PORTLAND, Ore. -- Chris Casey could have predicted it.
On New Year’s Eve, a game of phone tag came to its weeklong end when Oregon running back Thomas Tyner connected with Casey, his high school coach. They talked about Tyner’s trips to Disneyland and an improv show, as the soft-spoken sophomore became animated. Before they got off the phone, Tyner uttered a phrase he hadn’t been able to say for much of this season: “I feel rested, coach.”
“I could have told you on New Year’s Eve he was going to have a good game,” Casey says now.
Casey, who left Aloha (Ore.) High after Tyner’s 2013 class graduated to restart the program at Division III George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., likes to compare his former high school All-American to a lion. In the wild, lions spend roughly two hours a day hunting their prey, and then two hours eating it. Remaining time is devoted to sleep. When healthy and rested, they’re feared.
Before his Ducks met previously undefeated Florida State in the Rose Bowl semifinal, Tyner had spent most of the previous seven weeks resting. Hampered by a string of injuries to his shoulder and ankle, he hadn’t played since a 51-27 win at Utah on Nov. 8. But finally, Tyner felt rested. His prey should have been worried.
Tyner proved to be instrumental in Oregon’s 59-20 rout of the Seminoles, rushing 13 times for 124 yards with two scores. His first run went for six yards on third-and-three, giving the Ducks another set of downs. His second carry went for 10. Oregon settled for a field goal on that drive, but Tyner once again looked like himself. After his second touchdown, the Ducks’ last of the game, Tyner and running backs coach Gary Campbell embraced on the sideline. Six days later, a friend sent Campbell a screenshot of the moment, a photo he intends to save.
“I’d been trying to get that [performance] out of him since August,” Campbell says. “He had a smile I hadn’t seen in a while.”
An icon in his hometown of Aloha, located just 110 miles north of Eugene, Tyner arrived at Oregon with heavy expectations loaded on to his 5-foot-11, 215-pound frame. The Warriors had won 17 games in the 14 seasons before Casey took over in 2004; in ’09, with Tyner as a freshman, Aloha snapped its 22-year postseason drought. In ’10, behind Tyner’s 1,821 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, it won the Oregon big-school state title. The Warriors boasted few college players, but Tyner was the core.
The Ducks have become a perennial top-10 team in the last decade behind a steady stream of standout running backs. Players like Jonathan Stewart, Jeremiah Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner helped turn Eugene into a coveted major college football destination. But never before had Oregon recruited a tailback of Tyner’s caliber -- he was a five-star prospect and the nation’s No. 2 back, according to Rivals.com -- from its own state.
“We didn’t pressure him, but I think he felt it from Oregonians,” Campbell says. “Here’s this guy, who had a gazillion yards in high school, who once had a 643-yard, 10-touchdown game [an 84-63 win over Lakeridge (Ore.) High in 2012], and all the people who knew him thought he was gonna go in and be a Heisman candidate.”
Despite an injury in fall camp that set him back -- Campbell says it is only recently that Tyner truly feels comfortable within Oregon’s offense, and completely grasps the playbook -- Tyner found a place in the Ducks’ 2013 scheme, rushing for 711 yards with nine touchdowns. But he struggled to find a style. As a prep star, Tyner simply ran away from everyone. At Oregon, he had to figure out how to use his size, power and speed against players boasting similar attributes.
“I had to tell him, ‘You’re not a tap-your-feet-and-juke-guys kind of player,” Campbell says. “He was trying to make little moves that he didn’t have, and then he’d lose his advantage, which is size and power. In high school, all he had to get was get the ball and run. Here, he’s had to learn on the run.”
Still, Tyner earned freshman All-America honors. That set up what was supposed to be a storybook sophomore season: Oregon returned almost every major piece for 2014, headlined by Heisman candidate (and eventual winner) Marcus Mariota. There were even whispers that Tyner could be in the Heisman conversation, too.
Then Royce Freeman got to town.
Oregon practices are closed to the public, so no one knew what to make of chatter that the true freshman was, in fact, better than Tyner. Bigger, too, and possibly more physical. Campbell told Tyner and Freeman that the job was Tyner’s to lose, but he had better fix the problems Campbell saw in August: An abundance of turnovers, a lack of intensity and an inability to run through tackles. By Sept. 20, Freeman had earned the starting nod. He finished the season as Oregon’s first 1,000-yard freshman rusher, totaling 1,185 in the regular season.
Meanwhile, Tyner all but disappeared. He ran well in Oregon’s 45-16 win over Stanford on Nov. 1 -- 63 yards with two touchdowns on 10 carries -- but missed the Ducks’ final three games with injuries. Before the Rose Bowl, Tyner described 2013 as “frustrating,” and acknowledged he needed to change his style and attitude. Upping the aggression, like he did against the Cardinal, was crucial.
“Really, I was just tired of hearing what people had to say. I felt like I had to prove myself … they were saying I wasn't doing so well,” he told 247Sports.com. “I felt like I had to do something different, so I did.”
Casey, who has tried to encourage Tyner all season, says the back has never complained about Oregon or coaches, and does not ask him for technique advice. But he showed up at three of George Fox’s games this fall, hanging out on the sideline. Wherever Tyner goes in Oregon, a swarm of small children often follow, mimicking his on-field moves and begging to play catch. Tyner always obliges, which makes Casey prouder than statistics ever could.
“Did his confidence dip? Probably. But that’s very normal,” Casey says. “It was magnified this year because of Freeman. He never said anything about transferring or quitting, but I’m sure those thoughts were in the very back of his mind. I have told him, finishing what you start is a great habit for life.”
When they talk, Casey tries to stay away from football. He reminds Tyner about life lessons instilled at Aloha, like approaching every situation as an “opportunity over obligation.” Casey understands the weight of outside expectations, and how they can cripple young athletes. But he also knows Tyner has all the pieces to excel at Oregon, even if it has taken him a while to find his footing.
“Every time I saw him, I gave him several hugs,” Casey says. “I didn’t have any doubt that he was going to fight through this.”
Casey was playing field-trip chaperone for one of his sons during the Ducks’ dismantling of Florida State, and missed most of game. But he heard from family members that Tyner was playing well, and saw postgame highlights of what he has always believed Tyner can do: Combine explosive speed (he ran a then-Oregon high school record 10.43 in the 100 meters as a sophomore, then broke it twice) with bruising power. “He was very decisive,” Casey says. “No hesitation, no shimmying his feet. One cut, pads square and finishing downhill.”
Campbell saw the same things and believes success will help Tyner feel comfortable and confident. “Perfect timing,” Campbell says.
Casey won’t be in Dallas for the game, but has arranged his recruiting schedule to be on his couch in plenty of time to watch Oregon try to win its first national title on Monday night. Campbell has been coy about whether Tyner or Freeman will start against the Buckeyes, but expects Tyner to get plenty of snaps.
Two days after the Rose Bowl, with the Ducks back in Oregon, Tyner called Casey from Aloha’s practice field, where he was goofing around with friends. He assured Casey he wasn’t participating in the pick-up game that had broken out, but said he was excited to have the weekend off to lounge and be home with family.
Casey’s parting words: Rest up. The lion hunts again on Monday.