While the University of Wisconsin football team didn’t publicly say so until recently, Kayden Lyles’ time on defense was never anything more than what offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph called “an internship.”
The redshirt freshman started seven games at defensive end for the Badgers this season, making the position switch over the summer after a season-ending injury to Garrett Rand, before taking his place back with the offensive linemen during bowl prep practices over the past two weeks.
“He’s an offensive lineman,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “He was filling a hole that we needed him to fill this season. Very unselfish on his part. But his future here is going to be at O-line, which is what they brought him in for.”
Leonhard said they’ll still need Lyles on defense for next week’s Pinstripe Bowl against Miami. The Badgers, however, wanted to get Lyles back up to speed on offense before spring practice by giving him some live reps on that side of the ball this month.
Lyles said he’s worked mostly at center in recent practices but also saw time at guard. Rudolph called Lyles “an ideal center” but said he’s adept at playing any spot on the interior. Lyles worked at all three interior spots during spring practice earlier this year.
Rudolph said he expects Lyles to compete for a starting job next season. Both guard spots will open up after the departure of seniors Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel, both four-year starters, and center could also be up for grabs if redshirt sophomore Tyler Biadasz opts to leave early for the NFL.
While Lyles needed to learn calls that had changed since this summer, he said he surprised himself with how much he remembered when transiting back to offensive line.
“Some people really have to work hard to get a muscle memory created for them to get their footwork down, their timing down,” Rudolph said. “That’s one thing that made him a really good offensive player and probably what helped him when he got to the other side … there’s a lot of things that come natural to him.”
Playing defensive line for a season gave Lyles unique insight into the position he’ll be attempting to block at UW over the next three seasons. He’s now much more familiar with alignments and techniques that are being utilized against him, and Rudolph said those type of tips are something most centers and guards will never have knowledge of.
“I definitely feel what the defense is trying to do,” Lyles said, “especially in the middle of the play, feeling technique that they’re trying to do and trying to get to the ball and everything. So that’s helped a lot.”
The tradeoff, of course, is that Lyles missed out on months of practice reps and potential development at offensive line.
Rudolph said he and Lyles are working hard to get him back up to speed and “bridge that gap.” The freshman still has plenty to catch up on, but giving him a couple weeks in December to re-familiarize himself with the offense could certainly help.
“You kind of wish that you had (that practice time back), to be able to be with everyone else on the calls,” Lyles said. “But (Rudolph’s) helped me to catch on quick, and playing defense has definitely helped. … I think it’s worth it.”