Long way back for Vols' Kyler Football: The receiver from Baltimore battles to regain his team's trust after a costly mistake got him suspended.

September 21, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Even though Greg Kyler is the fastest player on the University of Tennessee football team, he is still something of a secret weapon. He hasn't built his reputation up to where he draws double coverage, and he doesn't get quite enough balls thrown his way to put up big numbers.

But his teammates know what Kyler is capable of.

At least one of them says today's game between the second-ranked Volunteers and fourth-ranked Florida at Neyland Stadium could be the showcase in which the redshirt sophomore wide receiver from Baltimore introduces himself to the rest of the country.

"I think it can be a really big game for him," said Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning.

It is an opportunity that almost never came, considering what happened here one night last February. Kyler and teammate Anthony Hampton were charged with assaulting a part-time member of the school's athletic training staff.

Both players were suspended from the university and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service. Kyler returned home and spent the 2 1/2 weeks working with cancer patients at the University of Maryland Medical Center. He considered not returning to Tennessee, and even looked into the possibility of finishing his college career in College Park.

"I had a lot of doubts [about returning] at the time," Kyler said here this week. "I didn't think the coaches and the guys on the team would trust me again. I didn't think they would stick with me."

Hampton was later suspended for the 1996 season by Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer for an undisclosed violation of team rules, while Kyler sat out spring practice and the team's opening game against Nevada-Las Vegas. The missed practice time cost Kyler a chance to be a regular in Tennessee's three-receiver set. He returned Sept. 7 against UCLA, catching one pass for 11 yards in a 35-20 victory.

Kyler doesn't like to talk about his role in the assault, which he said was precipitated by an argument between Hampton and the victim. Though he often questions why he jumped into the fight instead of trying to stop it, Kyler blames only himself for his involvement.

"It was a mistake, a big mistake on my part," he said. "It set me back some, as far as being counted on. Now I'm trying to get that back."

Some might say the penalty he paid wasn't enough for what was reported to be a savage beating -- the victim had to be hospitalized -- but Fulmer said he was told that Kyler's role wasn't nearly that of Hampton's, and his past record for good citizenship certainly came into play.

"At first I didn't believe it was Greg -- surprise would be the appropriate word," said Fulmer. "I believe in Greg Kyler as a person."

If his coach was surprised, his mother was stunned. Lisa Kyler said that she never had any problems from the oldest of her three children when he was growing up in Cherry Hill.

"From what he told me, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time," she said yesterday. "He's worked too hard to get where he is to have it taken away. I told him that when he went back he should be aware of who he's with. It's so easy to get into trouble."

The incident also came at a time when Kyler was struggling academically as a mechanical engineering major. Despite a strong academic background coming out of Poly, Kyler said he was not prepared for the time he needed to spend studying for his classes. He wound up switching his major to child psychology and raising his GPA from 1.8 last winter to 2.96 in the spring semester.

On the field, it seems only a matter of time before Kyler moves back ahead of another redshirt sophomore, Peerless Price, in Tennessee's rotation of receivers. Last season, Kyler had 21 catches for 287 yards and one touchdown.

"Knowing that you have a guy with more experience playing behind one of the regulars is an extremely comfortable feeling," said receivers coach Pat Washington, a former quarterback who started in the same Auburn backfield with Bo Jackson. "I think he's going to do really well for us."

Kyler, who has also run some track at Tennessee, is trying to remain patient, trying to put the incident from last winter behind him.

"I see a world of opportunity here," he said.

Gators vs. Vols

Who: No. 4 Florida vs. No. 2 Tennessee

Where: Knoxville, Tenn.

Time: 3: 30 p.m.

Line: Tenn. by 3

TV: 13,9

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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