Kayden Lyles felt something strange as he learned of the damage done to his right knee.
He felt lucky.
The senior center on the University of Wisconsin football team took a direct hit to the side of his knee, tearing his MCL and breaking his tibia, against Indiana last season. He had to be carted off the field at Camp Randall Stadium and didn’t play again in 2020.
So why’d he feel lucky? The tear in his MCL was at the exact spot where he’d suffered the same injury in high school, so repairing the ligament didn’t cause any new scar tissue or other complications that can arise from such a surgery. He was out of workouts for less than a month and able to have a productive spring practice period.
Lyles has powered his way from multiple injuries to take ownership of the center spot over the past two years. He said his struggles make him appreciate where he is, entering his fifth training camp at UW when practices begin Friday.
“It’s obviously a road that I wasn’t anticipating on taking with injuries and whatnot,” Lyles said Thursday at the Badgers’ media day at Camp Randall. “But, you know, I just love the game so much. I love everything about it, battling through and being able to be on the field with the guys. … To have to miss more than what I need to, it’s just impossible for me.”
Lyles earned the starting center role last season and replaced NFL-bound Tyler Biadasz, a Rimington Trophy winner who had been the starter for three seasons and earned an ironman reputation for dealing with injuries. Lyles became the starter despite coming off double hip surgery — done within a month of each other in December 2019 and January 2020 — and COVID-19 shutdowns keeping him away from UW’s facilities and trainers during the spring and summer.
The athletic training staff was in contact with him almost daily, and Lyles was ready by the time UW opened training camp for last year’s delayed, shortened season. He played in four games at center before the injury against the Hoosiers, but the experience he gained from that stretch and his role as a guard in 2019 has him confident in what’s to come this season.
Joe Rudolph, the Badgers’ associate head coach and offensive line coach, said Lyles has a leg up on the competition at the center position after solid spring and summer sessions.
“He has gotten out of his comfort zone,” Rudolph said. “He has tried techniques and tried to work details that I think maybe not quite willing to work last year trying to stay healthy. Your expectation for yourself changes, and I think that was a reality for him during the spring.”
With the Badgers limited in the on-field work they could do together last season, Lyles was determined to gain a deeper understanding of the scheme. Mental preparation, he figured, was going to have to make up for what may have been missing physically. After his injury, he approached studying defenses with the same fervor as his physical rehab.
The result of that research is a more confident player, which classmate and right tackle Logan Bruss sees manifest in a number of areas.
“The biggest thing as a center is having the confidence to lead because you have some extra responsibilities on your plate because you kind of have to guide the rest of the line, make sure everybody else is on the same page,” Bruss said. “He’s taken big steps physically, he’s gotten better technique wise, but just kind of taking those reins as a leader was the big thing for him.”
Lyles has gotten together throughout the offseason with redshirt sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz to iron out how they want to operate this year.
“We’re at the point now where we’re like a weird duo where we know exactly where we’re going with everything,” Mertz said.
UW coach Paul Chryst said Lyles is one of the players he trusts to lift those around him, embracing the leadership role his upperclassman status brings. Lyles had mentors in the offensive line room such as Beau Benzschawel, Michael Deiter and Jon Dietzen, and he wants to pay forward what they did for him as a young player.
Lyles’ journey has taught him how to stay positive and seize moments that come his way, things he believes he can impart on younger teammates.
“Having the ability to bounce back … I think it’s an important trait that everybody should learn,” Lyles said. “I just happened to learn it while doing something I love.”
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2022 football recruiting class
Myles Burkett became the Badgers’ first Class of 2022 recruit when he announced his decision in January.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Franklin is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and Rivals, and showed great mobility and arm strength in his junior season. He battled back from a knee injury as a sophomore to throw for 1,236 and 11 touchdowns and rush for 180 yards and a score in a pandemic-shortened season.
He’s the first in-state quarterback to earn a scholarship out of high school since 2011.
As his recruiting stock started to rise, the Badgers were able to secure a commitment from Fall Rivers’ Barrett Nelson in late June.
The offensive tackle was 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds after his junior season, and his quickness off the ball has made him a load on both the offensive and defensive lines. Nelson is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star on Rivals.
He had offers from Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and others before choosing UW.
Nelson’s father, Todd, was a Badgers offensive lineman in the late 1980s, and his brother, Jack, is currently an offensive lineman for UW.
After wowing UW coaches at a pair of camps, Monroe tight end JT Seagreaves accepted a scholarship offer in late June.
Seagreaves is an intriguing prospect for the Badgers — at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he has the physical frame to grow into an imposing tight end, and he possesses sprinter speeds. He’s averaged more than 21 yards per catch each of the past two seasons and was starting to gain more Power Five conference interested when he committed to UW.
Seagreaves is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star according to Rivals.
In multiple trips to UW’s campus in June, Cade Yacamelli was called “a football player” by UW coaches rather than locking him into a position. He earned a scholarship offer after an impressive camp workout and accepted it in late June.
The consensus three-star athlete was starting to earn more recruiting attention from Power Five schools when he accepted the Badgers’ offer. UW was the first Power Five offer for the 6-foot, 200-pounder. He’s played receiver, running back and defensive back in high school, but likely projects as a receiver or defensive back in college.
The Penn Trafford High School product has good quickness and change-of-direction that make him dangerous with the ball in his hands.
When A’Khoury Lyde accepted a UW scholarship offer in late June, he became the first player on the defensive side of the ball to commit in the 2022 class.
Lyde (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), a consensus three-star recruit, has strong ball skills and a willingness to hit that separates him from other cornerbacks.
The Wayne, New Jersey, native is the eighth-ranked player in his state, per Rivals.
The Badgers landed a tall, speedy receiver when Tommy McIntosh committed in late June.
The DeWitt, Michigan, native stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 200 pounds. He uses his body to shield off defenders at the point of the catch and does well catching the ball away from his body. His Hudl page lists a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time, and he has breakaway speed when he gets in the open field and can use his long strides.
A consensus three-star wide receiver chose the Badgers over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
UW beefed up its defensive front by landing defensive tackle Curtis Neal.
Neal — a 6-foot-2, 310-pounder — had more than 25 scholarship offers, and reportedly was deciding between UW and Ohio State at the end of his recruiting process. Neal is a product of William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, where the Badgers found receiver Devin Chandler in last year’s cycle.
Neal, with his size and strength, likely fits best as a nose tackle in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme.
Jim Leonhard may have found another rangy, smart cornerback to add to his secondary in Avyonne Jones, who committed in to UW in late June.
Jones — who hails from Southlake, Texas — was on campus the weekend of June 18 for an official visit and had narrowed an extensive offer list to UW and California. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back was previously committed to Oklahoma State, but retracted that commitment in late May.
With good recovery speed and a good feel for getting his hands between a receiver’s at the point of the catch, the consensus three-star prospect is a good fit for what UW cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat said he wants from his position group.
The Badgers landed the top-ranked player in Wisconsin for the sixth consecutive recruiting class when Joe Brunner committed the last week of June.
Brunner — a 6-foot-6, 300-pound prospect from Milwaukee who attends Whitefish Bay High School — is a consensus four-star recruit and a top-10 offensive tackle in the nation.
He held at least 16 Power Five scholarship offers, including ones from a majority of the Big Ten Conference, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon and Tennessee.
VINNY ANTHONY II
Receiver Vinny Anthony II — a consensus three-star prospect from Louisville, Kentucky — joined UW's class on June 30.
Possessing a good burst of speed and long arms that extend his catch radius, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Anthony has a chance to play across the formation as a receiver.
Anthony chose UW over Cincinnati and Duke.
Austin Brown — who hails from Johnston City, Illinois, a small town outside of Carbondale — was considering offers from Boston College, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern before choosing UW. The consensus three-star prospect had 21 known scholarship offers.
Brown committed to UW on the Fourth of July.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he has a good frame already and his high school film shows a willingness to lay big hits and attack blockers. He also plays quarterback for Johnston City.