By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – So when, exactly, did Mona Shores head varsity football coach Matt Koziak know he had his quarterback?That is, when did Coach Koziak really know Tyree Jackson was Mona Shores’ quarterback of the future?

While most coaches might say finding a quarterback is a cumulative thing, a case that is built over time until it becomes undeniable, Koziak’s story is different.

In fact, Koziak can tell you the exact time and place.

Tyree Jackson

Tyree Jackson

“It was the spring of Tyree’s eighth-grade year,” Koziak said with a slight smile on his face. “He was in the weight room with some of the older guys, kind of like the younger kid hanging around with a bunch of bigger kids.

“So,” Koziak continues, “the guys are using the treadmill on an incline, and it’s going very fast, they’re using it 15 seconds at a time. And Tyree decides to get on, and in front of everyone he jumps on and immediately grabs the handles and flies backward and onto his knees. Now the belt is scraping his shins and he’s really struggling to get back up. We immediately sent him to the trainer, to get bandaged up. I wasn’t sure when I’d see him again.”

But who walks back into the weight room just minutes later?

None other than Tyree Jackson, eighth grader, after he’d just embarrassed himself in front of the older guys, and quite possibly hurt himself in the process.

“He made a decision that day, he chose one path instead of another,” said Koziak, whose smile had suddenly vanished. “That’s when I knew we had our guy.”

Jackson became the starting Sailor quarterback as a freshman at the tender age of 13. Koziak admits he probably assumed the signal caller roll a little too soon. His first season under center turned out to be a trial by fire, with the Sailors finishing 1-8.

But just as with the treadmill incident, Jackson got back up, dusted himself off and kept working. And according to Koziak and Jackson, the hard times he endured have  yielded a star-in-the-making as he enters his junior season.

“All that stuff has made me a better leader,” said Jackson, who now stands 6-1 and weighs close to 190 pounds, a stark difference from the freshman who couldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds soaking wet.

“I’ve got a lot more confidence, for sure, and I’ve got a ton more knowledge when it comes to the game of football. The last two years have given me the experience to walk out on the field knowing what needs to be done.”

It’s been clear from the beginning that Jackson has one heck of an arm, coupling a touch velocity with accuracy that isn’t often seen at the high school level. But the Sailors run the triple-option veer, meaning that one of those options is the quarterback keeper.

If Jackson can’t convince the defense that he’s a threat with his feet as well as his arm, the offense becomes severely limited.

It is one aspect of  his  game Jackson has been working hard to improve.

“If I can bust a couple runs, it will only help to open up everything else,” he said. “I figure I’m only helping the cause if I can become more a part of our running game.”

“He’s made huge strides in all facets of the game,” said Koziak. “His football knowledge, the time he takes to study film, his leadership, and now his running. He’s not backing down; it’s one area where he wants to improve. Actually, in practice lately we’ve had to tell him a few times that it’s OK to pitch it. He is learning to like running the ball.”

Jackson has a whole basket of weapons at his disposal to help keep defenders off his back, including returning All-State receiver Asantay Brown and senior receiver Logan Smith. Junior running back Deontay Moffett will take most of the carries. This group, Koziak said a week ago, was the best collection of skill players he’s had in 14 years of coaching.

And remember, Koziak has coached at Muskegon High School.

Jackson doesn’t hesitate to credit his teammates and the coaching staff, including the offensive linemen and quarterbacks coach Aaron James, for being vital to any success he may enjoy.

“They’re there for me, and I’m there for them,” he said. “That’s what team is all about; we’re there for each other.”

All the positive feelings and months of hard work will be put to the test Thursday versus rival Muskegon Catholic, a school that – since the schools have traditionally squared off in Week 1 (at least since 1985) – has done more to dash Sailor hopes than perhaps any other team.

Jackson doesn’t seem fazed by the hype surrounding the early season showdown against MCC.

“That’s what you learn as you get older,” he said, striking a decidedly philosophic pose. “There just isn’t as much pressure as you think there is when you’re younger. Most of that pressure I put on myself, but now I get that it isn’t just me out there trying to win the game. I’ve got 10 other guys out there who have my back. If we just do our job, each of us, we’re going to do fine. Instead of winning the game myself, I’m motivated to be part of the team that wins. We want to win this together.”

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About the rivalry

Mona Shores opens the season Thursday against Muskegon Catholic Central at historic Kehren Stadium at MCC. Game time is set for 7 p.m. Though Catholic holds the slight 6-4 winning edge over Mona Shores over the past decade, the Crusaders hold a 35-13-1 all-time advantage over the Sailors. Mona Shores enters the season still looking for that first playoff appearance. The team has just seven seasons with six-or-more wins, and none in the modern playoff era, where six wins means an automatic playoff berth.