Now, he is the man, the Papa Bear, the savvy veteran not only of the defensive line but the entire defense that’s just a bunch of pups.
Last year, Tyson was the youngest and least heralded of the Four Forcemen that included three preseason all-conference seniors — Rodney Garrott, Jamison Wadley and Monte Lewis. He was a quality player in his own right, just not as decorated. In that position, it was easy to just go about his business, knowing somebody was there if he fell short; not that he used it as a crutch.
Today, he’s the lead dog, the oldest and clearly most experienced of the front four two-deep, one of only three senior starters on the entire defense. The senior defensive tackle from Elba enters the season with 30 career games and 15 career starts; the other projected starters in the front four — nose Caleb Lawrence, defensive end Mikel Whittier and bandit James Powell — have a combined 29 games and two starts. The three guys he played alongside last season had 84 combined starts among their 117 career games.
“He’s gone from being somewhat of a follower now to a leader,” Gamecocks defensive line coach Davern Williams said. “It’s a role he hasn’t been comfortable in in the past, but since we started camp you can’t even tell it.
“He’s taken on a new role of being vocal, pulling guys aside and working with them during drills. He’s turning out to be everything I expected considering we have a young group. He’s like another coach on the field for me, because he knows what I expect. He knows the technique we need to coach. He’s just taken that on. He’s one of those guys who is just stepping into the shoes and doing what needs to be done.”
Everyone knew it was coming. Williams spoke to Tyson in the spring about the role he was about to play and hasn’t had to say anything about it since.
Tyson said he’s still getting used to it, but he knows what’s expected.
“I have to have an image set up for the younger players to look up to,” he said. “They might not say they’re counting on me or things like that, but I know when things get hard or things get tough they’re probably going to look to me or look at me to see how I’m reacting to it.
“I want to wear my emotion on my sleeve, but I don’t want to so much show my worried emotions. I want to always make sure they’re looking at me as a positive influence or in a positive way.”
He doesn’t have to worry about that; the younger players have respected him from the first day. Defensive coordinator Chris Boone called him “one of the best defensive linemen I’ve been around” as a coach. Head coach Jack Crowe called him “the core piece” to the defense.
Whittier and Lawrence are making their first collegiate starts in Saturday’s opener at Arkansas and have been appreciative to have someone with Tyson’s experience in the huddle. Powell, the new starter in Garrott’s bandit spot, has made only two previous starts.
“Trio has been a consistent player since he’s been here and grown into the leadership role quite fine,” Whittier said. “You sit there and watch him and he’s playing at a hundred miles an hour every play. He’s done a tremendous job for the younger guys in how to play.”
“He’s a person we can count on,” added Lawrence. “At the end of the year there’s a Foxhole Award that Coach gives out. He’s going to be my vote.”
Williams can relate to Tyson’s circumstance. During his collegiate career at Troy, Williams played with Osi Umenyiora and DeMarcus Ware. Both went on to become NFL stars, but Williams was the front man.
“I was the Trio of my guys back then,” he said. “I was the kind of vocal one, just like I am now. If I had something on my mind and saw where we needed to get better, I’d step up and do it. I think (Tyson’s) doing a pretty good job of doing that same thing.”
Given the experience of the players around him last year, it was kind of easy to lose Tyson inside the group. Garrott, Wadley and Lewis combined for 128 tackles last season — 25 for loss — with seven sacks and nine hurries. He doesn’t have that luxury now. Tyson recorded 25 tackles and two sacks. He picked off a pass at Southeast Missouri.
“Last year it was kind of like if I messed up there were more people around me to help carry my load,” he said. “Now I look at it this year that I really can’t mess up.”
He never thought of himself as the outsider.
“Those three just happened to leave a year before I did,” he said. “I really looked at playing with them as a good honor because I felt like I was playing with two potential NFL players. From them I really learned how to push myself when I’m tired or react when bad things happen — because they’re going to happen. The game is not perfect for either team that’s playing so they really taught me to keep going, persevere when things gets hard like that.
“I think it’s going to help make me a more mature player, knowing what I can do, knowing I’m going to have to bring everybody up and keep their spirits high. I know it’s going to help make me a better player. They really taught me good, helped teach me how to carry younger players and things like that.”
The Gamecocks will need his leadership. In addition to the three first-time starters — four if you count sophomore cornerback Rashod Byers who made two starts at running back last season — there are 12 freshmen or sophomores on the defensive two-deep and five players who’ve never played a snap for the Gamecocks before. The 22 players average 12.2 games of experience. The average age of the entire roster is 19.8 years, which actually is an increase from the 19.6 when the team opened camp.
Boone said “top to bottom” he is “happy” with the defense’s development in a camp dominated by teaching and fundimentals.
Even though the front is young, its goal is the same as ever.
“We still want to be the best defensive line in the OVC, the best defensive line in the country,” Tyson said. “Just because we’re young it doesn’t deter us from what we’re trying to do at all. We’re still trying to win a championship.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.