How unlikely is it that Will Tye has become the starting tight end for a 7-3 Giants team looking to make its first playoff run since 2011?
Oh, about as unlikely as grabbing a roster spot in the first place.
Tye’s improbable ascension follows a standout career at Stony Brook. It’s a journey that most couldn’t have anticipated would end with Tye even being in the league, let alone starting for a team that is beginning to harbor Super Bowl aspirations.
“You still have to pinch yourself every once in a while,” Tye told Newsday in the Giants’ locker room on Wednesday.
Last season, the 6-2, 246-pound Tye became the first Stony Brook player ever to suit up for an NFL game, and now he has added NFL starter to his resume after Larry Donnell’s injuries and inconsistency prompted the Giants to promote Tye to the No. 1 spot.
Although the Giants’ passing game focuses more exclusively on the wide receiver triumvirate of Odell Beckham Jr., rookie Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz, Tye has become a viable alternative for Eli Manning. He had only two catches in Sunday’s 22-16 win over the Bears at MetLife Stadium, but one of them went for the tying touchdown as the Giants rallied in the third quarter. Shepard scored what turned out to be the winning touchdown later in the quarter, and the Giants’ defense shut out the Bears in the entire second half to preserve their fifth straight win.
“It was huge,” Tye said of his touchdown. “Any time you’re in the red zone, you want to put points on the board, whether it’s a field goal or a touchdown. But you want to get the six points. I just ran an ‘out’ route, got some separation, made the catch . . . always have to finish strong.”
Tye is third on the Giants with 29 catches for 247 yards and a touchdown after a rookie season in which he had 42 catches for 464 yards and three TDs. He has become a key option for Manning, especially with teams concentrating most of their resources on stopping Beckham, Shepard and Cruz.
But there still are some glitches he needs to work on. There was a dropped pass on a wide-open seam route against the Packers as the Giants were trying to come back in a 23-16 loss in Green Bay. He also ran a poor route on what turned into a fourth-quarter interception by Manning in a Week 3 loss to Washington. And there is another drop on the stat sheet.
“You just have to stay focused throughout the whole catch,” Tye said. “Tuck and squeeze [the ball], just remain focused through it. In practice or in the game, it might be one dropped pass here or there . . . I may only get three targets in a game, but every one is crucial, so I’ve got to make those plays.
“I don’t really think about how many catches or touchdowns I’m going to get. I just think, ‘When the ball comes, make a play on it. Whether I’m blocking or receiving, just make every play you can.”
Tye has made the most of his opportunities. Undrafted last season, he had a tryout in a rookie minicamp with the Giants and was one of only three rookies to sign a contract. He was released at the end of the preseason but was signed to the practice squad on Sept. 7. When Daniel Fells was sidelined with a MRSA infection, Tye was signed to the active roster on Oct. 3 and made his NFL debut the next day in Buffalo.
“I definitely have that chip on my shoulder,” said Tye, who transferred to Stony Brook after playing one season at Florida State. “It’s not a small chip. It’s a huge chip. But that’s what you want. You want that extra push. Just that fire you need to keep playing every day and prove yourself.”
Tye gradually has earned the respect of his peers, something he has heard on game day. Blessed with uncommon speed for a man his size — he ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash, which is wide receiver-type speed — he has a knack for getting open against linebackers and / or safeties.
“[Defenders] are definitely surprised,” he said with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘Hey, he’s pretty fast. Make sure you stay focused and keep your eyes on him.’ ”
The key to getting open? “Footwork,” Tye said. “It’s definitely one of the things that benefits me. And that quick twitch [movement], especially when you’re playing against linebackers and they try to get a hand on you. You need good footwork, hand placement and that quick twitch that allows you to get open.”
Tye’s speed was one reason he was the Seawolves’ punt returner, even at his size. He still laments that time he didn’t break one for a touchdown against Connecticut as a senior. “I got tripped up,’’ he said. “If I would have just taken my time a little bit and set up the return. I had a 40-yard return, but I could have had a touchdown.”
And yes, he’d like to give returning punts a shot at the NFL level. “The only difference is the guys hitting harder,” Tye said. “I wouldn’t mind. More chance to get the ball.”
But Tye knows where his responsibility lies, and as the Giants prepare for Sunday’s game against the winless Browns, he continues to take nothing for granted with his unlikely career.
“The lesson is to always be ready, because you never know when your number is going to be called,” he said. “Remain focused, remain humble and always be ready.”