Former Yale running back Tyler Varga ’15 has had just about everything go right for him in the past year.
After an injury-free, record-breaking senior year that ended with an Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year award, Varga went on to score two touchdowns as a captain in the NFL Senior Bowl before beginning his professional career with a strong NFL preseason for the Indianapolis Colts. This past Saturday, the Kitchener, Ontario native added one more accomplishment to his record: making the Colts’ initial 53-man roster to start the 2015–16 NFL season.
The deadline to cut rosters from 75 to 53 players was Saturday at 4 p.m. EDT, and the Colts kept an abnormally high five running backs on the team. That number, however, shrunk to four the next day when Indianapolis waived-injured second-string running back Dan Herron, meaning that Herron will be placed on the Colts’ injured reserve list if he is not picked up by another team this week.
With other recent injuries to running backs Vick Ballard and rookie Josh Robinson, Varga may have a chance at getting carries behind star back Frank Gore this Sunday.
“[The NFL] is a huge step up [from the Ivy League], but we’re talking about Tyler Varga,” said Larry Ciotti, Varga’s former running backs coach at Yale. “He’s a tremendous athlete with great strength and terrific knowledge of being a running back … the Colts think they know what they have, but he is going to be above and beyond what they think.”
Varga was a consistent presence both at running back and on special teams during the preseason, making his primary role with the Colts not entirely certain heading into Week 1 on Sunday. Ciotti noted that the recent injuries to other running backs strengthen his chances of getting in the game as a running back, but he also may get playing time as a blocker on special teams.
Showing his versatility as a football player, Varga has played as a personal protector on the punting unit, a linebacker for the punt return team and an upback during kick returns. All of these positions, according to Ciotti, are opportunities for Varga to prove his worth to the Colts.
“He has to take every opportunity to excel on special teams,” Ciotti said. “I’ve always told him that an opportunity missed is an opportunity lost. Tyler picks up on that.”
The lone running back in the final 22 roster cuts was Zurlon Tipton, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014 but did not play for the Colts until the latter half of last season.
Varga, who was also an undrafted free agent, worked to make a strong case for himself in the Colts’ preseason. He appeared in all four games, most notably scoring a one-yard touchdown in Week 3 and then breaking out for a 19-yard run in last Thursday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Colts’ decision to keep Varga marks their 17th consecutive season of holding an undrafted free agent on their 53-man roster. Undrafted free agents often face a long uphill battle to make a team’s final roster, but Varga’s prospects improved throughout his preseason performance. To his former teammates, however, the final result was never unexpected.
“Tyler’s most recent accomplishment is supremely impressive, but it’s not surprising in the least,” former offensive lineman Will Chism ’15 said in a message to the News. “Anyone who’s played with him knows he’s the real deal. He’s methodical in his physical training, meticulous in his mental preparation, he’s a fantastic teammate and he’s got heart.”
Ciotti said that while watching Varga’s play at the Senior Bowl in February and in the preseason this past month, he could see no difference between his production for the Colts and his performance at Yale. Head coach Tony Reno agreed, noting that Varga has qualities that allow him to compete at every level.
“From a physical standpoint, Tyler has all the tools,” Reno said. “He’s got great speed, he changes direction well, he can block and catch and he’s very physical. For the mental piece, Tyler has complete control of the game … If you have both of those, no matter what league you’re playing in, you can really excel.”
The Colts begin their season next Sunday, Sept. 13, on the road against the Buffalo Bills. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. EDT.