Seven games into their 2022 football season, the Tyner Rams remain unbeaten.
They have outscored opponents a combined 281-20 for an average margin of victory of 40.1-2.9, the Associated Press state rankings list them as the No. 1 team in Class 2A, and they sit atop the Region 3 standings at 3-0 with a league championship and home-field advantage through at least the first two rounds of the TSSAA playoffs well within reach.
And while quarterback Josh Jackson has been at the heart of the Rams not only winning but winning dominantly this fall, putting together a senior season worthy of Mr. Football consideration, it very well might not have happened — at least not with Jackson on board, and maybe not at all.
Just two years ago, he almost gave up the sport entirely.
"There was a point when I never wanted to play football again because it wasn't something I enjoyed doing," Jackson said. "I thought it wasn't for me. I was set more on basketball and didn't believe that I had a future in this sport."
Things changed one day when assistant coach Twon McClain had a football waiting for Jackson when he got to the gym. Jackson zipped the football across the room and was told then and there: "You're going to be our starting quarterback going forward."
Jackson threw for more than 1,800 yards and helped Tyner go 7-4 last season in his first year as the starter. The day after the Rams lost to Trousdale County in the first round of the playoffs, he and his teammates were back out on the football field, eager to reach the next level.
"Every day since the loss to Trousdale, we have been working on and off the field," Jackson said. "I didn't need any breaks because I was already behind a lot and had a lot of catching up to do. If you can put your mind to it, you can do it. I wanted to become a better quarterback."
Teammates Jersey Chubb and ZaShun Hubbard propelled Jackson to grow in his game as they continually worked on the field and in the weight room with the quarterback, and their offseason gains have helped the Rams separate themselves from their competition.
The 6-foot-4, 208-pound Jackson has yet to have to sling the ball around in the fourth quarter because of the Rams' hefty leads, but he still has posted dazzling numbers.
With a deep and talented corps of receivers, Jackson has locked in with them to complete 90 of 128 passes (.703) for 1,641 yards, 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His average completion has covered 18.2 yards, and seniors Jarius Cameron, Marcus Lewis Jr. and Trae Ruffin have stepped up to make big catches, along with Chubb and Hubbard.
"From where Josh was two summers ago to now is leaps and bounds different," Tyner coach Scott Chandler said. "The reason is because he wanted to get better and put in the work to make it happen. His footwork, mechanics, arm strength and body have all gotten so much better, along with his reads.
"He has become a student of the game more than he ever thought about being before. He's feeling really comfortable in the second year of our system now, too."
Chandler, Ooltewah's head coach from 2018 to 2020, took over at Tyner in May 2021, and his hire ended a bumpy offseason for the Rams as he was the program's third leader in a six-month span.
Tyner is just five years removed from an appearance in the BlueCross Bowl state title game, but the Rams have only a pair of first-round playoff wins since then, with each of their past four seasons ending with a postseason loss to Trousdale County.
This season's team appears capable of something bigger, and the connection between Jackson and his teammates has made for a special final ride for the senior Rams.
Hubbard has started a podcast with Jackson called "Real Reality Vidzz" on YouTube, with hopes of inspiring others around Chattanooga to do great things on and off the field.
"We really have a great chemistry, and it shows in the game," Hubbard said. "I knew all the work and dedication we put in would pay off. Our mental state and physical state are strong. Josh is my brother, and I will go to war with him any day. He's the best quarterback in the state."
Jackson can also make plays with his legs, but he has proven quite capable as a pocket passer in a high-flying offense directed by coaches Christian Mainor, Justin Houston and Les Boyum. The scheme's balance has been helped by the explosive abilities of running back Markel McKinley, who has 23 carries for 321 yards and seven scores over his past three games and 12 rushing touchdowns this season.
The 2017 Tyner team became the program's first state finalist since 1997, when the Rams won the school's lone football state championship a year after making their first appearance in the title round. The current Rams would surely love to add to the program's lore by making their own title run, but there is still the home stretch of the regular season to travel -- and a big test on their own turf Friday night.
Jackson and Co. now turn their focus to Meigs County (6-2, 2-1), which beat them 19-18 last season with a late stop of a 2-point conversion attempt. The Rams could lock up a region championship with a home win, but the physical Tigers have their own title hopes.
"My grandmother passed away last season on the day of this game. She was a mother figure to me," Jackson said. "I am going to go out there and give it my all for her and my team. I won't let them down."
Contact Patrick MacCoon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.