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Kayden Lyles, Cormac Sampson battling to be Badgers' starting center
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Kayden Lyles, Cormac Sampson battling to be Badgers' starting center

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Lyles photo - center battle

Wisconsin's Kayden Lyles (76) blocks Northwestern defensive lineman Alex Miller (95) last season. Lyles, a Middleton High School graduate, is battling with Cormac Sampson to be the Badgers' starting center this season. 

Paul Chryst couldn’t help but make light of the clearly-not-ideal situation.

With senior Jack Coan injured and a position battle ongoing at center, the coach of the No. 16 Badgers football team will all but assuredly start a quarterback and a center making their first career starts at those spots when they kick off the season next week.

“Well, it’s a good thing it’s not baseball. They say you’re supposed to be strong up the middle,” Chryst said with a smile. “We’ve got good guys, good players. Maybe they don’t have experience, but it doesn’t mean they won’t be real capable of being good.”

The University of Wisconsin will have to prepare that new center-quarterback combo quickly, too, with the Big Ten Conference announcing on Monday that UW will host Illinois at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, to kick off the shortened league season. Redshirt freshman Graham Mertz is poised to assume the quarterback role, but the Badgers are still figuring out who will be first in line at center.

Redshirt junior Kayden Lyles and redshirt sophomore Cormac Samspon are dueling for the center spot, both offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and Chryst said. Centers are the primary communicators on the offensive line, and UW is replacing All-American and Rimington Trophy winner Tyler Biadasz, who made his first NFL start for the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

Lyles — a Middleton High School grad — made a solid return back to the offensive line after playing defensive end in 2018. He tallied four starts at guard last season and was in heavy rotation at left guard the first half of the year. He played less often down the stretch as Rudolph, the team’s offensive line coach, cut down the line’s rotation and kept the same group of five on the field.

But Lyles played extensively in the Big Ten West Division-clinching win at Minnesota and started against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. He was injured against the Buckeyes, and was slated to miss spring practices with multiple lower-body injuries. However, his coaches say he’s healthy and practicing well.

“Kayden battled his tail off and he had a few things offseason-wise that he wasn’t there the full time, but he’s battling to get back. We like where he is right now, I really do. I’m really impressed with him as a kid and as a competitor to get himself in position to compete for this job,” Rudolph said last week.

Cormac Sampson mug

Sampson

Sampson’s path to the field at UW has included a number of turns and jersey number switches. After playing tight end during his redshirt 2018 season, Sampson was slated to be a tackle last year before focusing on the backup center role behind Biadasz. But when injuries left the tight end position depleted, Sampson moved back and was the No. 2 tight end behind Jake Ferguson.

He played in 13 games, and was lauded by teammates on multiple occasions for his ability to help set the edge on perimeter runs. Per the UW rosters, Sampson’s added 10 pounds and is up to 290 pounds with his move back to the offensive line.

“Cormac’s doing a great job and learning, so I think there’s great competition there. We’ll end up with a really good center. I’m proud of both of those guys for being where they’re at right now,” Rudolph said.

Rudolph said redshirt freshman Joe Tippmann originally in his plans in the center competition, but Lyles and Sampson quickly pulled ahead of the group. Tippmann, a four-star recruit in 2019, is getting reps at the other spots on the line.

Chryst said the battle for the center spot is ongoing, but Lyles may have the upper hand in the short term.

“Kayden certainly is a little bit more advanced in kind of the what-tos of the position. Cormac, I think he’s got a really big upside to him. Need this week to continue to go, but the goal is to, you talk about those two, but you want as many as you can that you can shuffle at all the different spots,” he said.

The new starting center has an immediate challenge in their debut.

Illinois’ defensive front gave UW problems in last season’s 24-23 upset in Champaign. The Badgers tallied just 156 yards on 43 rushing attempts, allowed two sacks and were forced to kick two field goals inside the Illini 10-yard line after failing to score touchdowns with their vaunted rushing attack.

“It’s our job as coaches — that’s the opportunity we get — it’s how do you get everyone that’s new in a spot a fair chance, the best chance, to have success,” Chryst said. “I think that’s our responsibility.”


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