody,” Ward said. “Watch out for us.”
FRED ROSS, WIDE RECEIVER
Talent: Making slick cuts either out of the backfield or running routes to get separation from defenders.
Credentials: Ross reeled in 100 catches for 1,320 yards and 15 TDs, all school records, during an all-state junior campaign. The area’s top recruit is ranked nationally in the ESPN 300 and Rivals250.
GREG WARD, QUARTERBACK
Talent: Accurate arm (72 percent passer), slick feet (1,271 rushing yards) make Ward a complete player.
Credentials: Ward accounted for 5,000 total yards and 50 TDs during an all-state season. Ward set JT school records for passing yards in a single season (3,729) and passing touchdowns (34). Ranked as the No. 68 recruit in Texas.
TYUS BOWSER, DE/WR
Talent: Versatile enough to play in the post on the basketball team, on the defensive line and at quarterback on occasion.
Credentials: Bowser proved effective on offense and defense last year, scoring on five of his eight rushes and making 61 tackles along with five sacks. He enters the season as the state’s No. 51 recruit, and a member of the Super Team.
DARION FLOWERS, WR/CB
Talent: The throwback player is set to start both ways — at inside receiver and at cornerback.
Credentials: Flowers factored big into JT’s record-setting offense, joining Ross in the 1,000-yard receiving club. Flowers averaged 16.4 yards per catch to lead the team. He finished the year with 64 catches for 1,048 yards and nine TDs.