EUGENE — Members of Oregon's 2013 recruiting class arrived in Eugene this weekend, none having packed with him the level of expectation heaped on running back Thomas Tyner, the five-star recruit from Aloha.
Tyner is variously expected to provide depth for the Ducks as a true freshman, run for 1,000 yards or perhaps even be the starter in the fall, depending on which UO fan is making the prediction. Fueling the hype are a freakish blend of size and speed, not to mention the state records Tyner set last fall for rushing yards in a game (643) and a season (3,415).
Today, Tyner will begin summer school classes, and voluntary workouts with his new teammates, young and old.
"Obviously I want to stand out a little bit when I practice," Tyner said earlier this week. "I'm just going to work as hard as I can to get the best out of my abilities."
In some respects, though, Tyner is just happy to be here — and no, not in the typical cliché fashion. A year ago, his verbal commitment to Oregon was already in place but his future with the Ducks remained cloudy because of inattention to academics.
Tyner's talent on the football field and as a sprinter would carry him, he had thought early in his high school career. Academics wouldn't be an issue. Then came a wake-up call from a high school counselor a year ago — get your grades up, or you'd be off to junior college.
"Senior year, everyone told me it was the easiest year, the least stressful year," Tyner said. "But it was the most stress I've ever been a part of. At some points I just wanted to quit. But I wanted it bad enough; I wanted to work for it."
Initial eligibility for NCAA athletes is based on a sliding scale that matches grade-point average in 16 core academic classes with an SAT score; the lower one is, the higher the other must be. Tyner boosted his SAT score this spring, and when he got his final grades this month, counselors at both Aloha High in Beaverton and Oregon penciled out his results and told him he was safe.
The NCAA Clearinghouse will be the final arbiter of Tyner's eligibility come fall, after it reviews his transcripts. But for now he's enrolled in summer classes, relieved at having made it through the spring and newly aware of the attention academics will demand in college.
"I'm really proud of him," said Lauren Randolph, Tyner's guidance counselor at Aloha. "He always thought he didn't have what it took. And I've always believed in him."
It was Randolph who delivered the dire warning to Tyner last spring. If he didn't get his grades up, she'd tell him, he'd be going "D3 or to Mount Shasta" — either to an NCAA Division III school, or to College of the Siskiyous, a junior college near Mount Shasta in North California.
Neither option set well with Tyner. Nor did a reality check from his dad. If Tyner didn't qualify at Oregon, he wasn't going to D3 or Shasta. He was going to a prep school back East.
And so as his senior year wore on, as weather improved and his friends were outside enjoying themselves, Tyner was holed up with tutors for three to four two-hour sessions per week. He did SAT prep and also focused on math, which had always given him trouble. He even skipped track season.
"When I went through sports, everything was just kind of given to me — the speed, the strength and all that," said Tyner, who goes about 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds and has run 100 meters in 10.35 seconds. "Obviously I worked hard, working out. But I've got to do it on and off the field. The gifts don't come free. You've got to work with it."
Tyner had the benefit of parents who paid for his tutors. And there was his counselor, Randolph, whose daughter had competed collegiately and thus knew the ins and outs of the NCAA eligibility process better than most.
She helped Tyner get all of his core courses lined up, and challenged him to enroll in tougher classes than he might have on his own.
"He would say, 'I'm playing football,'" Randolph said. "I'd say, 'Even football players need to do this.' Junior year, it clicked."
And so here Tyner is, freshly arrived in Eugene, and ready to take on all the expectations heaped on him by the Oregon faithful. The Ducks need help at running back, after the graduation of Kenjon Barner left just three scholarship players on the roster, and Tyner seems suited to provide some.
For his part, Tyner isn't making any guarantees. He doesn't want to put undue pressure on himself, especially before going through workouts with his new teammates.
That said: "I don't like sitting on the sideline," Tyner said.
Thanks to all his hard work in the classroom over the past year, it appears he won't have to.