By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
In his short career at Tennessee Tech, there's no question that Dontez Byrd has made quite an impact. In each of his two seasons as a Golden Eagle, he has broken the program's single-season receiving yardage record.
He enters Saturday's game needing two catches to break his own record set in 2016 and just 24 yards to become the first Tech receiver to haul in 1,000 yards for a single season. In just two seasons, Byrd has risen all the way up to sixth on the Tech career receiving yardage list with 1,909 yards and a game to play.
While he may not be able to reach the career heights set by Tim Benford (3,097, 774.25 per season), Larry Shipp (2,950, 737.5 per season), Craig Rolle (2,813, 703.25 per season), Byrd still has put some impressive numbers on the charts. Byrd has averaged 954.5 yards in his two seasons, and, in a theoretical four-year career with the Golden Eagles, could have reached nearly 3,818 yards.
His 146 catches ranks in a tie for fourth with Rolle and two behind Walter Hill. Shipp at second with 195 is a bit out of reach.
But all in all, it's been one heck of a run for the Tech standout, one that he hopes isn't close to being over.
All he needed was an opportunity.
Byrd spent two seasons at Louisville before transferring to Tech and the experience set the stage for what was still to come. While his statistics were nowhere near the level he has accomplished at Tech, it was still a starting point.
"Going to Louisville wasn't easy," Byrd said. "I was there as a walk-on and started from the bottom. I had to go above and beyond in order to get noticed by the coaches. Starting off on special teams, it wasn't easy to come in and earn a job there before he can get a regular position. That was tough. When I came here, I knew I was going to have a bigger role, so I just had to continue to get better and ready for that role."
Byrd came to Cookeville in 2016, transferring in when head coach Marcus Satterfield took over the program and teaming with quarterback Michael Birdsong, who had also transferred in from Marshall. The two spent countless hours on the Tucker Stadium turf building a rapport.
"He was coming from the same situation as I was – he was an FBS transfer," Byrd said. "We knew what it takes to get wins and get the job done, so we had an instant bond, an instant connection from the start."
He also built the trust of Coach Satterfield and has learned many lessons from his coach.
"I've learned how to be a man," Byrd said. "How to be accountable. Football relates to a lot of situations, obstacles that go on in life every day. Whether it is football here or football at Louisville, it teaches me a lot of things. Football is not easy and life is not easy."
Byrd had solid games to start off his Tech career with games against Wofford and Austin Peay, but it was the trip to Mercer where Byrd showed his explosiveness and put himself on the map.
As he caught the opening kickoff of the contest, Byrd sped down the sideline, evading Mercer defenders along the way for a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown – the longest scoring play in Tennessee Tech history.
And his numbers kept growing. In the overtime win over Eastern Kentucky, he caught seven passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns. Against Tennessee, he had nine catches for 121 yards. Against Tennessee State, nine catches for 112 yards and a score. But against Murray State, he had his season – and career – best, catching 14 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
While he hasn't reached that plateau again so far in 2017, he did catch passes for 169 yards at Eastern Kentucky and has four games over 100 receiving yards this season.
But in that season, it wasn't even in the realm of possibility in Byrd's mind that he would own those records.
"Never," he said. "I was just trying to do my job. Hopefully, I can take those even higher this season."
And he could. He already has eclipsed his yardage total and anything he adds Saturday against UT Martin is icing on the cake. He needs just two catches to tie his single-season mark and 24 yards from becoming the first Tech receiver to reach 1,000 yards in a single season.
All Byrd wanted to do this season was just keep getting better.
"I understood that the 2016 season was going to be my most important season," Byrd said. "Going into this year, I just didn't want to take a step back. I went even harder in the offseason, just to make sure I was moving forward and not backward."
However, with the way the 2017 season has progressed, things have gotten harder for Byrd to reach those heights, but the added difficulty hasn't fazed him. Even though his opponents know who he is and what he can do and have adapted their strategies, he's still putting together solid numbers.
"I can't really control what those defenses do," Byrd said. "I have a job and an assignment to do. When I get a route, I'm going to run it to the fullest and to my best ability."
The 1-9 record, however, is tough, but Byrd sees it as part of the process.
"We're still early in the process," Byrd said. "I think the guys are really going to buy in during this offseason and make sure this doesn't happen again. It's not a good feeling, but I think they'll get it fixed."
To have his name in the record books in such a short amount of time, it's fairly humbling.
"Absolutely," he said. "I went from a walk-on at Louisville to getting a scholarship there, then to transferring here. Everybody was like, 'I don't know why he's transferring. He's just going down to a smaller school just to play.' They didn't visualize what was possible. For me, to be able to put those numbers together and in the process of doing it again, it is humbling."
Byrd still has opportunities to showcase his talents as he has the season finale on Saturday, but he also has an invite to the National Football League Players Association Collegiate Bowl on Jan. 20 at the Rose Bowl.
He still has dreams of making it to the next level.
"I plan on going to train in December," Byrd said. "I'll try to get a bit of work in before I head to California for the game. Hopefully, I take advantage of that opportunity and dominate."
Still, he knows it's going to be a battle to get there, and he gives this sage advice to his teammates who aspire to follow in his footsteps.
"Never get complacent," Byrd said. "Just always continue to work. Set goals for yourself and build on those every day."
But in the meantime, Byrd knows he has a job to do and keeps working toward his goal.
"Every game is different," he said. "It's another opportunity to build a resume, even if it's a win or a loss. I've still got to do that, so I'm going to give it all I've got."
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information