Badgers defensive end Kayden Lyles gaining confidence as tough test at Iowa approaches

September 20, 2018

During his senior year at Middleton High School, Kayden Lyles made it a point to prove himself to his future University of Wisconsin teammates.

Not necessarily on the field, as the offensive lineman was already on his way to Madison as the highest-ranked member of the Badgers’ 2017 recruiting class. When they doubted his ability to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco hot sauce, however, you bet he didn’t disappoint.

“We all made a bet that he couldn’t drink it. An entire bottle,” UW nose tackle Olive Sagapolu said. “It was really disgusting. ... To be honest, for him, he loves proving people wrong.”

Those who doubt Lyles extended on a much larger scale this preseason, when the redshirt freshman’s switch to defensive line became a sign that the Badgers were exceedingly thin at the position after losing a number of experienced seniors.

Lyles made strides as a second-team interior lineman on offense this spring, but UW needed his talent elsewhere. He made the switch over the summer and immediately took first-team reps when fall camp began.

“We watched him move for a year when he was playing scout O-line,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “So we knew physically he had what it would take. Obviously, there’s a mental component to playing the position that you weren’t 100 percent sure, but we found out pretty early just how smart he is.”

Sagapolu certainly helped in that regard. He and Lyles met on Saturdays over the summer to ensure Lyles entered the fall mentally up to speed, and Lyles said by the later stages of fall camp he didn’t need to think as much and started playing faster and more physical.

“I was just thinking too much at first rather than seeing my keys and reacting off of that,” Lyles said.

Three games into the season, Lyles remains a starter despite the return of sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk from injury. He’s still, of course, a bit of a work in progress at the position. Sagapolu said Lyles’ reactions may be what he needs to continue working on the most, but he believes that’ll come with more time.

Leonhard said the offenses UW’s faced the last two weeks against BYU and New Mexico weren’t conducive to performances of much production for the Badgers’ defensive line but that Lyles maintained his assignments and executed them well.

“He’s growing. I think each game, in many ways, he’s gotten better,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “It’s not like he played against the same three teams and all the same things happened so you can truly say, well, he did this versus this block in this game, and then he did a little bit better with the same block. And so it’s different. You’re tested each week differently. I’ve been proud of the way Kayden’s working at it and been showing up.”

Lyles said he doesn’t know if he’ll eventually switch back to offensive line after this season. “I don’t want to look at it,” he said.

Right now, at least, he doesn’t have time to. Saturday’s primetime game at Iowa marks Lyles’ biggest test yet. The Hawkeyes want to play physical, and Lyles needs to match that in order to help the Badgers win a key battle at the line of scrimmage.

“Everybody says Big Ten football is different when we start playing each other,” Lyles said. “I think this will be a really good game to just go out there and do all the stuff that I’ve been coached — be physical and dominant, more physical and dominant than them. Just play my (butt) off and do the best I can.”

Van Ginkel, Neuville remain questionable

Outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel and tight end Zander Neuville remained questionable on UW’s final injury report of the week Thursday.

Both left in the first quarter of the Badgers’ 24-21 loss to BYU last week, and Chryst said they’ll at least travel to Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.

“I think they’re both to where we can say they’d be a game-time decision,” Chryst said. “Both have done some things this week, and yet certainly not what a game would be. They both want to play and have done everything they can to give themselves that chance. We’ll get on the bus and go down and truly find out pre-game where they’re at.”

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