Notre Dame incoming freshman running back Chris Tyree gets back on the fast track

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Chris Tyree’s natural curiosity about sports science is so steadfast that Notre Dame cobbled together a curriculum for him that would mimic a major it didn’t actually offer.

“We’re calling it a pre-Health major. I want to be a strength coach or a trainer someday,” said the Irish incoming freshman running back from Chester, Va. “That is, when football is behind me.”

Football, though, is very much ahead of Tyree, it would seem. And perhaps the best version of it to date.

How the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder has responded to the impediments that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to present is the most convincing testimony to that end, beyond the conversation starter — his elite speed.

Over the past couple of months, he has politely crashed Notre Dame running backs coach Lance Taylor’s and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ Zoom meetings with the current Irish players and pored over the playbook on his iPad, to absorb its nuances, in his spare time.

Tyree resolutely follows Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’ voluntary workout template as if it were an edict. That includes strengthening with the resistance bands ND provided him, and bopping over to a nearby park with 14-year-old twin brothers Jon and Nick to work on footwork and getting even faster.

“I don’t worry about the times,” said Tyree, the fastest player nationally in his class based on, admittedly incomplete, verifiable times in the 40-yards dash. He was clocked at 4.37 seconds last summer at The Opening and easily won the Virginia Class 6A indoor state title in the 55-meter dash in 6.31 seconds on Feb. 29 before the outdoor track season was canceled.

“I’m still working out with my track coach. I’m still doing some of the workouts that I would have been doing if everything wasn’t shut down. If I were to time myself, I would say it’d be at least the same if not faster.

“Just considering how strong I’ve gotten in the past month or so, I definitely think I’d be faster.”

Chester (Va.) Thomas Dale High product Chris Tyree feels ready for the spotlight at Notre Dame.

The fundamental question is how will this all translate at Notre Dame, and how quickly?

“He can do it all. He’s terrific out in space,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming offered when Tyree committed to ND last May. “Great vision and balance. He runs like a 200-pounder. He’s got really good hands. He just seems to do everything well.

“Under (ND head coach) Brian Kelly, he’s the best (running back recruit) out of high school. He’s a gamebreaker.”

That kind of assessment has become more diluted and less universal over the past year in the recruiting analysis industry, and perhaps unfairly or at least prematurely.

Rivals, for instance, dropped Tyree 35 spots to the No. 78 prospect overall in the 2020 class regardless of position in its final 2020 player rankings.

Tyree’s 655 rushing yards on 71 carries and nine touchdowns over nine games last season at Thomas Dale High are impressive but not overly so for someone who spent part of the recruiting cycle as a five-star prospect.

The context is a high ankle sprain he suffered in game three of the season that was so severe, Thomas Dale coach Kevin Tucker said doctors told him Tyree would have healed faster had he broken it.

Though the ankle was back to 100 percent when Tyree was doing the all-star game circuit in early January, his conditioning hadn’t had a chance to catch up at that point. It has now apparently, and then some.

“I could tell that it affected my game completely,” Tyree said of the ankle injury. “Just the way I couldn’t cut and move the way I did before. Like my first three games (of 2019) were like the best I’ve ever had. I was going to have the best season of my career.

“So I could feel a difference when I was running. When I came back, it just wasn’t the same. I gave it some more rest, took a couple of games off, and then came back and it was just still a nagging thing.

“But I took some time off after the season, made sure I was fully healthy before I ran track indoor. Now I’m perfectly fine. I’m back to how I was, how I felt the first three games.”

It’s hard to know when Tyree will get a chance to test that feeling again in an actual football setting, though momentum seems to be building for a fall season for the Irish in some form.

If everything aligns perfectly, at some point Tyree could perhaps truncate the longest ongoing position drought when it comes to All-America status at Notre Dame.

The last Irish running back to be so honored was Autry Denson in 1998, a second-teamer on the Associated Press team, three years before Tyree came bounding into this world.

More pragmatically, if Tyree’s speed simply translates into the kind of production Taylor and Kelly envision, he’ll be an important part of the response in what separated the Irish and eventual national champ Clemson in ND’s first-ever College Football Playoff experience at the end of the 2018 season.

Wide receiver Jordan Johnson too and tight end Michael Mayer as well, both like Tyree are among the nine Notre Dame freshman football players who were to start taking their first on-campus college classes in mid-June but will instead begin academically with an online experience.

It’s the first time Notre Dame has been able to cluster three or more Rivals top 100-rated, offensive skill-position players in the same recruiting class since the 2008 group of tight end Kyle Rudolph, quarterback Dayne Crist, wide receiver Michael Floyd and running back Jonas Gray.

If the Irish can add either running back Donovan Edwards of West Bloomfield, Mich., wide receiver Dont’e Thornton Jr. of Baltimore, Md., and/or re-engage decommitted Athens, Ga., receiver Deion Colzie to their 2021 class, they’d accomplish the feat in back-to-back classes.

Top 50 receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. and quarterback Tyler Buchner are already on board.

And that kind of quality in that kind of quantity is a necessary stride in the right direction — not what the finish line looks like — in trying to close the gap with playoff regulars.

Tyree admits he never would have chosen Notre Dame if he didn’t think closing the gap was possible and that he could be a part of the reason why, despite some opinions to the contrary.

“I don’t have any questions about it,” Tyree said when pressed about those who feel he might lack the size/endurance to make that kind of impact, at least early on. “I know my ability and my ability to make plays. I’m going to compete no matter what it is I’m doing. So I’m not really worried about it.

“My focus as a freshman is just to contribute no matter what my role is and what I’m doing. They’re going to get the best out of me, no matter what it is.”

Tyree’s skill set includes advanced receiving skills and a burst in the return game. He’s confident he could be a standout in the Irish defensive backfield if it came to that, though no one’s ever posed that scenario to him.

So his focus has single-mindedly been on how he fits into first-year coordinator Rees’ tweaked version of the ND offense.

“There’s nothing to not like about it really,” Tyree said. “Coach Rees is a really good offensive mind. And I think we players, as a whole, that’s someone we can trust, because he was there before he got the (coordinator) job.

“So we pretty much know what his vision is, and right now he’s basically going more in depth with us on it. I think we’ll be ready to hit the ground running whenever we can get a chance to get together and start things.”

The wild card, as it often is, is how Tyree will respond to the brighter lights and swelling outside expectations that Notre Dame experience inherently includes.

Drive and work ethic don’t seem to be lacking for Tyree.

“When he steps on campus, he’s going to be prepared — that I know,” Tucker said. “And I think he’ll handle the spotlight well.

“He played big in big games. In track, you put him against two of the fastest guys in the state and he competed. He’s not scared to go out there and play against the best of the best.

“So to go out in front of a big crowd, there’s not a kid in the country that can prepare for that. But week in and week out at Thomas Dale, you knew what you were going to get from Chris.

“He’s not scared of the pressure. He’s not scared to go out there and take care of business.”

Notre Dame incoming freshman running back Chris Tyree (4) has been getting up to speed on the Irish playbook during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My focus as a freshman is just to contribute no matter what my role is and what I’m doing. They’re going to get the best out of me, no matter what it is.”

Incoming Notre Dame running back Chris Tyree