When Tyler Sayles initially joined the Navy football team, he was not prepared to play at the Division I level — either in terms of performance or effort.
Sayles realized that relatively quickly and asked defensive line coach Shaun Nua if he could take a redshirt season in order to develop. Nua had to explain to the naïve plebe that it was not possible to redshirt at the Naval Academy.
Four years later, Sayles has evolved into a shining example for how a Navy football player should conduct themselves on and off the field. He has moved into the starting lineup as a senior and performed well while setting a high standard with regard to military and academic responsibilities.
“A special kid who has come a long, long way,” Nua said when asked about Sayles.
“When Tyler first got here he did not know how to work. He would be the first person to tell you that. He did not know how to run to the ball, how to play with effort, how to push himself,” Nua continued. “Now, Tyler is the epitome of what we look for in terms of effort, grit, toughness, work ethic and durability.”
Sayles has started all eight games at right defensive end and quietly enjoyed a solid season, leading all down linemen and ranking fourth on the team with 33 tackles. The 6-foot-2, 257-pounder has notched three tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry while rarely coming out of the game.
“I’m so proud of the player and person Tyler has become. It just goes to show what a player can do if they have the will and the want to,” Nua said. “Tyler wanted to be good and put in the effort to make it happen. He really cared about Navy football and wanted to contribute.”
Sayles served on the scout team as a freshman and played in junior varsity games. The Florida native showed signs of progress toward the end of his sophomore season, appearing in each of the final five games.
In typical Navy football fashion, Sayles emerged as a junior — seeing significant action in all 14 games as a backup to starting defensive ends Amos Mason and Jarvis Polu. He recorded 15 tackles, two sacks and a quarterback hurry.
Navy has a long history of having defenders step up as seniors and Sayles was determined to join that list, adding 15 pounds and considerable strength during the offseason in order to seize the starting spot left vacant by the graduation of Mason.
“Coach Niumat always says to trust in the process and that’s what I’ve done. I’ve just progressed and stepped up each year as the coaching staff has needed me,” Sayles said. “It’s really because of Coach Nua. He is an amazing coach and works really hard to develop every defensive lineman. He truly cares about us as men.”
Sayles learned what it took to play defensive line for Navy by watching predecessors such as Mason, Will Anthony and nose guard Bernie Sarra.
“Growing up watching Bernie, Will and Amos… those guys have such a great work ethic and set such a great example,” Sayles said. “It’s easy to flourish in this system if you just listen to Coach Nua and follow the lead of your older brothers. I can only hope that I can set as good an example as a hard worker and leader for the young guys coming up.”
Sayles had big shoes to fill in replacing Mason, who totaled 14 tackles for loss and four sacks in two seasons as a starter. Nua expected Sayles to cause just as much disruption while working on the right side against the opponent’s left tackle.
“At the beginning of the season, I was nervous because Amos was such a great player. It was a big responsibility, but I was excited about the opportunity. I’ve just tried to play really hard and produce for this defense,” Sayles said. “I’m definitely a lot bigger, a lot stronger and know so much more about the game in general and our defensive in particular. I’m able to play a lot more faster because I understand what the coaching staff wants and know what I’m doing.”
Nua has been pleased with the toughness and determination Sayles has displayed. Navy’s sixth-year defensive line coach knew the senior was athletic with good instincts, but was unsure how he would hold up to playing an increased number of repetitions.
“There are a lot of plays when Tyler is chasing the ball down. There are times when he is double-teamed in the trenches and still finds a way to get out and make a play,” Nua said. “Tyler has exceeded my expectations, but I still believe he can do even more.”
Sayles goes against massive offensive tackles almost every week. This Saturday it will be 6-foot-4, 272-pound Chad Pursely of SMU while next week brings 6-foot-8, 315-pound Mike McGlinchey of Notre Dame.
“Most Navy defensive linemen are undersized so we have to make up for that deficiency with great fundamentals,” Sayles said. “Coach Nua is a tremendous teacher and makes sure we play with great technique – low pad level, tight hands and good footwork.”
Nua uses Sayles as an example for how to play defensive end when teaching youngsters such as Nizaire Cromartie, Joe Goff, Mack Nash and Marcus Edwards. “That’s your goal as a coach — to get the seniors as near to perfection so that when they leave the cycle continues. Now the young guys are all following the lead and example of Sayles,” he said.
Sayles grew up in Coral Springs, Florida, and attended Deerfield High after being admitted to the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. He was a member of the National Honor Society, served as a peer counselor tutoring fellow students in math and volunteered with the Special Olympics.
After serving as team captain and leading Deerfield Beach High to a 10-0 record and district championship as a senior, Sayles considered continuing his football career at a pair of Ivy League programs in Dartmouth and Yale. Percy Sayles, the fire department chief for the City of Tamarac, was not surprised to see his son choose the Naval Academy instead.
“Tyler never took the easy road, no matter what it was. He was looking for the school with the best combination of academics and football, which wound up being Navy,” the elder Sayles said. “Tyler has always been an overachiever and has an inner drive that is hard to explain.”
Percy Sayles knew his son struggled with the transition to Division I football, but fully expected him to wind up being successful.
“As long as I can recall with Tyler, he has always been an effort person. Once Tyler puts his mind to something, he will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals,” said Percy, who has been a firefighter for 22 years and was recently promoted to chief.
Sayles had a homecoming of sorts when Navy played at Florida Atlantic in the season opener. Deerfield Beach is the next town over from Boca Raton while Tamarac is located in the western portion of Broward County. Susan Sayles is a physical therapist with a private practice and organized a contingent of 30 family and friends that attended the Navy-FAU game.
Academics have never been a problem for Tyler Sayles, who boasts a 3.2 grade point average as an economics major. He has excelled at the military aspects of the academy as well, which helped earn early selection to attend the Navy’s Nuclear Power Training Command in Goose Creek, South Carolina.
“I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to study when I got here. Now I’m going into nuclear power. You never know what opportunities this place has in store for you,” Sayles said.
Sayles has service selected submarines, following in the footsteps of former Navy football players Will Anthony and David Gordeuk. He will attend nuclear power school for almost two years before being assigned to a submarine base.
Percy and Susan Sayles are coming to Annapolis this weekend to accompany their son onto the field for the Senior Day ceremony that will be held prior to Saturday’s home game against SMU.
“Last year, watching the seniors go out on the field with their parents — it seemed so far away. It’s hard to believe that all of a sudden my Senior Day is here this week. I don’t know how I’m going to react. I know it’s going to be emotional because I love Navy football and my teammates so much,” Sayles said. “It’s gone by so fast. I’ve really enjoyed my time here. I’m very grateful to this program and the coaching staff for the opportunities I’ve been given. I’m proud that I was able to earn my way to playing on Saturdays.”