A good many of you read the headline and decided I was crazy before you even clicked. The undersized freshman running back, who didn’t enroll early, is going to be Notre Dame’s lead back? The reasons why not are obvious: his youth, his size, and the depth chart. All important reasons! I’m just not convinced they can’t be overcome by the freshman from Virginia who wasn’t given the #25 randomly.
Before I get into how Tyree beats the roadblocks, he has one thing going for him that almost assures his inclusiveness in the game plan: explosiveness.
Notre Dame running backs were a lot of things last season, but explosive was not one of them. Notwithstanding one of the most shocking plays by an Irish player in some time — Tony Jones Jr‘s 75-yard touchdown run against Iowa State in the bowl game — explosive plays from the running game were few and far between.
Five of the longest runs on the season came from an Ian Book scramble against Louisville on the years first play, a couple designed Book runs against Duke, and some Braden Lenzy lightening bolts against USC and Boston College. Notre Dame had to often go outside of the running back position for their explosiveness in the running game. That should not be the case with the combustible Tyree, who twice won the fastest man competition at The Opening, and was nationally ranked in the 55 meters indoors and was the Virginia State champion in 2020. He has got the pepper, as the kids like to say.
There’s the case for him to see the field. Now the case for him to see the field the most.
There is this narrative with Brian Kelly and not wanting the play freshman, especially at the skill positions, that started some time ago, not sure where it originated, but it is very much fiction and people should stop talking about it like it’s a thing.
Freshmen made major contributions at the skill positions on offense in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2018. That’s nine players over the span of Kelly’s 11 seasons. And that doesn’t include George Atkinson in 2011 who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and was 23rd nationally in kickoff return yards. Kelly is not afraid to play freshman on offense. That’s not a thing.
The other factor relating to his youth also relates to the depth chart, which is there isn’t a bunch of experience ahead of him. Jafar Armstrong is a senior yes, but he doesn’t have a ton of snaps under his belt due to injuries. The other senior, Trevor Speights, was forced to retire due to injuries and even he didn’t have a ton of carries over his career. The rest of the depth chart is relatively green. Tyree is young, but not so young compared to his backfield mates.
The biggest reason freshmen don’t see the field at the skill spots–or any spots for that matter–is they aren’t physically ready to go. This was especially going to be the case with Tyree. He’s known as a small all-purpose back and a track guy. Pundits foresaw scatback duty, maybe some work in the slot, at least early. He can’t take the pounding, was the conventional wisdom. Then Tyree showed up to campus weighing close to 190 pounds, and at close to 5’10, that’s a horse of a different color. Suddenly, you look back at his high school highlight tape with a whole different set of possibilities.
We might soon stop thinking about Tyree as a smaller back and just start thinking about him as a back.
The Depth Chart
I mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again, Tyree is the only back on the roster that possesses his particular skill set. If Notre Dame wants explosiveness, there is no one else to turn to. So that sets him apart from the back just on its own.
He has senior Jafar Armstrong ahead of him, who for his career has 118 carries for 505 yards and eight touchdowns. Those aren’t numbers that anyone would call insurmountable for someone mounting a challenge. Beyond Armstrong is a whole bunch of youth.
The Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister, Kyren Williams trio combined for 94 carries, 368 yards, and seven touchdowns. Given their youth and those numbers represent their first action in major college football, it’s reasonable and even expected that at least one of those players will make big strides between the end of the last season and the present. But, again nothing that Tyree can’t compete with at the very least. There isn’t that major hurdle for him to leap over.
The wildcard here is Tyree is very much Lance Taylor‘s guy, where the rest of them are not. The other wildcard is Tyree is a top 100 overall player and the rest are three stars, which at this point means very little practically. But, you’ve got Tyree who is the only one Taylor recruited on the roster, and he’s a top 100 prospect, who without the ranking is just objectively very impressive, and oh by the way Brian Kelly is on the record saying they can use him between the tackles. When Kelly says that to the media, it’s all systems go at that point.
I intentionally said lead back and not starting running back because it is highly likely Jafar is the first back out with the offense at least for the first few weeks. That is a whole senior thing and coaches understand that since the position is very interchangeable it’s not a huge deal. That being said, I believe Tyree, barring health, will lead the team in rushes and yards in 2020. They didn’t recruit him not to play him and my feeling is when he plays, he’s going to impress. And while he’s a freshman, he also has a 5th year senior quarterback handing him the ball, which eases some of that burden as well.