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'Best days are ahead' for rookie RB Tyrone Tracy Jr.


There are not many players across the NFL that have a background quite like running back Tyrone Tracy Jr.

The rookie fifth-round pick spent his first four collegiate seasons at Iowa, where he lined up primarily at wide receiver. After registering 66 receptions for 871 yards and five touchdowns, he took advantage of the new transfer rules following the 2021 season and decided to take his talents across the Big Ten to Purdue.

During his first season with the Boilermakers, Tracy played limited snaps and finished the year with 28 receptions for 198 yards, along with 17 rush attempts for 138 yards. Faced with only one year left of eligibility, Tracy's NFL future appeared uncertain.

Last year, Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm left to accept the same position at Louisville, his alma mater, which paved the way for Ryan Walters to take over the program. This ended up being a blessing in disguise for Tracy, who soon after saw his path to the NFL become clearer.

When going over the film from the 2022 season, Walters, along with running backs coach Lamar Conard, saw something special in Tracy. The only thing was, while they did see a future for the young player in the NFL, it was at a different position. Heading into the 2023 campaign, Walters and Conard convinced Tracy to convert from wide receiver to running back, both for his personal success and the team's. One year later, the results proved that the two coaches knew exactly what they were doing.

"You see a lot of guys that are his stature, his speed, sort of skillset at the receiver position, and we needed running backs. Our running back room was very, very thin," Walters said on a recent episode of the Giants Huddle podcast. "Then you looked at him when he had the ball in his hands, he looked natural, making people miss, and was hard to bring down. So really the question I had was would he be tough enough in pass protection? Would he be tough enough to have 15 to 20 touches a game, where at wideout, he might be getting three or four? I approached him with that thought process, and all he wanted was opportunity.

"My message to him was, 'Well if you're a starting running back in the Big Ten, you're going to get touches, which equals opportunities.' Once we had that conversation and once he embraced his role as a running back on the team, you just saw everything take off. From a workout standpoint, he started buying into putting on the weight and the type of weight you need to play that position. He started flourishing as a leader in the locker room. Then as the season went on, he just kept getting better because it was the first time he was playing the position. I was telling scouts throughout the draft process, Tyrone's best football days are ahead of him because he's brand new to what he's being hired to do at the next level."

The 2023 season wound up being by far the most productive of Tracy's collegiate career. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound back carried the ball 113 times for 749 yards, good for an average of 6.3 yards per carry, and eight touchdowns while adding 19 receptions for an additional 132 yards. Both his yards per carry and his rushing touchdown total went on to lead the team.

When you add in his limited stats from the 2022 campaign, Tracy finished his Purdue career with 130 rush attempts for 854 yards (6.6 avg.) and eight touchdowns along with 47 receptions for 330 yards.

The biggest question Walters and his coaching staff faced with Tracy was how fast he could learn everything there is to know about the running back position. However, it didn't take long for the young back to ease his coach's worries.

"He picked it up pretty quickly," the head coach said. "I had full faith in him that he was going to be able to get it done just because of the way he operated every day, though. It had nothing to do with him learning the X's and O's. It was the way he worked out, the way he responded to coaching, the way he interacted with his teammates, and just the energy that he brought every day, it was consistent. When people are consistent, it's easy to trust them. I think that's where Tyrone excelled."

"If you watch him at receiver, once the ball was in his hands, he ran like a running back," Conard added. "His contact runs, ability to stay on his feet and turn a five-yard hitch into 15-20 yards was running back-ish. To be able to find open space, cut back, not be afraid to go across the middle, it's running back-ish. So when I got him, it was more about seeing the field from a different perspective… It didn't take long. His confidence was always there."

According to his position coach, the reason that Tracy was able to pick everything up at such a rapid pace was also because of his willingness and desire to learn.

"He'll grind you to death," Conard told the Giants Huddle podcast. "I view myself as a teacher, and he is a phenomenal student. He's the student that will not leave that room if he does not have the answer. He will come spend extra time, which again, it's awesome to see when a guy has a dream and a vision, he has his talent, but he wants to do the work. When I first presented it, it wasn't just learning the protections. He wanted to learn more about defensive structure, understand how the quarterback sees it. Not just looking at the four down linemen, the backers, he wanted to see safety rotations. Because I told him that the deeper dive you get into it, the faster you process, the faster you'll play, the more confident you'll be. And he really took to it."

Speaking of protections, one of the biggest factors that tends to keep rookie running backs off the field, at least on third downs, is pass protection.

Despite transitioning to running back in the months leading up to the 2023 season, Tracy wound up being the Boilermakers' best pass protector in the backfield, according to his head coach.

"I tested him early in the spring time," Walters said about Tracy's abilities as a pass protector. "We would create formations where we get 5-0 protections, so I knew if we blitzed the backer, it was going to be Tyrone having to pick him up. We sent him through the A-gap a lot of times and Tyrone was a willing participant in that physical contact and took it and owned that part of being a running back. It's a necessary role that you got to have to protect your quarterback. He was our best pass protector in the backfield, so he definitely was tough enough there.

"He had a few runs in spring ball and a few runs in fall camp where he lowered his shoulder and invited and embraced and sought out contact. That's when I was like, man, in my opinion, we got an NFL guy. We'll see how the season plays out, but I've been in this profession at this level for 15, 16 years now, and Tyrone is an NFL back. So I wasn't surprised when things played out the way they did and where he's at now, that was not a surprise to me."

View the best photos from the collegiate career of running back Tyrone Tracy Jr.

Upon Brian Daboll taking over as head coach of the Giants, the team adopted a new mantra for players to exemplify: smart, tough and dependable. Walters has his own version of this at Purdue: always be competitive, always be tough, and always be disciplined. Those three things, Walters said, are an embodiment of Tracy.

"He's as competitive a guy I've been around, no matter what you're doing," Walters said. "I talked about his toughness, not only from a physical standpoint but just in life in general. Obviously, his path is a unique one. You get recruited out of high school to play wide receiver, you go to Iowa, it doesn't work out there. You go to Purdue, you barely get touches your first year there. And then all of a sudden, you get a new staff and change positions. But you stay the course, and that was toughness.

"He attacked those adverse moments with great attitude and effort, and he's disciplined. That discipline leads to consistency, and when you're consistent, you get a chance to produce. He was detailed and disciplined with the techniques, with the game plan, with film study, never put the ball on the ground… He was awesome in the locker room. Just the message that he would preach to the rest of the guys was exactly what we needed. I'm grateful for his example moving forward."

Tracy's quickest path to playing time this season might be as the third-down back, given his experience as a wide receiver along with the presence of veteran running back Devin Singletary.

"He's a natural pass-catcher," said Walters. "He understands how to attack somebody's leverage and how to use your eyes in a route tree. He's got a good feel for catching the ball and getting vertical. We definitely utilized him out of the backfield this past year, probably should have done it more."

But another route to early playing time could be on special teams.

Tracy led Purdue with 16 kickoff returns for 408 yards (25.5 avg.) and one touchdown last season, while also contributing on both kickoff and punt coverage. According to his college coaches, the rookie back could easily carve a role out for himself on special teams this year.

"He has a great feel for finding creases and getting through them when we can't see it," Conard said about Tracy's skillset as a returner. "When you talk about kickoff, you've got to be willing to run into the wall, running into that door, and you don't know if it's going to be open. You've got to be willing to do it, and he has that kind of instinct and feel that you need. And he has the frame. This is the beauty of it. He's a hybrid. He has the quickness, the change of direction as a slot receiver, but he has the strength of a running back. You need that when you're on kickoff."

"He was on our kickoff and our punt coverage unit," Walters added. "He didn't come off the field really. He made tackles for us on our kickoff team and definitely made a ton of tackles for us on our punt unit as well. He embraced those roles."

Tracy's hard work and dedication, especially this past season, led to the Giants selecting him in the fifth round (No. 166) of this year's NFL Draft.

But with only 146 career rush attempts to his name, we may not have seen the best of Tyrone Tracy Jr. quite yet.

Combine his competitiveness with his willingness to learn and his physical abilities, and it's easy to see why Walters believes Tracy has a long NFL career ahead of him.

"Your spot on the roster is not owned, it's rented, and rent is due every day. That fits right up his alley with his competitive nature," the Boilermakers head coach said. "He's just never shook, he's never rattled, he's always got a positive outlook, and he's got a lot of confidence and self-belief in his ability. I think that will translate well. He adds value out of the backfield with the receiver background, also a beast on our special teams, both as a returner and a guy on our coverage unit. I'm looking forward to watching him play for a long time. Like I said, I think his best days are ahead of him because he's just scratching the surface."

And while his NFL playing days have yet to even officially begin, Walters already sees a future in broadcasting for Tracy whenever he decides to hang up his cleats.

"He's super positive all the time," said Walters. "He's a very likeable guy because he's genuine, and he is certified funny. We had the Tyrone Tracy show this year. Definitely when football is done, hopefully a long time from now, he'll get a career path in broadcasting. He's one of those kind of guys."


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