Whenever rabid Duck fan Josh Rawls gets the new NCAA football video game, he inserts a player into the Oregon roster he calls Salty Cracker.
Cracker is a tailback/linebacker/tight end who is 6-9, 285, runs a 4.25 40, an instant beast mode stud who rates 99 in everything, makes opposing coaches scream in agony and cheerleaders weak with desire.
Colt Lyerla isn’t quite that big or fast, but he plays a lot like Salty Cracker.
Photo left: Oregon’s John Mackey Award candidate finds daylight in a night game against Arizona (lostletterman.com photo).
In the 25-year rise of Oregon football the Webfoots have sent 11 tight ends to the National Football League, and Colt Lyerla has more talent than any of them.
Lyerla was a do-everything superstar in high school, a 5-star Army All-American offered by 30 colleges including USC and Oklahoma. He scored 39 touchdowns from scrimmage his junior year, winning the state 5A championship and Player of the Year. He rushed for over 3000 yards in two years, scored 17 points a game in basketball, and made the entire fanbase giddy when he signed to be a Duck. Lyerla enrolled in school early in 2011 and caught three passes in the Spring Game. His first season he caught 7 passes, and five of them went for touchdowns, 21 yards a catch. Very Salty.
Colt Lyerla could have been a basketball player, a baseball star, or an enforcer in a mob movie. At 6-5, 246 he seems to grow 5 lbs. of muscle a month, looking like he belongs in Marvel Comics alongside the Hulk, Wolverine and Thor. He’s prodigiously strong and gifted. Nfldraftscout.com calls him “a freakish athlete,” almost certain to be among the top three tight ends taken in the draft, next year or the year after. Lyerla produced a 40-inch vertical jump at a high school scouting combine; his lowest listed 40 times range from 4.5-4.59, excellent for a player with his size and strength.
A word about 40 times. They are always full of air. Hand-held times are notoriously inaccurate. With true electronic timing, LaMichael James, the all-time leading rusher and one of the fastest Ducks ever, ran a 4.59 in strength and conditioning testing at Oregon. Yet according to the scouting services, every new recruit runs a 4.4 or a 4.5. In draft profiles, every NFL hopeful at skill positions runs no poorer than 4.5, 4.6, with a ludicrous and indefensible number of athletes marked down for 4.28 or 4.35, times bested in reality by only Bo Jackson and Usain Bolt. It’s hype, part of the game. DSH lists published times because the inflation is everywhere and applies at every school and conference. As a recruit Darron Thomas was listed at 4.5 in the 40. Thomas was a terrifically effective quarterback at Oregon, one of the most underappreciated in school history, but his true speed in football’s Sword of Damocles sprint was closer to 4.8, 4.9.
Here is all you ever need know: Lyerla is fast for a big man. Byron Marshall is faster. De’Anthony Thomas is fastest. It all adds up to 49 points a game.
The most relevant question with Colt Lyerla is, how good a college football player does he want to be?
For all the superlatives and anticipation surrounding Oregon’s enigmatic and occasionally controversial tight end, in two years, he has 32 catches for 539 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has some tremendous moments in a Duck uniform, interspersed with trips to the coaches’ doghouse, grade and disciplinary scuffles, injuries, and a series of embarrassing Tweets. He’s 20 years old, and sometimes the burdens and temptations of being Colt Lyerla seem to overwhelm him. At the same time, it’s not remotely surprising that his personal priorities remain personal, and vastly different from anything that the 30-65 white males who live vicariously through his exploits would concoct for him.
Just yesterday Lyerla was named to the John Mackey Award Watch List, the most prestigious award for tight ends, named for a 60’s star for the then-Baltimore Colts who ran and clubbed off defenders a lot like Oregon’s #15.
Austin Sefarian-Jenkins of Washington, also supremely talented and a few months removed from controversy, a DUII arrest that led to a suspension from spring practice, is another of the frontrunners for the Mackey.
The Husky standout is 6-6, 266, another reputed 4.5 40 wunderkind. In 2012, S-J caught 69 passes for 850 yards and 7 scores.
Lyerla has to ramp up his production to win the individual honor, even to best Sefarian-Jenkins as best tight end in the conference. Not all of that is in his hands, but he can make giant strides toward his potential by showing up for the next 8 weeks. 80% of life is showing up. The other 20% is paying attention. With the Hillsboro High product, the question has always been if he is fully engaged and fully motivated, lining up right, on time, in class.
Whether he catches 20 balls or 80 in 2013, Colt is due for a big payday at the next level in a few months. All he has to do is prepare himself for big results at the NFL Combine and he’ll shoot up draft boards. How motivated is he, day by day, to have a big year as an Oregon Duck?
Lyerla is one of those guys that is so reticent and private it sometimes gets misinterpreted. He rarely speaks to the media and shies away from interviews. Not surprising; he’s been burned by John Canzano and the print media multiple times, excoriated repeatedly in Social Media and the message boards. But it’s thoroughly clear from the way he plays on the field, the crunching blocks, the pile-driving second effort with the ball in his hands, that he’s as competitive and intense as anyone. He wants to be a great football player and win games.
The hope is that he wins the complete confidence of the revamped coaching staff, and they find more ways to get him the ball. Looking at his highlights, it’s a crime Lyerla isn’t featured 6-10 times a game, consistently. In 9 of Oregon’s 13 games last year he had two catches or fewer. A midseason injury cost him most of the Arizona State game and all of Colorado. He caught just one ball against Washington State and USC.
He has the ability to be the best tight end in the country, a first round draft pick, and the holder of every record for his position in the Oregon Media Guide.
Part of the equation is that Colt makes a huge contribution to the offense as a blocking tight end. In the spread with the zone read game, blocks on the perimeter and at the second level are critical. There’s no “speed in space” without them. Lyerla’s a fierce, devastating, unselfish blocker who has set up Oregon tailbacks for hundreds of yards over the last two years. Here’s one example, an 80-yard touchdown run by Kenjon Barner last year against Washington State. #15 pancakes the contain man and all Barner has to do is run untouched off his hip.
Barner is not only gone for the end zone but gone for good, so the Ducks urgently need to replace his 2000 yards of offense and 22 touchdowns. If Colt Lyerla achieves 50 catches for 800 yards and a dozen scores, the Ducks are a significant way to the dynamic mix they need to achieve all their goals. They’ll look up in December with a dozen wins and plane tickets to Pasadena. Those individual award nominations will follow with certainty.
That stuff may or may not matter to a bunch of 20-year-olds, but it will definitely matter when they’re 40. You’re only young once, but pride and regret both last a lifetime.
Here’s a look at Lyerla’s 2012 highlight film, with scouting notes to follow. Video provided by Mike Wines of Oregon Duck Soup and madmike1951:
Play 1 – Short route to Lyerla in the flat, a simple square out. Breaks a double team tackle and drags two defenders for another three yards, driving forward as he falls, turning the play into an 8-yard gain.
Play 2 – 2nd and 4 TE left, another short simple square out, this time in left flat as linebackers blitz. Lyerla is the hot read, Mariota finds him calmly. Lyerla adjusts athletically to the ball, secures it quickly. Blasts through the first two tackles and drags the third tackler and pursuit for additional yards. He’s a finalist for the Mackey Award, and he reminds me of Mackey in how he drags defenders, clubs them off, and drives for yards after catch. Delivers a blow and punishes tacklers, most of whom are smaller, slower and less athletic. Creates a mismatch every time he touches the ball. Good ball security as the 3rd and 4th guys rip at the ball; he’s prodigiously strong and covers it with both arms while battering through the pile like a member of the Justice League of America.
Play 3 – 3rd and 3 just outside the red zone. A situation where he is the toughest player on the field to stop. Fake outside zone read right. Lyerla releases into the left flat, away from the flow of the play, so he’s one-on-one in space with a smaller defensive back. Ducks get the matchup they want. Lyerla collects the ball securely with the defender bearing down on him, squared up with a clear shot to stop the play, but he’s no match for Lyerla’s strength. He sheds him easily, now with open field looking for more. Powers up the sideline, accelerates and dives in for the score. 22 yard td.
Play 4 – At the opponent’s 6, 2nd and goal. Spread formation, 2 split wide, twin tailbacks. Fake outside zone read right. Linebackers freeze inside on the play action. Mariota rolls left with Lyerla dragging with him just across the goal line. Mariota throws low between two defenders, a flutter ball which Lyerla goes down and hugs to his chest. Very conscious of ball security, uses his body to protect the ball, curling away from contact. Has a good sense of the end zone, where he is, where the defenders are. Good athletic instincts, developed as a high school tailback and basketball center. Can pivot, shuffle, adjust readily to balls thrown behind him, short of him, away–good body control. Realizes all he has to do here is catch it, focusing completely on completing the play. A simple thing, but ask Jackie Smith how important it is. A big target who can secure and protect the ball in traffic.
Play 5 – Inside zone read, 2nd and 2 at the opponent’s 27. Lyerla is the thunder back on this play, breaks three tackles and drags the pile for a 10-yard gain, twisting and driving, punishing the defenders. Another mismatch. Makes Toby Gerhart look like a pony back. There’s really no answer for him if the blocks are made at the point of attack, and he provides his own blocking for extra yards. Rarely tackled by the first guy or one-on-one. Makes the most of his touches, consistently. Intimidating force. Tremendous determination when he gets the opportunity to get the ball, and leaves the fan to wonder, why doesn’t he get it more often? Announcer uses the word “hulking.” Somewhere between Hulk, Thor, and Wolverine in a green jersey and swoosh.
Play 6 – 3rd and 13, shotgun spread, empty backfield. Lyerla in slot, hook route run properly right to the first down line. Mariota looks off, a threads a strike which #15 takes in his fingertips at helmet level between two defenders. Ducks down away from the blow to protect the football and drives forward for five extra yards, driving forward at the whistle versus three tacklers. Very reliable in traffic and over the middle. Zero fear of contact. A frustrating player to defend, great target for tough 3rd and long, 2nd and long situations. Security blanket for a young quarterback.
Play 7 – 1st and 10 at the opponents 38, 7:20 in the 3rd quarter, 13-0, still a close ball game. Fake outside zone read left to De’Anthony Thomas. It’s a ruboff play, the outside receiver slanting, making contact with Lyerla’s man as #15 breaks left along the line of scrimmage and then zooms up the sideline, wide open at the intermediate level. Has the speed and versatility to play a big outside or slot receiver in certain sets. Lyerla takes the football into his hands over his shoulder, in stride 20 yards upfield, cuts inside a defender with an angle and makes him fall down. Tripped up by a diving ankle tackle, 35 yard gain, 1st down at the 3. A game breaking play. Athletic receiving tight end who can make plays at all three levels of the defense, and a devastating blocker. Great effort and hustle on his perimeter blocks; plays a big role in the success of Oregon’s vaunted running game.
Play 8 – This is the comic ESPN highlight, an inside zone read where Bennett wants to keep but Lyerla reads an easy score, so he drags the quarterback and the ball into the end zone. Hungry and determined, and his read was the correct one.
Play 9 – Hard driving inside run for 8 yards on second and 10 with a 35-0 lead. Lyerla had 7 carries in this game for 63 yards and a touchdown with a long run of 23 yards. Powerful runner with a strong forward lean and tremendous leg drive, arms that swallow the football, turnover proof. People who say the Ducks are thin at running back fail to account for just how many viable options there are the roster. A versatile player who could play linebacker, old school fullback, tailback, big outside possession receiver, or tight end. Tight end is his best position, for the love of Len Casanova, get him the darned football more than 3-4 times a game. He’s underutilized, and apparently part of the reason is his youth and failure to demonstrate complete discipline and attention in practice. 2013 could be a breakout year and a BIG NFL payday. Has more talent than any tight end in the country.
Play 10 – His long run of the game. Good vision from the former high school tailback, who ran for 1543 yards and 26 tds in his junior year enroute to Player of the Year honors and a State 5A Championship. Bounces this play outside and sheds the first tackler with a punishing stiff arm.
Play 11 – Mariota scrambling out of the pocket with some pressure. Finds Lyerla on a safety valve route dragging across the formation with his quarterback, just past the line of scrimmage. He outruns two defenders and hurdles another for the first down. Are you not entertained?
Play 12 – Fake zone read, play action, Lyerla releasing down the seam at the intermediate level. This is something fans are likely to see more of this season, a powerfully effective tool in the Oregon passing game they also used well just before half for two big gains against Kansas State in the decisive drive of the game. Lyerla has range, good hands, and mobility. He’s a true big gain threat as a TE. Can stretch and torment a defense. Very reliable target who consistently delivers and creates yards after the catch. With all the other weapons in the Oregon offense, including Mariota himself, how are you going to stop him?