The Wagener-Salley High School football team has gone from laughingstock to legitimate contender for the Region 4-A title. The War Eagles’ transformation hasn’t occurred over night but has been a slow-developing process that saw them break through last season, snapping an eight-year playoff drought while finishing with an 8-3 record.

The seeds of the success were sown when Ken Tucker took over as head coach during the 2009 season and turned to a group of neophytes to try and find success. Not all of those players are still around now that Wagener-Salley has developed into a stronger program. But one player who remains while helping turn one loss after another into today’s success is rising senior RJ Tyler.

The two-way star has been a building block for the War Eagles. He’s been a stalwart of the defensive line, a lynch pin player who coaches can count on and build around. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Tyler is also a massive figure on offense, where he’s a critical player in the passing and running game as the best pure tight end in the area.

The truth is, he’s only scratched the surface of his capabilities as a weapon on offense. He figures to continue to develop at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he recently committed. If that happens, it’s not too far fetched to say Tyler could possibly follow in his father’s footsteps and one day play in the NFL.

For all of those reasons, Tyler’s an easy choice as one of the Aiken Standard’s top 10 Players to Watch for the upcoming 2013 season.

“He was around when we weren’t very good,” Tucker said of Tyler, who endured back-to-back 2-8 campaigns his first two years on the varsity squad. “He’s a leader.”

Tyler has led with his words and especially by example. He’s put in the hard work and stayed the course when the results weren’t there; when it looked like they may never come. But he endured and had an impressive season in 2012, which was Wagener-Salley’s best year in more than decade. It wasn’t a coincidence.

Tyler had 20 receptions for 354 yards and six touchdowns a year ago, but was just as pivotal to the team’s running game, serving as a primary blocker for a squad that rushed 2,896 yards. He was equally important on defense, where he led Wagener-Salley with five sacks and was fourth overall on the squad with 66 tackles. Eleven of those stops were for a loss of yards, and Tyler added a forced fumble as well as a fumble recovery to his stats.

“When I started, we were winning two games a year,” Tyler said. “We worked and worked to get over that hump.”

If the War Eagles are going to remain a winning team and possible scale further up the mountain, it will be because of another strong season from Tyler. He so good on both sides of the ball because he’s a two-way player, utilizes his physical attributes.

“He’s got size and strength as well as speed and versatility,” Tucker said.

And one thing Tyler won’t have is a burden. By committing early to UNC Charlotte, he doesn’t have to worry about the ups-and-downs of the recruiting process. He can focus on making the most of his final year in high school and continuing to be a driving force for the War Eagles.

“I want to finish out strong and go deep in the playoffs,” Tyler said. “Everybody wants to have a great season.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.

Series glance

This story is the third in a series highlighting the top 10 Players to Watch in the Aiken area for the rapidly approaching high school football season. The list will be revealed in descending order on a daily basis, with the No. 1 player to watch to be revealed on July 21.

• July 12 — No. 10 Reggie Preston, RS-M

• July 13 — No. 9 Jaylen Lawrence, SB

• Today — No. 8 RJ Tyler, W-S

• Monday — No. 7

• Tuesday — No. 6

• Wednesday — No. 5

• Thursday — No. 4

• Friday — No. 3

• Saturday — No. 2

• July 21 — No. 1

The order was determined by Aiken Standard sports editor Noah Feit, staff writers Jeremy Timmerman and Eric Russell, North Augusta Star news editor Scott Rodgers, Aiken Standard intern Kyle Dawson, as well as ASTV broadcasters Ed Girardeau and Ken Brace.