BURNABY, BC — It’s so easy to get caught up in the out-of-nowhere ascent that Tyler Eckert made as a raw rookie running back last season.
So much so that you chuckle every time you remind yourself that the 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior with Burnaby’s St. Thomas More Knights is actually about as natural and instinctive a sack artist as we’ve seen over the recent history of B.C. high school football.
“With the speed and explosiveness he carries over to the defensive side of the ball,” begins STM head coach Steve De Lazzari, “when he comes off the edge as a rush end, he is pretty hard to stop. If I was recruiting him and I had to pick between offence or defence, I would be doing so on the defensive side of the ball.”
That’s staying with the bread and butter and it makes sense. It’s actually Eckert’s preference as well.
But if you want to know why high school football is so great, it’s because student-athletes get to play both ways, and in doing so, reveal a part of their nature which might otherwise remain unpolished.
Tyler Eckert’s story was impossible to miss in 2016.
Here was a humble, hard-working young man who despite a predisposition to star at an offensive skill position, had spent his formative years at STMC playing along the Knights’ offensive and defensive lines.
But then longtime Knights’ varsity head coach Bernie Kully decided to turn him into a running back and the results were off the charts.
Despite missing a huge chunk of the season to an injury, Eckert still carried 66 times for 574 yards and eight touchdowns, numbers made even more impressive by the fact that it was all being accomplished without the benefit of repetition, nuance or a deep understanding of the position.
After he rushed for 115 yards and three touchdowns in his first game at the position last season, Kully put the accomplishment in perfect perspective.
“We’ve had a lot of great running backs at this school,” Kully told me. “Guys like Jon Cornish, Calvin McCarty, Keynan Parker and Marek Seta. But the big difference there was that we knew from as early as their Grade 9 years that they were going to be running backs. With Tyler, it’s a new position. It’s new territory.”
Well, Eckert has rested on nothing.
Through the first three games of the Knights’ season, one in which they have gone 3-0 and not allowed a single point, Touchdown Tyler has picked up his pace from last season, carrying 38 times over that span for 481 yards and six touchdowns. He is averaging nearly 13 yards-per-carry.
“Things have changed for me over the past year,” Eckert says of the education he has received from his coaches. “There is more to running than just going straight ahead and as fast as you can. You have to read the hole and I’ve learned that. I feel a lot more comfortable with the ball in my hands.”
And if it’s cliche for running backs to thank their offensive line, that is not the case here.
Eckert actually played his last full season on the offensive line at the senior varsity level as a Grade 10 in 2015.
“They have been awesome,” he says of a group that includes the likes of Josh Marchese, Sajjun Shokar, Sam Steele and Kaishaun Carter. “And because I used to play with them, I know what they are thinking It’s easier for us to communicate.”
That said, Eckert is quick to echo De Lazzari’s feeling about a post-secondary future on the defensive side of the ball.
“If I had to pick one, it would defence because I really like to hit,” he begins. “As a running back, you get hit. I like bringing it to somebody.”
THE COMPLETE PACKAGE
Wherever it happens to be that a university defensive coordinator stations Eckert on the field, they will see his motor at work.
As natural as it was for him to morph from the offensive line to the offensive backfield, he feels even more at home when it comes to sacking the quarterback.
Eckert’s stats since joining the senior varsity? In just 14 games he has collected 28 sacks.
As a 10th grader, in six games he recorded 13 QB plunders. Last season, in five games, he collected eight more. And this season, in just three games, he’s already got seven.
“It’s the thing I am most comfortable doing,” admits Eckert, who on Friday will have to pursue one of the province’s most elusive and explosive pivots in Centennial senior quarterback Max Kennedy.
“I have definitely started to use my speed and get around off of that first step. But now, I bring a move, I bring more power. I’ve just kept trying to perfect it more and more.”
How wonderful a story his is: A football player with as vast a positional resume as one could imagine who also has a multi-sport background that includes not only wrestling but elite speed as a 100m sprinter.
And it gets even better.
Last year, when I spoke with Kully, one of the things that meant the most to him was the humility Eckert brought to his football community.
Kully told me that Eckert was the son of a teacher and that it was impossible to miss the respect that he showed in greeting his teachers, coaches and teammates.
I think of all of that today, and as the first month of his senior season of high school winds down, the momentum of a young person’s future has never felt stronger.