Outside his family and close friends, no one seems to know much about Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla
In August, a photo of Colt Lyerla walking out of an Oregon football practice went viral. The picture showed Lyerla in leg pads without a shirt, wearing the same terrifying mask that the villain Bane wore in the film The Dark Knight Rises.
As it turns out, the picture was Photoshopped. Lyerla never came out of Ducks practice with the Bane mask. Someone cleverly attached the head of Bane, mask and all, to Lyerlas body. While the head of Bane was Photoshopped on, the body was Lyerlas.
And good lord, what a body. In the picture, Lyerla looked every bit his listed 6-foot-5, 246 pounds. With tattoos and enormous muscles bulging through his skin, Lyerla looked 10 times as scary as Tom Hardy, who played Bane in The Dark Knight
Lyerla is similar to the character of Bane in more than just his appearance. The sophomore tight end from Hillsboro High is a complete mystery. He has refused to do media interviews this season, just as he refused to speak to the media for much of last season. And while Lyerlas talent on the gridiron is undeniable, who he really is remains murky.
When Lyerla is on the football field, though, there are few players in the country who are as physically gifted.
Theres a lot of guys in this world who are a work in progress, Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich says. But, hes done a really good job doing the things hes been asked to do and thats where we can all start.
While he was at Hillsboro, Lyerla played running back and linebacker. His junior year, he led Hillsboro to the OSAA Class 5A state championship. Lyerla was named the Class 5A Player of the Year after rushing for 1,543 yards and 26 touchdowns as well as compiling 843 receiving yards and 13 TDs.
His senior season, when Hillsboro moved up to Class 6A, Lyerla rushed for 1,519 yards and collected 352 yards receiving while averaging 12.5 points per game.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly says that he can understand why Hillsboro football coach Ken Ingram wanted to use Lyerla as a tailback.
He did a great job at Hillsboro and if I was at Hillsboro I wouldve put him at running back, too, Kelly says. He was the fastest kid on the field, the biggest kid on the field.
When Kelly recruited Lyerla, though, he knew that he wanted him to play tight end.
He was 6-5, 240 pounds and we had him in a camp one time and he caught the ball very well, Kelly says. Hes built like a tight end.
Lyerla graduated from Hillsboro early so that he could participate in spring practices in 2011. He needed all the extra time he could get to make the adjustment to tight end.
Youre talking about a high school tailback, who youre trying to (teach to) put his hand on the ground and play Division I college football at the line of scrimmage, tight ends coach Tom Osborne says. Youre not going to learn that overnight. Youre not going to learn that in a month.
Lyerlas learning curve was a long, sometimes painfully slow process, but when he got it right, he got it very right.
Playing behind senior tight end David Paulson as a true freshman, Lyerla caught seven passes for 147 yards. Five of Lyerlas catches went for touchdowns.
Lyerlas first three catches of the season against Nevada and Missouri State all went for TDs. A shoulder injury then limited Lyerla. He did not catch another pass in the Ducks next seven games. He came back with four more catches and two more touchdowns, though.
As athletic as he is and as much as he is able to do on the field, Osborne says that Lyerla must continue to work on the little things inside of the game.
This isnt a combine, its playing football, Osborne says. Just because guys run fast and jump high doesnt mean theyre great players. Colt will be a great player at some point in time if he does all the little things right. But hes still learning how to play. We had plays in the (season opener against Arkansas State) where you were like, Youve got to be kidding me. Its not track. Its not the combine. Its playing football.
Despite all he still has to learn, the Oregon coaches say that Lyerla is much improved from last season.
Hes got a better knowledge and understanding of what were doing, Kelly says. Last year at this time he was still a true freshman who had been here for three weeks of camp and spring practice. Hes got a better grasp. Theres a better understanding of what were doing offensively. Hes in a little better condition because he really worked very hard over the summertime. Youre seeing a guy benefiting from the experience he has.
Says Helfrich: Hes improved a ton. Hes more mature, not only off the field but on the field. Hes a more polished player, a more finished player. Hes bigger, hes faster, hes stronger and more confident in the system.
Says Osborne: Hes a mile ahead of last year. Maybe 10 miles ahead of last year. Absolutely not even the same guy as a year ago. Hes done a great job of learning.
That is high praise from Oregons coaches considering how much practice time Lyerla has missed. After practicing only four times last spring, Lyerla was not with the Ducks when they opened fall camp in August, because of what Kelly described as excused personal reasons.
He only practiced four days last spring and missed 20 days of fall camp, Osborne says.
Despite how much time Lyerla missed, after turning in a stellar week of practice leading up to the Ducks opener, the Oregon coaches decided to allow him to start.
He had a great week of practice, Osborne says. Probably the best hes had since hes been here. And that allowed him to start and play in the game.
With Lyerla missing so much practice time, questions were raised about whether he was a player that the Ducks could rely on. But, Osborne says the fact that the Oregon allowed Lyerla to play is proof of how much the coaches trust him.
If we didnt trust him we wouldnt put him in the game, Osborne says. If a guy blows an assignment and they haul DeAnthony Thomas off in a stretcher, wed all be pretty upset. We cant put a guy out there unless we trust him. Of course we trust him.
It is fair to note that part of the reason outside observers have questioned how much Oregon can rely on Lyerla is the fact that he refuses to speak with the media.
The Ducks are ultra-conservative about how much information they allow the public to know about the team. However, most of the players are willing to speak to the media. The four notable exceptions to that were players who had their share of troubles: LeGarrett Blount, Jeremiah Masoli, Kiko Alonso and Cliff Harris. Masoli and Harris both wound up being excused from the program.
Helfrich does not know why Lyerla refuses to speak to the media, but says that he can understand both why Lyerla might not want to be interviewed and why the media would be frustrated about it.
I understand it from both angles, Helfrich says. I understand how it would be frustrating for the media and I understand it from his standpoint. But, Im not in his head to know why (he doesnt talk).
With Lyerla not speaking to the media, it is very difficult to know what kind of person he really is. But, then again, even the Oregon coaches who work with Lyerla on a daily basis have trouble summing him up into words.
Hes quieter, Helfrich says, after pausing to think. Hes one of those guys who is just so physically imposing everyone thinks hes going to be this boisterous, loud guy. But, hes quiet. At the same time, hes a very competitive, fiery guy on the field.
Osborne is stumped about how to talk about Lyerla as a person.
Thats a great question, Osborne says. I dont know. I dont know how to answer that.
For now, the people who are not personally acquainted with Lyerla do not know how to answer that question either.
Like Bane, Lyerla remains covered by a mask. It is not a mask of metal. Lyerla wears a mask of mystery. Observers can see the body that the mask cannot cover, though. That body is capable of doing extraordinary things. If the person behind the mask is up for the challenge.
Hes one of those guys who could be anything he wants to be, Helfrich says. He could play in the NFL for 15 years if everything comes together. Hes unbelievably talented. Hes smart enough, hes tough enough, hes athletic enough. Its one of those what you put into it is what you get out of it deals.