Anything under 4.5 seconds is considered fast for 40 yards. Ryan Tallent was operating somewhere in the low 3s.
At least that’s the way it looked.
It wasn’t simply the speed with which Tallent ran 70 yards for a Maryville High School touchdown in the 2005 state championship game. It wasn’t the way the then-Rebel halfback cut back at midfield to split three Melrose defenders then really light the burners the last 40 yards.
It was the stage. It was the opponent. It should have been enough, Maryville coach George Quarles still believes. Three years later, there remains little doubt.
Setting Tusculum College receiving records for catches and touchdowns along the way, Tallent turned in an All-American season for coach Frankie DeBusk’s Pioneers, the national honor coming in a year that would prove a banner campaign for the Pioneers all ‘round.
Powered by an offense that put the ball in the air 523 times last fall, Tusculum (9-4) reached the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time in school history. The Pioneers didn’t just show up once there, advancing to the second round and pushing fourth-ranked Delta State to the closing seconds before falling, 27-19.
Tallent’s 20-yard touchdown catch inside the final minute, a play that would prove Tusculum’s final offensive play of the season, was his 92nd on the year, tying a school mark for catches in a year. The score was the 5-foot-10, 200-pound junior’s his ninth receiving, equaling a single-season Pioneer best there as well.
“Winning a national championship would be better,” Tallent said.
Tusculum, which holds its annual Spring Game Thursday, April 2, at 7 at Pioneer Field, returns a roster capable of such goals. That Tallent is one of those players is satisfying to Quarles on more than one level.
Tallent electrified the Maryville sideline with the fourth-quarter scoring run against Melrose, the play prying open a close game the Rebels would eventually win, 23-10. A handful of Division I schools had shown interest in Tallent over the course of the season, but was he fast enough?
Surely, Quarles felt, the Melrose score was a definitive enough answer. Tallent didn’t just score on the play. He was pulling away the whole time.
“I thought that would get him some big looks,” Quarles said. “He has not let that bother him. He’s gone on to have a great career.”
DeBusk and Quarles were once a winning hookup in college, the pair teaming at quarterback and receiver, respectively, on Furman’s 1988 national championship team. DeBusk and he never made the connection as often as Tallent and former Pioneer All-American Corey Russell did last season, Quarles said.
“I wish,” he said. “I wish I’d caught that many balls. If you counted all the balls I caught in practice it wouldn’t be that many.”
When the bigger schools dropped the ball on Tallent, DeBusk jumped at the chance to sign one of his former teammate’s players.
“I want kids from championship programs because they know how to work and how to act,” DeBusk said. “Ryan has been a special person as well as a special player since he got here. He’s going to be successful in his life no matter what he does. I probably should have redshirted him as a freshman. George said I would regret it if I didn’t.”
Tallent began his Pioneer career at running back, moving to receiver with Kolb’s arrival his sophomore season.
“I wanted to get back to throwing the ball,” DeBusk said.
Tallent, a player with quick feet capable of even quicker decisions in tight spaces, was a perfect fit at one of the receivers in the offense he wanted to run, Kolb said.
“He can run; he can shake you, and he’s strong,” he said. “I told Ryan he was going to be my outside receiver four days after I got here. I just watched the way he worked, his quickness. I love taking high school running backs and putting them at the outside receiver position.”
While Kolb’s offense can be a blast to play, it’s taxing, Tallent said. Routes, often with five or more receivers buzzing through an opposing secondary, must be precise. The tempo is relentless.
“It’s tiring,” Tallent said. “It’s tiring running that offense. We throw a lot.”
Growing more accustomed to his new role with every game, Tallent led Tusculum with 59 catches for 696 yards and six touchdowns his sophomore season, earning All-South Atlantic Conference honors. Finishing with 989 yards receiving in 2008, setting the pace for the SAC receivers for the second consecutive season, he would also returns punts and kicks for the Pioneers, returning 13 kickoffs for 297 yards, averaging 22.8 yards per return.
“He’s not just a receiver,” Kolb said. “We’ve used him at running back, too. We move him around the field.”
Tallent may not be the last former Rebel to achieving receiving stardom at Tusculum. Former Maryville flyer Tyler Clendenen returned to practice earlier this week after missing much of the spring with a broken hand. Tusculum’s fast-break passing game is a lot to take in, the redshirt freshman said.
“We threw a lot at Maryville,” Clendenen said, “but I’ve never been in an offense like this. We just spread it around and get the ball to the playmakers.”
Hoping to become one of those go-to players, Clendenen, second on the Pioneer depth chart at the position Tallent and he both play, said he couldn’t hope for a better example than the one set by Tallent.
“A lot of people have the talent,” he said, “but he’s such a hard worker. He works harder than anybody.”
Clendenen, Tallent said, is no slouch himself.
“He’s improving a lot,” he said. “It takes a lot to learn the offense. Once he learned the offense, he could just go out there and play.”
Tallent may be far from done with football after Tusculum, as well.
The Pioneer record-holder ran a 4.5 second 40-yard dash at an NFL pro day for Pioneer seniors recently. While playing at the next level would take some doing, it would be a mistake to count Tallent out, DeBusk said.
“I would never say never,” he said. “He runs fast enough.”
Tallent, an academic all-conference and all-district selection, said he’ll take a look at football after college.
“That would be a dream come true,” he said. “There are other possibilities (besides the NFL). I’m going to train this summer and try to prepare for wherever my future leads. I’d love to keep playing football.”
That is, provided one small condition is met.
“I’d like to get paid for it if I’m playing,” Tallent said. “You take a real beating.”
Regardless of the path, the work ethic necessary to become a college All-American player will win out, Quarles said.
“If all our kids worked like Ryan Tallent,” he said, “we wouldn’t have to coach them.”