Shortly after he was approached by University of Wisconsin football coaches about a potential position switch earlier this summer, Kayden Lyles turned to Olive Sagapolu for advice.
Sagapolu, a senior nose guard, answered every question his roommate had about life as a defensive lineman. He offered to help in any way possible if Lyles, a redshirt freshman, decided to make the transition from the offensive line.
The only thing Sagapolu wouldn’t do is tell Lyles what he should do.
“I told him, ‘Hey, dude, it’s whatever you feel is best for you,’ ” Sagapolu said.
Ultimately, Lyles decided to do what was best for the Badgers, whose defensive line has been depleted by graduation and injuries. When camp opened last week, Lyles and redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal were lined up as the defensive ends on UW’s No. 1 unit.
The man stationed between them, Sagapolu, said Lyles’ transition to defense was “a little tough in the beginning. But he’s learning and there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be able to help us in the future.”
Lyles, who spent the final season of his high school career at Middleton and was a highly regarded member of UW’s 2017 recruiting class, may still have a bright future on the offensive side of the ball. But finding a way on the field this season would have been difficult considering the interior spots — fifth-year seniors Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel are slated to start at the guard spots, with sophomore Tyler Biadasz at center — are taken.
“The opportunity to play (right away) was something I considered,” Lyles said. “The coaches just want me to showcase what I’ve got. Whether it’s for this season, forever, I don’t know what the future holds. I’ve just got to go out there and play.”
UW lost a ton of experience on defensive line when Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Connor Sheehy exhausted their eligibility following the 2017 season.
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Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk were projected to take over as the starting ends, but both players sustained offseason injuries.
Rand is out for the season with an Achilles’ injury, while Loudermilk hopes to be back in time for the Big Ten Conference opener against Iowa on Sept. 22 after undergoing knee surgery.
When the coaching staff began discussing the possibility of moving an offensive lineman to defense, the first player defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield tossed out as an option was the 6-foot-3, 323-pound Lyles.
“He’s the one guy I identified as a worker,” Breckterfield said. “I have no worries about him doing that.”
Lyles got to work right away, peppering Sagapolu with questions about schemes, footwork and hand placement.
“He’s constantly asking me stuff,” Sagapolu said.
Breckterfield did his part as well, preparing voiceover video clips that Lyles could watch on his iPad.
In many ways, this season reminds Breckterfield of the situation he inherited when he arrived at UW on Paul Chryst’s first staff in 2015. There wasn’t much experience returning that season, either, so Breckterfield had to get players such as Sheehy, Obasih and James up to speed in a hurry.
That, not coincidentally, was the most recent time Breckterfield used the video voiceovers for his unit. With so many inexperienced players in the mix this season, he dusted them off for 2018.
“I just wanted for Kayden and the young guys to hear the coaching points when I’m not around,” Breckterfield said. “I’m not here, but it’s like I am. Just to hear it and watch it and hear it and watch it, and as they’re doing their drills during the summer they can kind of see where it ties into stuff.”
UW’s depth got a boost back in 2015 when Sagapolu came in and was ready to make an immediate contribution as a true freshman. Breckterfield sees a lot of the same characteristics in Lyles and is confident he can make a seamless transition to a new role.
“He’s gotten a crash course the last few months and it’s going to take him all of fall camp to figure it out,” Breckterfield said. “But he’s a smart kid. Olive came in and he started (four games) as a true freshman and Kayden’s on that same kind of mind frame, so he can pick it up quickly.”