Halfway through the first quarter, Notre Dame needed a spark against Pittsburgh. The Panthers entered the game with a 2-5 record, but they held a win over No. 15 Louisville, a team that beat Notre Dame less than a month ago. Pat Narduzzi’s defense had already shown some fight early in the game, too, picking off Irish quarterback Sam Hartman on the team’s opening possession.
Enter Chris Tyree.
The wide receiver and former running back stood back deep to field a punt from Pitt’s Caleb Junko. As the punt spiraled through the air, Tyree settled under it and fielded it at Notre Dame’s 18-yard line, under duress from two would-be tacklers. Tyree absorbed the first hit and slipped under the second.
A few more Pitt players put their hands on him, but Tyree’s speed was too much. In the blink of an eye, he had burst free and by the time he crossed the 40-yard line, he had a convoy of blockers behind and nothing but green turf ahead. By the time he crossed into the end zone, Tyree became the first Irish player since C.J. Sanders against UMass in 2015 to return a punt for a touchdown.
Asked how he escaped all the Panther tacklers on his way to scoring, Tyree kept it simple.
“Don’t think, just run,” Tyree said.
The punt return touchdown turned out to be just the opening act of what ended up being a masterclass on all three sides of the ball for Notre Dame after a shaky opening quarter. After Tyree’s score, the Irish went on to score another 51 points on Pitt. In total, it was the most points Notre Dame has scored since it hung 66 on New Mexico in Week 2 of the 2019 season.
The score meant Tyree became just the fourth Notre Dame player ever to score a rushing, receiving, punt return and kick return touchdown in their career. He joins Irish legends Tim Brown, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and Julius Jones.
A running back throughout his first three seasons in South Bend, Tyree has scored eight rushing touchdowns in his Irish career. He also had four receiving scores in his time as a running back. His move to slot receiver before this year has naturally meant many more opportunities through the air, already amounting to three receiving scores this season.
His kickoff return came two years ago against Wisconsin in a 41-13 Shamrock Series blowout at Soldier Field. Tyree took the ball 96 yards to give Notre Dame a 17-13 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. Much like Saturday, that special teams score in Chicago was the catalyst for a big Notre Dame burst on the way to an impressive victory.
The achievement is a perfect encapsulation of Tyree’s versatility on the football field. On Saturday alone, he had the big punt return and added 62 yards on just three catches. He even got a carry on an end around. No matter how he got it, good things happened when Tyree touched the football on Saturday against Pitt.
“Growing up playing football, that's what I did,” Tyree said. “They would just give me the ball and tell me to go run. As simple as that, but it's something that I really take pride in. I want to be able to add value to the team as much as I can and whether that's catching the ball or running it, returning and things like that, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability and I’m trying to show it each and every play.”
In his Monday press conference, Marcus Freeman had nothing but good things to say about the running back turned receiver.
“[Tyree] just continues to work at it,’” Freeman said about the position change. “It is a great example of, I want to say resiliency, but even anti-fragile, right? As a guy that can move positions, have setbacks and get better because of it.”
The Irish will have to rely on Tyree even more as they move into the last few games of the season. He’s currently the team’s second-leading receiver with 417 yards, behind only tight end Mitchell Evans. Monday’s announcement that Evans will have to undergo season-ending surgery for an ACL tear means others will have to shoulder more of the offensive load.
Freeman talked about other tight ends Holden Staes and Eli Raridon stepping up in Evans’ absence, but presumably, this will also see Tyree’s target share increase. He’s only had 19 receptions in nine games this year, but he's made the most of them, averaging 21.9 yards per catch. Despite the tremendous efficiency, Freeman believes there’s more potential for Tyree to tap into at his new position.
“I think he’s still getting better,” Freeman said. “He’s a guy I hope will come back for another year. He’s just starting to scratch the surface of how good he can be as wide receiver for our program.”