From the beginning he ran hard. His 711 yards were the most by a true freshman in school history.
He ran through arm tackles and burst through holes. The first time he got a starting nod, against Oregon State in the Civil War, Thomas Tyner ran for 140 yards, including 40 on the first play of the game, dragging three defenders down to the 40 (Scott Olmos, USA Today Sports Images).
In his first college game he scored two touchdowns, and midway through the year he scooted off a block by Keanon Lowe and zoomed for 66 against Washington State. Two dozen other times, he came within an eyelash of breaking a big play, tripped up by the last man, nudged out of bounds, or slipping on the loose black granules of the field turf.
In his senior year of high school, Thomas Tyner made the last man miss 47 times. He had 6 300-yard games, including a Sports Center-featured 643 in one game against Lakeridge, with 10 touchdowns. Named a Parade, USA Today and Army All-American, he smashed the state single-season rushing record with 3,415 yards, a man among boys in 6A Oregon high school football. A 5-star recruit and one of top 20 prospects in the country, he decommitted for two days in October and caused a state-wide panic.
As a freshman at Oregon, his 845 yards from scrimmage were just a down payment on the player he can become in college football. At 5-11, 211 he has the power to make first downs, and after running a 10.35 100 as a prep, the speed to outrun anyone in the game, angle or not.
Every great boxer has a counterpunch, and most great pitchers develop something off-speed or breaking to complement the fast ball. For football teams, championship contenders need two weapons. This season, if defenses commit to containing Marcus Mariota, Tyner is the dynamic answer. The Ducks can feed him the rock and probe for weakness. They can drive out of holes or score suddenly.
As good as he was as a freshman, Tyner can be way better in year two. Early in the year running backs coach Gary Campbell said,“There’s always that transition that has to be made and once a guy learns what he’s doing then he can really show his physical talent,” Campbell said. “Until then they’re kind of stumbling in the dark."
Tyner didn't appear to be in the dark, but he can improve his balance and vision, and be more decisive at the second level. Last year he made a lot of 12-to-15-yard runs he turned into touchdowns in high school, where he had a power advantage on varsity linebackers and made cornerbacks look helpless. He ran well as a new Duck, but he's still adjusting to the vast difference in competition.
By the season's mid-point it was clear Tyner wasn't intimidated by the daunting challenge of playing against grown men a year removed from scorching Lakeridge. Against the Cougars he broke loose for 99 yards on just 7 carries, missing the century mark only because the Ducks went deep into the bench with a comfortable lead after three quarters. He also caught 3 passes for 42 yards, including a diving, twisting grab at the goal line just inches from a spectacular touchdown. He bulled over on the next play.
After the game Marcus Mariota told goducks.com, "To see that out of a young guy like him is pretty special. He is still trying to learn the offense. He is able to catch out of the backfield and make plays. He’s a huge asset for our offense.”
The speedster from Aloha High got just a few touches in the Alamo Bowl but did turn a pair of pass receptions into key first downs, and the soft hands and instant acceleration showed he can be a potent weapon running routes as well as pounding the rock inside or out.
Last year Oregon went into the season with a giant question mark at running back after Kenjon Barner graduated. Could De'Anthony Thomas handle the load as a lead ball carrier? Was Byron Marshall capable of taking over? How quickly could Tyner transition to the college game?
The concern escalated when the promising freshman had to be carted off the field after an ankle injury in fall camp, hobbling around on crutches for several days. He missed the Nicholls State game, but debuting the next week on the road against Virginia, he blasted in for two touchdowns, including a nifty 31-yard run versus the Cavaliers first-team defense, cutting hard inside and shaking off an arm tackle, blowing through the secondary in an instant. With 51 yards on four carries, the Thomas Tyner era had began.
Barner and LaMIchael James redshirted as freshmen. Jonathan Stewart, hampered by injuries, averaged just 3.9 yards a carry in his first year. Only Derek Loville, with 544 yards on 140 carries, came close to the 5-star phenom's debut season, way back in 1986. De'Anthony Thomas sped for 595 yards as a frosh in 2011, but he was the third option in a loaded backfield, behind LMJ and KB.
In 2014 the Ducks have a hydra-headed monster on offense, another loaded backfield that features an elite dual threat quarterback in Mariota, the steady, capable Byron Marshall, Tyner, and a new freshman sensation in imposing power back Royce Freeman, 6-0, 230 pounds. All three backs have breakaway ability and the leg drive to stand up tacklers and finish plays driving forward. All three have soft hands out of the backfield, tough to bring down one-on-one.
If the defense crowds the box and overcommits to stopping the run, Mariota has Bralon Addison, Johnny Mundt, Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis, Chance Allen, Dwayne Stanford, Keanon Lowe, and Jalen Brown to throw to, and young speedsters like Darren Carrington, B.J. Kelley, Tony James, Devon Allen, and Charles Nelson pushing to find a place in the rotation.
Thomas Tyner has the physical ability to be a 1500-yard rusher in college football. All that remains is for him to stay healthy, apply himself in the weight room and the classroom, and get the necessary touches.
In 2014 the Ducks have a veteran offensive line that returns 107 starts, a phenomenal number and a key indicator of college football success. It's time for Thomas Tyner to take over the Oregon running game, and become the player he was meant to be.