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Slimmer Lyles helps Southeast's power defense
Maurice "Ju-Ju" Lyles sometimes dreams of returning to his old eating habits.
"I see my friends with these fat plates of food," Southeast Missouri State's jovial senior defensive tackle said with a laugh. "It's really tempting to go back to how I used to eat."
Lyles has been resisting the temptation since early in the summer, when he tipped the scales at 319 pounds but decided that was not beneficial to him or the team.
"I knew if I lost weight it would make me a better player," Lyles said.
Now checking in at an almost svelte 281 pounds, Lyles is playing some of the best football of his career for the surprising Redhawks, who are No. 13 nationally for their highest ranking since joining the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, in 1991.
"He's playing hard. He's doing a lot of good things," said Southeast coach Tony Samuel, whose squad is 6-1 overall and a first-place 5-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference while riding a six-game winning streak. "He's a lot quicker. His stamina seems so much better with the weight loss, but he's still strong."
The 6-foot-2 Lyles, from Jersey City, N.J., said changing his eating habits has been the key in his goal to return to his high school playing weight.
"I watch what I eat, make sure I don't eat in the middle of the night," Lyles said. "It's just being focused on what I really wanted.
"I always wanted to get back to what I played at in high school, about 275 or 280. I'm quicker and faster, I can play longer, but I'm also still strong."
Lyles, who has started all seven games, ranks second on the team with five tackles for loss among his 17 total tackles.
Lyles also had a solid junior season, starting all 11 games and recovering a team-high three fumbles to tie for second in the OVC. He had 29 tackles, including 1.5 for loss and his only career sack.
That came after Lyles saw action in all 12 games as a sophomore, including one start, and played in nine games as a true freshman.
"He's done some good things since he's been here, but you can tell a big difference now," Samuel said.
Lyles has been part of a vastly improved unit that is tied for first in the OVC in scoring defense (20 points per game), while ranking second in total defense (309.4 yards per game) and rushing defense (145 yards per game).
"Our defense is really flying around, really focused," Lyles said. "And we're getting so much help from the offense."
Lyles, one of seven New Jersey products on Southeast's roster, is from Samuel's hometown of Jersey City. He said that played a part in his decision to attend Southeast, but it wasn't the biggest factor.
"That had a little bit to do with it, but ultimately it was to better myself," Lyles said. "I knew I had to get away [from the rough area where he grew up] and I didn't have too many schools to pick from."
Lyles hasn't regretted his decision.
"I'm really happy with the way things have worked out," said Lyles, majoring in general studies with a mass communications/broadcast emphasis and on track to graduate this summer. "I've met a whole lot of cool people.
"When you come to college, there are people from everywhere. I'll have friends I can go visit for the rest of my life."
Lyles' weight loss isn't the only change he made in his appearance. He cut his trademark dreadlocks over the summer, which he jokingly said helped him shed a few pounds as well.
"I've been growing my hair since my freshman year in high school, about eight years," Lyles said. "It was really time for a change."
As for his nickname, that almost goes back to birth.
"My brother is three years older than me. He was born deaf in one ear and had speech issues," Lyles said. "When I was born he couldn't say my middle name, Justin, so he started calling me Ju-Ju.
"Nobody calls me Maurice or Justin, not back home and not here. Everybody knows me as Ju-Ju."
No matter what name Lyles goes by, Samuel said he's been a major asset to Southeast's program on and off the field.
"He's a great kid, fun loving, always has a smile on his face," Samuel said.
These days it's especially easy for Lyles to smile. He's relishing Southeast's sudden success after the Redhawks won a total of nine games -- including just four OVC victories -- during his first three years.
"It's crazy. All you really dream about is winning," Lyles said.
But Lyles isn't surprised by the transformation.
"Not too much because we really worked hard this offseason," he said. "Everybody stayed around in the summer. We've worked hard toward our goals."
While the Redhawks already are assured of their first winning season since 2002 and just their third on the FCS level, Lyles said they still have plenty of goals to accomplish, namely the program's first OVC title and playoff berth.
"If we work hard and take it day by day, everything is possible," Lyles said.