Front and center: Lyles brings intensity, Big Ten experience to FSU line

Kayden Lyles took stock of a few programs when he entered the transfer portal last fall. He visited Tallahassee to watch the Florida State-Miami game, building a relationship with Seminoles and offensive line coach Alex Atkins.

“He was the most real coach — I think that’s the simplest way to put it,” Lyles said on Tuesday in his first interview with the media who cover FSU. “Going through the recruiting process when I was younger, kind of getting flooded with all the stuff that coaches would say. But going through it a second time with my experience and everything, I thought that he was the most truthful coach. He had a vision for me short term, long term. We just talked it out. I gave him my goals and he gave me his goals and so we just rolled with it.”

From the first face-to-face meeting with Atkins, Lyles began to build a relationship with the coach as well as FSU’s linemen.

“Watching the Miami game, got to be able to come around and talk with the players, meet with Coach Atkins in person,” Lyles said. “That set it off for me to really have them be a big contender. And then, as the week went on, just meeting with coach Atkins, watching film and just really getting to know him as a person, as a coach, and just knowing the program. Doing some research myself as well. And so that ultimately, about two weeks after the visit, was when I ultimately knew that I wanted to come here.”

A year ago, Dillan Gibbons left Notre Dame looking for a new home. Gibbons started 11 games at left guard and also was able to provide a blueprint for what Lyles would face if he were to transfer to FSU.

“As I was going through the recruiting process, I talked with Dillan just to get some perspective of what it’s like to transfer from a place like Notre Dame to a place like Florida State,” Lyles said. “And so he really gave me his truthful opinion on it. And it’s what sold me to be able to come here and so we’ve been creating a really good bond together, going through the recruiting processes and as well as now that I’m here.”

Atkins has elevated the offensive line talent by signing high school talent, landing veterans in the transfer portal and developing them. FSU’s line has struggled in pass protection, even with a mobile quarterback in Jordan Travis, but has taken significant steps forward in the ground attack under coach Mike Norvell, Kenny Dillingham and Atkins. When Dillingham left to take the job at Oregon, Atkins was promoted to offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.

The goal early in on has been to find eight dependable offensive linemen, and landing a transfer from Wisconsin says plenty about what Atkins has accomplished and his vision. Adding Lyles, bringing back Gibbons and the core of a young group ensures FSU will have depth going into the 2022 season.

It also speaks to what the 6-foot-3, 315-pound Lyles would like to achieve in his last college season. Lyles played in 34 games at Wisconsin, including a start last fall at center, four as the starting center in 2020, four as a starting left guard in 2019 and seven as a defensive end (due to injuries at Wisconsin) in 2018.

While FSU returns starting center Maurice Smith, Lyles said his conversation with Atkins has been at center.

“I think that’s what’s going to be the opportunity here is to be a center,” Lyles said. “Just out of my own personal take, I feel most comfortable at center. Just the knowledge of being able to be a leader of the whole line. And then as well as a team I feel like I could be able to build that here.”

Atkins had to mix and match on the offensive line when Smith missed time due to injury, including shifting Darius Washington from tackle to center. While Atkins likes to cross train linemen, the addition of Lyles allows he and Smith to focus on center without Atkins needing to shift a starter from tackle or guard to center.

Lyles said he enjoyed his time at Wisconsin “but things didn’t really go the way that I wanted to,” so he went in the portal and began looking at options. Norvell said earlier this month that he had known Lyles since he was Arizona State’s offensive coordinator (prior to moving to Memphis in 2016).

“Kayden brings great experience and toughness to our team,” Norvell said. “He is smart, having already graduated from Wisconsin with a degree in industrial engineering, and extremely competitive. I’ve known Kayden since he was in high school at Saguaro in Scottsdale, Arizona, and I was coaching at Arizona State. We are looking forward to the impact Kayden will have within our program on and off the field.”

Lyles’ experience as a Big Ten offensive lineman, and in one of the most heralded programs for producing blockers, should be a boost for the Seminoles as they go into year 3 of the Norvell Era.

“I do feel like the coaches here are on the right track,” Lyles said. “They know what they want to do. They know the vision that they have and everything so that was what I’m on board with. … Regardless of what happened more recently, they’re Florida State at the end of the day. They’re a blue blood. They’re a team that’s won national championships, won one recently within the past 10 years. They have that tradition. They have that vision.”