SAN ANTONIO – His days as a walk-on long behind him, UTSA senior tailback Tyrell Clay steals a glance backward every now and then.
The view at the top is always more spectacular when you remember what it was like to stand in the deepest valley and gaze upward at a summit that sometimes appeared unreachable.
Clay was at the top of his game nine days ago, rushing for a career-best 153 yards on only 11 carries in the Roadrunners’ 20-7 victory against Rice in a Conference USA game at the Alamodome.
A 2013 Corpus Christi Miller graduate, Clay took his first post-game interview with the media in stride. Flanked by quarterback Dalton Sturm and defensive end Marcus Davenport, he handled questions from reporters with humility.
“I’m blessed,” he said, when asked how it felt to have such an impact on the game. “That’s the best way I can describe it. I’m just thankful that the coaches trust me to run the ball, and big ups to the receivers and the O-line. The receivers blocking 20, 30 yards down the field, and the O-line created creases and I just took advantage.”
Clay followed his career game with a solid performance in UTSA’s 31-14 win over UTEP on Saturday, rushing 15 times for 71 yards.
The victory in El Paso was the second in a row for the Roadrunners, who improved to 5-2 overall and 2-2 in conference. UTSA is in a two-way tie for fourth with Louisiana Tech in the West Division.
North Texas (4-1) is first in the West, and Southern Miss (3-2) and UAB (3-2) are tied for second. The Roadrunners dropped their first two C-USA games to Southern Miss and North Texas.
UTSA plays FIU (5-2, 3-1 in East Division) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Miami.
Clay has made the most of his final collegiate season while backing up junior Jalen Rhodes, rushing for 445 yards and two touchdowns on 78 carries.
UTSA coach Frank Wilson eyes sparkled when he talked about Clay after the homecoming game against Rice.
“I think he plays with all heart, man,” Wilson said. “I thought he played with physicality. He ran behind his pads. He never stopped churning his legs. He was able to slash in there at times, then at the point of contact really lean forward and plow through tackles and made them earn their way.
“They had to wrap him and tackle him. He played determined today, and we have a little saying where we say to our players, ‘Let your personality show.’ I thought he played with a vengeance today, with extreme physicality.”
Clay, 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds, set up a field goal that gave UTSA a 10-0 lead late in the first quarter with a career-long 73-yard burst up the middle.
“It was a good hole,” Clay said, describing the play. “I had to make someone miss, but that’s every running back. You have to make someone miss if you want a long run. The crease was there. I didn’t have to do anything. Hit the crease, make someone miss and just have a good play.”
Clay lamented that he didn’t score on the play, and figured he’s hear from running backs coach Everette Sands when the team watched video of the game.
“I think someone caught me from behind when I tried to cut it back,” he said. “That has to be a score. I know Coach Sands is going to get on me about that. We have to put the ball in the box (end zone) every week. They preach it every week.”
Clay said he opted to walk on at UTSA because he and his parents “thought it was the best fit for me.” Clay’s path to becoming a Roadrunner began when former UTSA running backs coach Polo Gutierrez, a Carroll graduate, made a recruiting visit to Miller during Clay’s senior season.
One of the best running quarterbacks in South Texas when he played for the Buccaneers, Clay passed on scholarship opportunities at smaller schools to join UTSA’s fledgling program as a walk-on wide receiver. He was moved to running back in the spring before his sophomore season.
“I knew when I came here that I was going to have to work hard to earn a scholarship and to earn playing time and the coaches’ trust,” Clay said.
After redshirting as a freshman in 2013, Clay played in two games in 2014, gaining only five yards in three carries. But then-UTSA head coach Larry Coker saw enough upside in Clay’s game to give him a scholarship before the start of his sophomore season in 2015.
He played in all 11 of the Roadrunners’ games that year and made one start. He finished the season with 196 yards and three TDs in 42 carries. No. 3 on the depth chart behind senior starter Jarveon Williams and Rhodes last year, Clay played in all 12 of the Roadrunners’ games and finished with 41 yards on 13 carries in Wilson’s first season.
Clay, a multidisciplinary studies major, earned academic all-district honors at Miller. He’s leaning toward a career in coaching, and acknowledged that he’s thought about how gratifying it would be to coach at his high school alma mater someday.
At new Miller coach Justen Evans’ request, Clay spoke to the Buccaneers during summer workouts this year and shared his story about perseverance and commitment.
“Never count yourself out,” Clay said, repeating what he told the Miller players. “Continue to work hard and take advantage of every day because every day does matter. On the field, off the field, academics, working out. Any and every little thing matters. Don’t ever give up and always follow your plan.”
Evans has jump-started a Miller program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2002. The Bucs started the season 3-0 and will take a 4-4 record into Friday night’s clash against powerhouse Corpus Christi Calallen in a District 30-5A game.
“Coach Evans is doing a great job with those kids,” Clay said. “He’s making them believe that anything is possible with hard work.”
Evans, 34, is the first African American head football coach in Miller’s long history. He continues the legacy of the 1960 Buccaneers, who made state history when they became the first integrated team to win a UIL football state championship.
Evans said Clay’s words this summer “absolutely” resonated with his players.
“He spoke with the kids about the opportunity that he was afforded to go to UTSA, and how Miller and his upbringing had everything to do with his success of being able to go to the next level,” Evans said. “He encouraged the kids, telling them that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, or type kind of socioeconomic status you come from, or your home life.,
“You can get out. You can be successful if you put your mind to it and work hard. He talked to the kids about having pride in the school, pride in the Buc community and what it means to so many people. It was awesome to hear him, and I’m really big on that. I asked him to come speak to the kids. I do that a lot, try to get alums around the kids. That’s important to me.”