The calendar had flipped to a new year twice since University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football fans last saw Tyrell Price be a productive running back.
The combination of his season-ending injury in the second game of 2019, the emergence of Ailym Ford as a backfield weapon as a freshman that year, and COVID-19 shifting all but one game of the Mocs' 2020-21 season to the current semester likely led some to forget about Price's skills.
While what he's done through three games — 115 rushing yards on 33 carries — may not have broken any records, there have been glimpses of a potential return to his 2018 form, when he was named to the All-Southern Conference second team after scoring 10 touchdowns (nine rushing) and generating 975 yards of total offense.
He was far from that in 2019, tearing an ACL during the Mocs' loss at Jacksonville State in early September, and during the current season he even struggled in the lone fall contest against a solid defense at Western Kentucky, where Ford rushed for 92 yards on 25 carries in a close loss. However, with additional reps for Price through the first two games of this spring semester — Ford, a Freshman All-America selection and the SoCon's freshman of the year whose 2019 season also ended prematurely due to injury, did not play in either one — the senior has shown improvement.
He battled for 47 yards and a touchdown against Wofford, then followed that with 66 yards and a pair of scores at The Citadel, both wins that helped the Mocs begin SoCon play 2-0. UTC was off last week but is set to return to competition at noon Saturday at Furman (3-1, 3-1).
"Man, I watch him and I'm happy for him," said junior defensive end Devonnsha Maxwell, who is Price's roommate. "He had that bad injury to his knee and it messed me up a little bit, so I was just so happy when he came back, you know? That's my boy, man; I'm probably happier for his success than he is, honestly."
Price — who scored a nation-leading 24 touchdowns as sophomore at East Mississippi Junior College — was one of the gems of former coach Tom Arth's first full recruiting class, being the last player to sign during the December 2017 cycle as UTC held off Jacksonville State among others for his services.
He started his first UTC season off with a bang, topping 100 yards for the first time against UT-Martin on Sept. 15, 2018, and scoring at least one touchdown in each of his first five games. He also had a season-high 173 yards of total offense (135 rushing) at Western Carolina a few weeks later, but he was in and out of the lineup as the season wore on due to a heavy workload that resulted in nagging injuries preventing him from practicing at times.
Then the 2019 season happened, and he admitted it was a little disappointing.
"It's tough because it seems like all the goals and all this that you have planned for yourself in your future are gone," Price said. "The injury put me on a different path, so it was kind of tough, but everything happens for a reason. It definitely humbled me. The process of trying to get back right was tough, but I overcame it."
The one-two punch of Price and junior Gino Appleberry have been solid for the Mocs in their first two SoCon games this year, which speaks to UTC's depth at the position. With Price and Appleberry, the running back situation is already solid.
Once Ford returns? Even better.
Competition in the group has made all of them better. It aided Price as he and Ford developed a kinship in part due to their injuries, with Appleberry joining the fray after transferring from Western Kentucky in January 2020.
"We're just there for each other in the hard times, especially on the field," Price said. "We're just trying to keep the next person up, motivating and building confidence in the next person and trying to lead by example, because if you work hard, the next person is going to work hard.
"Our bond is pretty strong. I feel like the running back room is probably the toughest position group on the team, to be honest with you."
Bad knees, comebacks and all.