Fans always want to annoit the new guy. Having just enrolled in his first college class and participated in his first few workouts in shorts and cleats, many have already tabbed the uberfast, ubertalented Thomas Tyner as the present and future of the Oregon running game.
The knee-jerk comparison is to Jonathan Stewart, but it doesn’t work for a couple of reasons. Tyner runs hard, fast and determined, but Stewart came to Oregon at 5-11, 230 pounds. JStew was diesel with a dragster engine, a mature man as an 18-year-old freshman. Tyner is listed at 5-11, 201, with a bit of baby fat, nowhere near as sculpted and powerful as Stewart. Still, the younger Webfoot is a tremendous prospect, with a top time of 10.38 in the 100 meters. His senior season at Aloha, the speedster ran for 3,415 yards and 45 touchdowns, so much of the hype is justified.
Yet, Tyner has a necessary adjustment period coming to PAC-12 football. Remember that as a true freshman, JStew had just 53 carries for 188 yards, a 3.5 yard average. LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner redshirted. The Black Momba toted the rock 55 electrifying times his rookie season in college football, for 595 yards and 7 tds. Tyner may exceed them all from the beginning, but it’s a daunting challenge to do so.
He has to learn the playbook and learn the mesh, the option exchange with quarterback Marcus Mariota in Oregon’s bread and butter zone read play. Both the quarterback and the tailback have a read as Mariota puts the ball in the running back’s stomach, recognizing how the defense is reacting and making a split second decision to take or keep. Tyner ran almost exclusively out of the I Formation in high school, so there is a learning curve and extensive drilling ahead of him on this key fundamental.
In the short eight weeks between now and the season opener against Nichols State, the freshman’s head will be busy as water coming to boil, churning over the new and challenging balance of a new offense, summer classwork and adjusting to being away from home. His natural ability will take him far in making the transition, but he’ll also need patience, persistence and maturity to navigate it. Tyner has an excellent foundation, with supportive parents and an entire community behind him, a huge asset in overcoming that adversity. Remember at one point LaMichael James became so homesick and frustrated in his redshirt year that he had his bags packed for Texas, and running backs coach Gary Campbell and then-head coach Mike Bellotti had to convince him to stay in the middle of the night, consoling a crying LMJ on the lawn at the side of his car.
Thomas also has to adapt to the social environment of a new team, earn their confidence and respect, learn to fit in. At Aloha, Tyner, who wore #4 in high school (he’ll wear Jeremiah Johnson’s and Kenjon Barner’s number 24 as a Duck) used to stand off to one side on the Warrior sideline, away from his teammates. He rarely participated much in end zone celebrations or interacted with his teammates.
Interpreting the body language of athletes can be a tricky business. Jim Brown, the greatest running back who ever lived, used to rise slowly after every play and walk deliberately to the huddle. He wanted to conserve energy, and never give anything away to the opponent about how much contact he’d absorbed. The late Walter Payton was effusive and energetic, bouncing up out of the pile, carrying on running conversations with both teammates and opponents, roaming the sidelines to pump up his team. Payton was an extrovert who exuded tenacity and drive, missing only one game in 13 years, reaching the NFL Hall of Fame with great balance and a fearsome stiff arm.
By contrast, tennis legend Bjorn Borg was completely stoic when he played, appearing almost disinterested, a mask of total concentration. Meanwhile rival Boris Becker raged and fumed and screamed his way to an intense, superhuman level of effort. The styles of great athletes are quirky and individual. Tyner’s sideline demeanor is probably just a way of maintaining focus and conserving energy, but the impression it makes on teammates is important. He’ll have to win their trust and confidence. Linemen block better for a running back they like and respect.
Some guys reach a new level and a new team and never quite adapt to the culture. Fans all know about Oregon’s unique practice pace and how demanding it is. There’s the story of Lache Seastrunk at Oregon. Eager to make an impression, Seastrunk rips off a run in practice, juking two defenders for a big gain. He’s chattering about it behind the drill between repetitions, and Kenjon Barner snaps, “Man, are you still talking about that? That was, like, three plays ago.” A key part of Tyner’s journey to Eugene is learning how to fit in. It’s a new culture with its own rules.
The celebrated newcomer oozes ability, and in most cases, that trumps everything. He’ll want to work closely with the top notch Oregon training and conditioning staff, particularly to improve flexibility in his hamstrings, which plagued him throughout his high school career. He needs to get stronger to compete in the PAC-12. Though a hard-driving runner as a prep who made tough yards inside with tremendous second effort, the linebackers are bigger at the next level and the linemen are more agile. Lean muscle and definition will prepare him for the pounding and help him to maintain the edge his awesome natural ability gave him at the 6A level at Aloha. Every defense he’ll face in the PAC-12 is loaded with players better than the best opponents he faced in the Metro League. The first days of live contact and the opening weeks of conference play will be an awakening.
This video by Nick Taylor offers a glimpse into Tyner’s makeup and personality. Note the respect and admiration his teammates have for him, and how he quietly gives credit to his offensive line. He’s modest and soft-spoken, and that will help him immensely in a new environment, adjusting to a new group.
Tyner’s a superb prospect with good vision, great cutting ability, desire and world class speed. Campbell will do everything he can to get him acclimated and ready. The final challenge for the quiet, well-adjusted 5-star wunderkind will be the enormous, outsized expectations he faces. The Ducks are primed for a run at a national championship, and how well Tyner runs as a promising newcomer is the X Factor in that pursuit. Oregon has to replace Kenjon Barner, 2000 yards of offense and 23 tds.
Some of that will come from De’Anthony Thomas, but there’s an upper limit to how many touches and hits the blur-fast, elusive but diminutive Momba can take. Mark Helfrich has said, “You never want to know that number.” Campbell agrees, indicating he wants to keep DAT’s carries somewhere in the upper range of the previous two seasons, to feature him and utilize his awesome breakaway ability but not overload him. Last year Oregon’s #6 darted and dashed for 92 carries for 701 yards on a 7.6 yard average. 125 would be a lot at 5-9, 176. Barner had 278 last season, leaving the Ducks with a considerable load to fill among Tyner, Byron Marshall, the walk-ons, and fellow freshman Kani Benoit.
The richly gifted are different from you and me. Where we see obstacles and potential pitfalls, they see a crease to the end zone. And few athletes in the history of football are as adept as De’Anthony Thomas and Thomas Tyner at taking a two-yard swath of daylight and turning it into 60 yards of glory. That’s how they wind up on the cover of EA Sports and hoist trophies.
Speed is good. It clarifies, overcomes and confuses. Speed leaves opponents grasping for air and old men gasping for breath. You can’t catch what you can barely see. A head fake, a shoulder shimmy and gone. Thomas Tyner is supremely fast. If he maintains his health, refines his body, and listens and learns, he’ll achieve every dream he and his father set to paper. And Duck fans are in for a thrilling ride.