Lyons ready to get started at his “dream school”

While four-star defensive lineman Jamari Lyons held offers from more than 20 college programs, including SEC teams Georgia, Auburn and South Carolina, there wasn’t much doubt about where he wanted to go to school.

He grew up in Melbourne, Florida, a coastal city located just a few hours away from Gainesville, and his family often watched Florida Gators games on television. If he got the opportunity, he knew he would play for the Gators.

He got that coveted UF offer in the spring of his sophomore year. He slow-played things a little bit and took official visits to Indiana and South Carolina, but he eventually committed to the Gators in October 2021.

“It’s like my hometown team pretty much,” Lyons said. “I love everything about the school. That’s my dream school. Everybody wants to go to Florida. We used to watch them on the TV a lot as a kid. So, this is my opportunity, and I took it.”

Of course, any sort of relief that he felt from finally committing to his favorite team quickly turned into stress and uncertainty. Head coach Dan Mullen was fired a few weeks later, which eventually led to defensive line coach David Turner not being retained by new coach Billy Napier. Lyons was really close with Turner, so he initially questioned whether sticking with his long-established plan to go to Florida would be the right decision.

However, though he was basically a dead man walking at this point, Turner convinced him to stay locked in with the Gators.

“I talked to Coach Turner, and he pretty much told me the things that Florida can do for you since you’re a Florida guy, you’re from here, and the things that they can do for me, it can be lifechanging,” Lyons said. “It can be different. So, I was like, ‘OK. I’m going to stick to it. I’m going to listen to it’ because he was a big part of the recruitment there for me.

“He was always real. He kept it 100 to me and my family. He’s a great guy to talk to, and I love the way he coaches and talks to his players and teaches his players and his background, his history of putting guys in the league.”

A couple of weeks after he was hired, Napier visited Lyons and assured him that they still wanted him as much as the previous staff did. Lyons signed with UF in December and arrived on campus last week to go through summer strength and conditioning workouts.

Lyons’ parents first put him in a youth football league when he was 5, and he grew to love it over time. He played tight end, offensive line and defensive line until he started focusing primarily on defensive line when he was in seventh grade.

Derek Smith was Lyons’ head coach at Viera High School for all four years, and he also watched him play when he was a teammate of his son in seventh and eighth grade.

Smith remembers exactly what his initial reaction was.

“My first impression was kind of like ‘Holy [crap], look how big this kid is’ because he was just a massive seventh grader,” Smith said.

Football was just kind of a fun hobby to Lyons until he received his first scholarship offer from Florida A&M when he was a freshman at Viera. Getting that first offer at such a young age made him realize that this could be a realistic career path for him. That first offer provided him with a jolt of confidence and inspired him to work hard and try to rack up even more offers by the time he was a senior.

“It was pretty much a surprise then because it was almost like Christmas Eve,” Lyons said. “So, it was a surprise. I got a Christmas present. I got my first offer. I was like, ‘That’s crazy. OK, so I can probably take this thing to the next level.’ So, I got better and started working at it.”

The proof of Lyons’ hard work and dedication is in the stats. His production steadily improved each year, culminating in a senior season that saw him record 103 tackles, 37 tackles-for-loss and 13 sacks, according to MaxPreps. He finished his high school career with a total of 41 sacks and 81 tackles-for-loss. And he did all of that at the 7A level, Florida’s second-highest classification, so you know the competition he faced was strong.

You’d probably think that a defensive lineman’s favorite play would be a huge sack that he made or a fumble that he forced and recovered. Lyons certainly had his share of those, but it was an interception he made early in his career that stands out the most.

“We’re playing Vero Beach, and we’re down like a touchdown or two I believe at the time,” he said. “I’m gassed. This is my first varsity game. I can’t even breathe. I’m gasping for air, and they did a screen play. One of my D-Line buddies, he deflected the ball, and it was in the air. So, I caught it, but my first [thought] as a D-Lineman, I’m thinking, ‘Should I drop?’ They started pushing me toward the goal, so I just pretty much fell forward. I scored.”

And, in grand D-Lineman style, he miserably failed with his post-touchdown celebration.

“Went to go celebrate in the end zone and actually trips on the pile-on and rolls his ankle to where he’s got to get taped up the following week,” Smith said. “That’s when I knew he was going to be a special player, but, at the same time, also, that he’s still a kid playing this game.”

That last point that Smith made is one of the things that stands out to him the most about Lyons. Sure, he wanted to earn a scholarship from UF, and he’s going to work hard to try to carve out an NFL career someday, but football is more than just a means to an end for him. He plays football because he loves the game, not just because it can make him money.

Many elite prospects such as Lyons would probably spend every waking hour doing something football-related to improve their game. That wasn’t Lyons. According to Smith, he worked 30 hours per week at a Wawa where his mother was a manager to help support his family.

Football is the sport that he plays, but it’s not the only thing that defines him.

“A lot of kids treat football like a business to get to college,” Smith said. “That’s not how Jamari treats it. He treats it like a game, like a kid that wakes up on Christmas morning and is about to unwrap a present. He’s excited, he’s fun, and it’s still a game to him.”

Lyons, 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, should provide the Gators with an intriguing set of pass-rushing skills. He’s fast and athletic for somebody his size, and he also threw the discus and shot put for Viera’s track and field team, which shows you how strong he is.

“I feel like I’m really good at pass rushing,” he said. “I can get to the quarterback probably better than anybody. I feel like I’m going to make you have to block me. You have to double-team me. It’s always going to be a mismatch against me.”

Lyons admits, though, that his pass-rushing repertoire is somewhat limited at the moment. His best two pass-rushing moves are the bullrush and the armbar. For him to become the best player he can be, he’s going to need to diversify his game.

Another one of Lyons’ strengths is his versatility. He has the size and speed combination to play pretty much any spot along the defensive front. He would prefer to play inside at tackle at some point, but the coaches have told him that he’ll start out at defensive end this fall.

Smith said that Lyons reminds him of former Gators national-championship-winning defensive lineman Joe Cohen, whom Smith coached at Palm Bay High School as an assistant in the early 2000s.

“You’ve got a very explosive off the three-point stance individual,” Smith said. “His ability to chase down the football from behind is phenomenal, but, at the point of attack, he’s also big and strong enough to where you can’t move him off the ball. He plays with a high energetic motor and is a very good pass-rusher.

“He hates losing more than he loves winning. Everybody loves to win, but you’ve got to hate to lose. He’s the type of individual who hates losing so much that, when you feel the chips are down and you need a big play, he’s the guy that’s going to come up with that big play because of his hatred for losing.”

Though he wasn’t an early-enrollee, he should have a chance to be one of the most impactful freshmen on the Gators this season. You can’t teach the athleticism and pass-rushing instincts that he has, and UF doesn’t have a ton of depth at strongside defensive end behind Princely Umanmielen. Tyreak Sapp, Justus Boone and Chris McClellan will likely be his biggest competitors for playing time.

Smith anticipates that there will be a learning curve for Lyons, but, eventually, he thinks that he’ll have a bright future.

“I have no doubt that he has a chance to get paid to play this game in the NFL; that should be his long-term goal,” Smith said. “I think he works himself into getting reps early as a freshman and contributing to pass-rushing possibly, at least getting a handful of reps each game as a rotator. By his sophomore year, he should be a solid starter for the Gators.”

Ethan Hughes
Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and also wrote for for two years before joining Gator Country in 2021. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. You can follow him on Twitter @ethanhughes97.