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August 31, 2017

Bisons Camp: Jamel Lyles | Better, Older, Wiser  

After a year away from the University of Manitoba – and college football in general – running back Jamel Lyles is back. And he’ll be the first to admit that he had some growing up to do when he left the Bisons program last June.

“I’m a lot more level-headed,” began Lyles, as the Bisons continued preparations for Friday’s season opener against Saskatchewan at Investors Group Field. “It’s not to say that I didn’t have a good head on my shoulders before, I was just a little bit young.”

In order to understand the context of what Lyles’ statement, it’s important to first backtrack for a moment.

The native of Surrey, B.C. was one of the most highly-touted recruits coming out of high school in 2013, after accumulating over 3,000 combined rushing yards in his Grade 11 and 12 seasons. Lyles decided to take the following fall off in order to pursue a few NCAA Division 1 offers, however, nothing panned out and the powerhouse back instead chose to commit to the Bisons for the 2015 season.

His rookie campaign was nothing short of stellar, as he led the nation with 1,564 all-purpose yards and was honoured as Canada West Rookie of the Year. But despite his individual success, there were some fundamental and personal issues Lyles had to deal with on and off the field.

Without going into too much detail, Lyles simply said: “There were just a few things with the program that I didn’t agree with”, and that he “maybe had the opportunity to be used a bit better.”

Lyles aired his grievances with his coaches as they talked about ‘the good and the bad.’ At the end of the day, he decided leaving the Bisons program was in his best interest – he was also ruled academically ineligible – but was very firm in his statement that he left on good terms.

“When I left Manitoba, I told all the boys and I told coach Dobie that if I’m coming back to U SPORTS, I would come back to be a Bison,” he began. “I have family in this room. These are all my boys and I love these guys. It was hard to leave, but sometimes you’ve just got to do you and do what’s best for you.”

Following his departure, Lyles had a few choices to make. His main goal when he was leaving “was to get more offers from down south and to make that dream a reality,” however he also knew that if that didn’t pan out, he’d still need a place to play in 2016.

Any thought of playing for another university was completely out of the question, as he’d have to sit out a full year due to transfer rules.

“I wasn’t trying to take out any of my full football IQ and take a full year off and only practice. I couldn’t really do that,” he said.

That’s when the junior football route became a strong possibility, as he could play right away, and then ideally go back to the college level. Cue the Westshore Rebels, a Victoria-based junior team that had been near the bottom of the British Columbia Football Conference standings for a number of years.

Lyles saw the opportunity to turn the team around, as he and a number of fellow U SPORTS players were all interested in coming aboard.

“We (some of Lyles’s teammates at Westshore) kind of connected through U SPORTS, and the coach did his investigating and recruiting properly, and he got a whole bunch of university transfers,” he said.

Led by Lyles, and an offensive line comprised entirely of U SPORTS veterans, the Rebels went from 2-8 in 2015 to a national championship appearance in 2016. Along the way, the running back set a new conference rushing yards record, with 1,604.

Despite being all the way on the west coast, Lyles and Bisons football head coach Brian Dobie were in constant contact.

The duo would have long conversations on the phone, as well as texts and emails. They went back-and-forth all through the 2016 football season, and during the Bisons bye week, Dobie flew out to meet with Lyles.

Throughout the entire process, Dobie said that Lyles “was really good all the way through”, and was “really respectful,” as the Bisons’ bench boss had to re-recruit him.

But in Lyles’s mind, coming back to the Herd after a year away was a no-brainer. The issues he had experienced in his first season were now completely gone, and “there was no reason not to come back.”

Now back in the fold with Manitoba, there’s no telling what Lyles’ ceiling can be as he embarks on hopefully another all-star season.

“He started training camp the way he left off,” Dobie began when talking about Lyles’ on-field production.

“He’s a beast, he’s that good. And he’s unquestionably, undoubtedly one of the elite backs in the nation.”

While Lyles says he’s in great shape and ready to pick up where he left off, he also acknowledged just how far he’s come as a person.

“I’m just wiser, more mature,” he said. “I’ve grown up. It’s been a year-and-a-half since I’ve been away (from the U of M), and obviously there are pros and cons of being away and you just learn as you grow up.

“Now, I feel like I understand things. I have a bigger perspective. I’m not just narrow minded in a sense, and I’m willing to understand and take a step back. It’s only bettered my game on and off the field.”