Driven by winning, SIU quarterback Lyles makes off-season count
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After college football programs across the country shut down workouts in March, Kare’ Lyles was at a loss.
“I spent two weeks just trying to get a grasp on what was going on,” said Lyles, the starting quarterback who led Southern Illinois to a 7-5 record last season, its best since 2013.
Longing to keep the momentum going from a breakthrough season for the Salukis – who haven’t been to the FCS playoffs since 2009 – Lyles had an idea. He would drive from his home in Madison, Wis., to Carbondale, which is nearly 450 miles, for anyone who wanted to stay sharp.
He contacted his receivers and invited those who could make the drive to Carbondale to unique workouts.
“I make the 7-hour drive frequently to see my family,” he said.
In April, Lyles was joined by juniors Avante and D’Ante’ Cox from Rochester, Ill., near Springfield, and redshirt freshman Branson Combs, who lives in Evansville, Ind. The group spent several weeks working out together five times a week, according to Lyles, at any local field they could find to prepare for – hopefully – a full 2020 season.
Lyles said the group took plenty of precautions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They were wearing gloves,” he said. “I wore a glove on my left (non-throwing) hand. We were always (socially) distanced from each other.”
Along with running routes, the Cox brothers added their special touch to the workouts.
“Avante and D’Ante’ come from a track background,” he said. “So we all did these speed and agility drills. It was really good. The only thing we didn’t have was a weight room. That was different.”
Lyles said he returned each month for at least two weeks at a time, and as local public health restrictions loosened, more players joined the workouts.
“We were getting in some good work,” he said. “I was always willing to take that 7-hour drive.”
Driven by winning
Coming from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College to SIU, Lyles was used to helping programs succeed.
“The biggest thing for me is winning,” he said. “Ever since I was young playing quarterback, I’ve never had a losing season. I’ve been blessed to be a part of great teams.”
When the Salukis put together a five-game winning streak during Missouri Valley Football Conference games in October and November last season, they forged a new identity, according to Lyles.
Winning in one of the nation’s most talented conferences has provided a lift for the Salukis, who are scheduled to open the season Sept. 3 at Tennessee-Martin.
“That all came down to our practice mentality,” Lyles said. “You could see a big jump. That really pushed us over the edge. Now, you can see that consistency and that mentality in the off-season.”
Lyles noticed a change in mentality during 6 a.m. workouts over the winter months.
“Now guys are more focusing on their nutrition,” he said. “They’re making better choices off the field.”
While Lyles took over in the third game of the season from an injured Stone Labanowitz and held the job for the remainder of the season, the passing game wasn’t SIU’s biggest weapon.
The Salukis ran for 231.8 yards a game – which ranked 12th in the nation — and 28 touchdowns last fall. A powerful offensive line and a backfield led by breakout freshman running back Javon Williams Jr. helped the Salukis control games and wear down opponents.
The challenge for Lyles and his receivers this season is to rev up a passing game that ranked 93rd in FCS with 185.2 yards a game.
Though Lyles threw 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions, his pass efficiency rating was fourth in the league and his 62.9% completion percentage was 23rd-best nationally. He also threw more than one interception only once in game last season.
“My expectations are always going to be high,” Lyles said. “The things I can change are just being more comfortable in the system and knowing that I’m the starting quarterback.”
Lyles said his focus is on three main tasks this season.
“All good quarterbacks limit the mistakes, they take advantage of each opportunity for an explosive play (in the pass game) and they move the chains,” he said. “Those three things are always something you want to evolve in.”