Football, Featured Column, Column

Tyler Rouse and the Catch-22 of Young Players on Special Teams

In a flash, Tyler Rouse lost his role.

Boston College football largely relied on Rouse, a senior running back from Baldwinsville, N.Y., to bring any competence to its offense in 2015. A broken foot knocked out Jonathan Hilliman post-Week Four. Shoulder injuries hampered the Eagles’ No. 2, Myles Willis. And the other backups weren’t productive, whether it was Marcus Outlow, who never seemed to find his footing at BC, and Jordan Gowins, who had fumbilitis in his young freshman campaign.

Yet as he has throughout his career, Rouse stepped up to take the handoffs. He doubled his attempts from 2014, to 101 from 49. He was second on the team with 426 rushing yards, only trailing then-quarterback Jeff Smith. Like many on the Eagles, Rouse was hindered by the poor play of BC’s offensive line. And it’s fair to note that a majority of his production came in three games, two of which were against FCS opponents Maine and Howard.

But the third big start came against his hometown team, Syracuse. At the Carrier Dome, Rouse ran for 111 yards on 24 attempts with two touchdowns. It’s the second time Rouse has had a huge game against the Orange—he had nine attempts for 59 yards and a touchdown back on Thanksgiving weekend, 2014.

In fact, Rouse has a history of coming in when the Eagles have their backs against the wall. Way back in the Andre Williams era, the 2,000-plus yard back hurt his shoulder toward the end of the 2013 season. He came back for the Advocare V100 Independence Bowl, during which he rushed for 75 yards on 26 attempts and a touchdown in the 42-19 loss. Rouse, however, showed flashes of his potential for the Eagles, with 54 yards and a touchdown on only six attempts.

With both Gowins and Outlow transferring and no scholarship freshmen coming in, Rouse looked to make an impact this year. It hasn’t turned out that way. Head coach Steve Addazio has ridden Hilliman with a majority of the carries. Willis has received a decent share as well. Redshirt sophomore Davon Jones has broken out as an electric option as evidenced by his 93 yards against Wagner.

To date, Rouse only has seven yards on 11 attempts. Yet that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had value for this team. Far from it.

Rouse now serves as the Eagles punt returner, a position that plagued the team heavily last season. Sherman Alston, who has now transferred to Stony Brook, performed in that capacity in 2015. Alston looked lost in the role, calling for fair catches on balls that weren’t reaching the end zone. Twice, he fumbled on punts. (Thankfully, BC’s unbelievable defense prevented scores both times, with an interception against Notre Dame and a goal-line stand against Duke.) In total, Alston (and his eventual successors) had 235 yards on 29 returns, a measly 8.24 yards per attempt.

In only five games, Rouse has had 14 returns for 208 yards, a 14.9 yards per attempt average. The dynamic Rouse has added is something his head coach is really excited about.

“I think Tyler has done a good job all camp as a punt returner,” Addazio said following the Georgia Tech game. “He’s going to field the ball. He’s a confident, veteran guy.”

The new role is one that excites Rouse. He’s a team-first man who’s just looking to do whatever he can to get on the field. Fortunately, he doesn’t have much to change throughout the week. His routine mostly remains the same. Rouse tries to get as many reps as possible receiving punts from Mike Knoll in practice, while getting a diet of handoffs and receptions as well to stay ready in the event the offense needs him. He showed off his excellent skills against the Seahawks last weekend.

The numbers don’t even give him full credit. He had a second big-time return against Wagner that was negated because of a block-in-the-back penalty.

Rouse has that natural field awareness, though he defers the praise to his blocking corps. On that play, he easily kicks out. Once he hits the seam, he’s off.

“I want to make the most guys possible miss,” Rouse said following Wagner. “This weekend, it resulted in big-time runs.”

Buffalo, however, allowed Rouse to show off his most electric skills. Even if, once again, the scoresheet won’t show it.

Rouse proved how he is always ready for offense early in the second quarter. With their backs against their own end zone, the Eagles had a 3rd-and-18 from their own 8-yard line. Most teams—not just ultra-conservative, pro-style offenses like BC’s—choose to opt for a dump pass or a draw to give their punters an extra 6-10 yards of room to flip the field. The Eagles were no exception. Patrick Towles dropped back and gave a glorified handoff to Rouse a couple of yards in front of the line of scrimmage.

The nimble, 5-foot-6 back did the rest. Rouse dashed ahead, making a couple of defenders miss, for a 27-yard gain. His great play set up the Eagles for a touchdown later in the drive.

Then Rouse got back to what he now does best: returning punts. Late in the third quarter, Rouse found another one of those seams. This time, he exploited it for a 60-yard gain, topped off by a leap over a Buffalo defender.

Once again, however, the play was called back for another block-in-the-back penalty. As Addazio admitted afterward, this messiness has to stop. Unfortunately for the Eagles, he’s in a bind. He understands the importance of special teams electricity, like what Rouse can provide. Addazio knows that Rouse can shift the field for his offense in a hurry—something BC will desperately need on Friday against Clemson. Naturally, from an outsiders’ perspective, that should mean that Addazio has to put his best guys out on the field. Imagine that: Matt Milano, Connor Strachan, Charlie Callinan, all out there on special teams. Fast, big-time bruisers.

But it’s not that simple. Addazio doesn’t have the depth—really, no team does—to allow his veterans to get gassed like that by playing every single facet of the game. He has to turn to his younger guys—especially the freshmen—to develop skills quickly and to get them some playing time.   

“It’s a catch-22,” Addazio said after Buffalo. “I mean, I really feel like we’ve got to develop these young guys, and you’ve got to invest in them, and we’re hoping that’s what we’ve been doing last week and this week is investing and that we learn, because we have a lot of veteran guys out there. …  So I think we’ve got to live with some of this until we can kind of grow through it a little bit, and I think it’ll pay dividends for us. You know, that’s kind of where we are right now.”

While Addazio isn’t wrong—he has to do whatever he can to make sure this team isn’t “young” anymore—there must be an added emphasis on special teams throughout the week to prevent these silly mistakes. Plays like what Rouse can give could change the entire dynamic of a game against a big-time ACC opponent like Clemson, Louisville, and Florida State, all of whom are remaining on the docket for the Eagles this season. A silly penalty like that may not hurt BC against Buffalo, but it could be the difference between an upset and heartbreak against a top-10 opponent.

As for Rouse, he needs to just keep doing what he’s doing to help the team win. And if that means needing to provide a SportsCenter Top 10 Play every week, so be it.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

October 3, 2016