Colt Lyerla: A Troubled Talent
OCTOBER 14TH, 2013
Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
It’s not often when one of the most talented players in the nation decides to leave the football team in the middle of a successful season. It would be more understandable if there were piling losses, or outward clashes with coaches, or even pressing family issues.
In the case of Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla, none of those seem to overtly apply. Lyerla left the Ducks in early October, citing personal issues.
Even in his star-crossed career, this seems surprising. Lyerla is an incredibly gifted athlete, but has never quite achieved the level of success envisioned. His Ducks career ends with just 34 career receptions and 12 career starts. This production is not nearly indicative of Lyerla’s considerable athleticism and ability as a football player.
As a NFL prospect, there isn’t a lot that Lyerla doesn’t offer between the sidelines. I watched several Ducks games from 2012 and came away entranced with his speed, versatility, and playmaking ability. Lyerla is exactly the kind of player NFL teams are looking for going forward. He is big, strong, and fast. His hands are above average, as is his catch radius. Lyerla’s blocking showed good technique and real power, something not always present in pass catchers.
The Ducks used him all over the formation. He could line up as a traditional tight end and help anchor the edge against the outside rush. He flexed out into the slot and had the speed to beat the linebacker down the seam. Often he lined up next to quarterback Marcus Mariota in the loaded pistol formation, or offset in the I-formation as a lead blocker. They even let him carry the ball as a short-yardage back.
He excelled in every role. In evaluating Lyerla strictly as a football player, there is no question in my mind he is one of the twenty best talents in the country in terms of pro potential.
Alas, there is more to being a successful collegian, and certainly more to being a successful NFL player, than simply playing the game. It’s in these realms where Colt Lyerla really struggles.
He left the team shortly after missing the Colorado game due to an unspecified violation of team rules. Both Lyerla and the school insisted his departure was unrelated to that suspension, and Lyerla issued a statement through the school stating:
“I love everyone at Oregon; everyone’s on good terms, I believe. Just for my own benefit, it was time to move on”.
The university tried to reinforce that, as coach Mark Helfrich added in the same statement,
“We wish Colt nothing but the best in the future, and will support him in any way we can”
That’s all well and good, but NFL teams are going to demand more answers than public relations surface fluff.
When they dig into Lyerla, they’re not likely to be very happy with what they find. I did some digging of my own, and what I learned about Lyerla makes me very skeptical about his NFL potential.
Through emails, texts, and a couple of phone conversations with various Oregon insiders, NFL scouts, Oregon teammates of Lyerla’s, and reporters who covered him in his high school days, I learned that Colt Lyerla is a deeply troubled person with a litany of issues that need resolution before he is ready to handle being a NFL player.
Oregon knew Lyerla was no choirboy when they recruited him. He comes from a troubled background and by several accounts wore that on his sleeve like a tattoo of pride. Lyerla arrived in Eugene after showing a lot of talent in high school but also a great deal of immaturity.
One person close to the program advised me that “everyone knew he was a party boy” when he joined the program. According to a different team insider, “when we talked to his teachers (in high school) they were like, good riddance. This kid has no control.” Repeated mentions of soft-core drugs, excessive drinking and boorish behavior came up with every person I contacted about his pre-Ducks background.
Nearly everyone I talked to spoke about his headstrong immaturity and irresponsibility.
He came by it naturally. Two different sources cited a family history of substance abuse and erratic, unstable personality. His father “once went missing — as in, no contact with family or friends — for eight months” when his business went under. According to the same source, his mother was heavily into drugs.
Not much changed despite the regimented structure and dedication to optimal fitness under then-coach Chip Kelly. One former teammate of Lyerla’s noted, “I don’t know if he ever slept. I mean, we’d have a dinner and then some of us would go out. Everyone else leaves the bar by like 11 but Colt stuck around. We’d get up the next morning and he’d still be up. We’d ask him what was up and like half the time he couldn’t even remember.”
This teammate was very careful to go out of his way to say he did not believe Lyerla’s partying impacted his football performance. “He was all business when it came to balling, man. It was like the light would flip on and he was an animal.”
Lyerla is painted as a young man who thrives under structure but inherently rebels against it. As one teammate related to me:
“He had to do stuff on his terms. We’d be in the weight room and our coaches have like every little rep measured out, you know. They know our bodies and they give us real specific stuff to do. But man, Colt had to do his own thing. He’d be like, ‘I know my body better than they do’. Then he’d just sort of get off and do his own thing.”
A NFL scout who has repeatedly visited the Ducks program advised me he got the same message from coaches. The scout told me via text, “(the coaches) liked what he could do but he drove them nuts. If he was supposed to do 10 reps, he’d do 8 or 11.”
Lyerla missed time in both spring and fall practices. The same teammate I quoted above said, “Nobody knew what was up, man. He showed up after like three weeks and tried to act like nothing happened.”
He shined on the field in 2012. My scouting eyes loved what I saw, and I held great anticipation for what Lyerla could do in 2013. A NFL regional scout agreed with me, telling me Lyerla was “the highest ceiling player in the PAC-12”.
But more issues arose between January and September. Two different sources I contacted mentioned that Lyerla did not respond well to Kelly’s departure to the NFL. One told me he felt like Colt knew it was a business, but he’s got serious trust issues. He felt like Kelly, and by extension Oregon, was abandoning him.
One source told me Lyerla really slacked off over the summer. His conditioning clearly was not up to Oregon’s standards, and he was seen “sucking wind in practice”. He played poorly against Virginia and two sources confirmed to me that the coaching staff took him aside and told him to get serious or get out.
They brought up plays where he clearly coasted, according to one source, and Lyerla did not respond well to having his effort questioned. He did not play against Tennessee the next week. I tried very hard to get to the bottom of that, but nobody really knows. One reporter speculated–and this is just speculation on his part–that Lyerla tried to get back into shape too rapidly and over-trained to the point of illness.
When I probed for reasons why he would just up and quit the program, I got a similar story from just about everyone. They portrayed a naïve, self-absorbed man-child. The substance abuse issues, notably drinking, came up a lot. While described as soft-spoken as and “brighter than he comes off”, multiple sources noted a quick temper and difficulty making real friends. He was tired of dealing with Oregon’s attempts to control him. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to get his way, Lyerla hit the eject button.
One NFL scout suggested that “he knew sticking around wasn’t going to help him get drafted higher.” His role changed under Helfrich, being relied upon for more blocking and less downfield routes. The scout continued,
“It’s easy to see he didn’t like the prospect of getting less touches. He’s a damn good blocker when he wants to be but it always came with strings. If he wasn’t seeing passes, his blocking really tailed off. Really his whole effort level would go down.”
That does not make Lyerla unique by any means, and the scout definitely acknowledged that. But he mentioned that it was different with Lyerla. “I wouldn’t trust him. What’s going to stop him from quitting on us when we push him a little or question his game?”
That’s the great question. When I asked people about the statement that there were no hard feelings either way, they unanimously lent it credibility. People want to like him, and he’s described by most everyone I asked as a good-hearted person. Good-hearted but incredibly unpredictable.
One person advised me, “He takes everything very emotionally. With all the issues in his background, it’s not hard to see why. But he’s never grasped the concept that people telling him something doesn’t mean they hate him or disrespect him. He cannot process criticism without letting it chew him up inside. He’ll hold onto a perceived slight forever. That’s not going to change when he’s getting money.”
When I asked the actual NFL scouts about how their teams will view Lyerla I got similar, indirect answers. One advised me that “my report will be that he’s never going to be worth the headaches. I can’t see us considering him after this quitting.” He pointed out that his team removed Mike Williams of Syracuse and Marquess Wilson of Washington State completely from their draft consideration when those players left their respective schools in recent years.
The other scout gave me a very interesting answer. He said he was sure his team would pass on Lyerla but he brought up two other franchises which might find his story appealing as a sort of feel-good reclamation story. When I asked if he thought Lyerla would be drafted I got this response:
“Drafted? Absolutely. He’s a second round talent at worst on the field. If he can piss clean (pass drug tests) and explain his issues, coaches will look over the bad issues.”
I asked him to speculate on which round Lyerla might wind up being drafted.
“Like I said, he’s got to piss clean. (We) won’t touch him if he’s left the team and is doing drugs. No way. If he pisses clean I think he can go in the fourth or fifth round. I would be surprised if we let him fall past that”, he told me. ”I’ll tell you this too, his agent is going to really have to earn his money. Up front damage control.”
My personal opinion? I’m inclined to believe that Lyerla’s impressive athleticism and coveted versatility will intrigue NFL coaches. If notorious drug addicts like Tyrann Mathieu and Janoris Jenkins can get drafted–and thus far perform quite successfully–Lyerla will get a chance to prove himself too. Leaving a successful program raises significant character questions, but I’ll default back to something I very strongly believe in.
NFL coaches are arrogant. They believe they can reach anyone and coax the best out of anyone. That’s part of why they are NFL head coaches. You cannot rise to that level in the profession without it, and all the great coaches have that arrogance. It’s not a negative quality in that capacity.
I think that coaching arrogance will prevail over the legitimate concerns that will be raised in draft room discussions. Coaches are going to look at the tape and believe Colt Lyerla is worth a shot. If I were calling the shots, I wouldn’t hesitate to take him in the fourth round.
It is incumbent upon Colt Lyerla to get himself into the best condition of his life between now and May. And I’m not talking exclusively about his physical shape. He needs to find a way to exorcise his personal demons and learn how to more positively deal with criticism and adversity.
NFL teams are going to drill him about his past, about the partying, the substance abuse allegations, the iffy effort in games, the strange leaves of absence from Oregon, and the quitting. They will not be friendly or easy questions. If he can handle all that, I do still think he can be drafted as high as the third round. But if he squirms or gives deflective answers, NFL teams are not going to give him a chance.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.