C.J. Ackles did it all for the Mount Zion High School football team in 2017.

He accounted for 1,889 total yards and 21 touchdowns on offense.

He'd turn around and give opponents fits on defense, tallying 49 tackles, eight pass breakups and five interceptions in the Eagle secondary.

Even on special teams, he flipped fields by averaging 41.3 yards per punt.

But above any individual accolade, the 2017 Times-Georgian All-Area MVP is most proud of what his squad was able to accomplish in becoming the first team in MZ history to make it all the way to the Class A Public state semifinals, along with establishing a new school-record for wins at 10.

"It was a total team effort and it was our goal to get as far as we could," Ackles said. "To be honest, we didn't think we were going to get that far. But we still worked hard every day, got after it in the weight room, trusted each other and it just all came together."

The season-long flight to the semifinals for Ackles and his Eagle teammates was nothing short of impressive with MZ averaging 29.4 points per game on offense, while only giving up 13.7 points per contest on defense.

After dispatching of Marion County in round two of the state playoffs, the Eagles sent shockwaves throughout the entire state in the quarterfinals when the senior signal-caller fired a game-winning touchdown pass to Iaan "Mike Mike" Cousin with 23.9 seconds left to topple No. 1 Manchester.

From there, it was a long trip down south to Homerville, where MZ found itself in yet another down-to-the-wire classic versus eventual state champion Clinch County. A slim, 23-20 defeat ended the journey for Ackles and his team, but their hard work, preparation and embracing the role as the underdog took them to levels the program had never seen.

"The coaches did a great job game-planning for us and we just went out and did our jobs. We knew what we were capable of and we just tried to stay healthy for the whole season," Ackles said. "We just wanted to prove to everybody what we could do. We're competitive and weren't going to let anybody get in front of us. We wanted to prove every night that we're the best and that they're going to leave the field knowing that we hit them hard."

What makes Ackles' individual season on offense even more jaw-dropping was the fact that it was his first season taking snaps at quarterback. After spending his first three seasons as a receiver, the Eagle ironman athlete took on and embraced the new challenge with open arms.

"At first it was hard in getting my footsteps and everything right, but I had my teammates and my coaches behind my back," Ackles said. "That's always the best when you have people behind you to help you out. Once I got settled in, we just went from there and had a great season."

MZ head coach Brad Gordon heard a recurring theme throughout the season — opposing coaches couldn't believe this was his quarterback's first season starting under center.

"They saw how cool and calm he was behind center and it just blows their mind," Gordon said.

Gordon, the 2017 Times-Georgian All-Area Coach of the Year, has been on hand to witness Ackles develop as a player during his entire prep career and has never ceased being amazed with the natural gifts that he possesses.

"What else do you want from a football player?" Gordon said. "On defense, he was our lockdown guy. We just put him on people and let him take them completely out of the ballgame. You turn over to special teams, where last year he was an all-state punter. He turns around and averages 41.3 yards per punt punting this year. What can he not do with a football?"

Along with being voted the Region 6-A Player of the Year over several big-time Division I recruits, that versatility also earned Ackles an invite to the 2017 GACA North-South Football Classic being held at Freedom Field in Warner Robins this Thursday. Becoming the first MZ player in school history ever invited to the event, he is looking forward to rubbing elbows with some of the best players and coaches the state has to offer.

"It's a great honor to be playing in that game and I couldn't get to that without my teammates or my coaches," Ackles said.

On top of the all-star game and the ongoing MZ boys' basketball season, Ackles will remain busy throughout the winter with recruiting as a handful of FCS programs have already shown interest in him. He already has visits lined up to Samford on Jan. 19 and Richmond on Jan. 26. His head coach believes that whoever is able to pull him in will be getting a true competitor.

"Before it's all said and done, he's going to have several quality schools to choose from and we're excited for his opportunities," Gordon said. "He's got it all for the next level — athleticism, academics and character. Great things are going to come for that young man. He's one of the most competitive kids that I've ever been able to coach in my 22 years of coaching and I'm just thankful that he was on my team."

For the MVP himself, his recruitment isn't just about making the right choices for himself, but potentially opening the door for future Mount Zion athletes.

"I'm just trying my best to put Mount Zion on the map and make sure this whole school isn't just a place for people to overlook," Ackles said. "We have fantastic athletes here and I'm just trying to make sure that the guys who come are coming up after me will get some looks."

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