The Chaney High graduate is a finalist for three major awards this fall.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN — When Keilen Dykes first stepped on the practice field at the University of West Virginia, he looked around and couldn’t believe the size of his teammates.
“I thought, ‘These cats are big,’” said Dykes, a Chaney High graduate. “But after a while, we started hitting and I got used to it.”
That was four years and 60 pounds ago. Now Dykes is the guy people gawk at.
“Steak and potatoes,” he said, laughing.
Dykes (6-5, 302) was a first-team all-Big East selection on the defensive line last year. After testing the NFL draft waters — he was projected as a fifth-round pick — Dykes opted to return to Morgantown this fall for a chance at a national title.
“I’ve been truly blessed,” said Dykes, who was back in Youngstown this week as a guest instructor at the Ursuline Fighting Irish skills camp. “The program is on the up and up, we’re on national TV for Thursday night games, we’ve got two Heisman Trophy candidates on the team. ...
“It’s just been a great fit for me.”
Glad to come home
Dykes spends most of his time on campus — he’s taking summer classes and is set to graduate with a degree in athletic coaching education in December — but when the Mountaineers got the week off, he jumped at the chance to return home.
“There’s nothing like home,” he said. “I’m just trying to chill out and relax.”
His father, James, was with him on Thursday. James, who played safety and running back at Girard High years ago, hasn’t missed one of his son’s games since Keilen was playing pee-wee football.
In addition to attending every West Virginia game (home and away), the elder Dykes also makes the 21⁄2-hour trip to Morgantown several times a year just to visit.
The younger Dykes is a finalist for three major awards this fall: the Lombardi Award (given to the nation’s top lineman), and both the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards (given to the nation’s top defensive player), something that amazes his father.
“It feels great because you know he’s a part of you,” said James. “It’s such an honor.”
Dykes was credited with 32 tackles, including 51⁄2 for losses, and three sacks for West Virginia last fall, helping the team to an 11-2 record and a Gator Bowl victory. He was an all-Ohio lineman at Chaney and basically had his pick of colleges to attend. He chose Morgantown both for the competition (the Mountaineers won Big East titles from 2003-05) and the location.
Better and stronger
He’s gotten better each season. He’s also gotten stronger each season — Dykes has benched 525 pounds and recently earned the Iron Mountaineer Award, given to the player who excels in the winter workout program.
“I try to carry [my weight] well,” he said. “At West Virginia, we do a lot of fast-paced stuff, so you’ve gotta be slim and keep running.”
In addition to getting stronger, Dykes has become a better player technically, from film study to his hand placement.
“It’s the little things that make you better,” he said. “If I knew half the stuff [in high school] that I know now ... wow.
“I feel like I can come back and be a high school coach right now.”
Although Dykes has dreamed of being an NFL player since he was little, there was little question he was going to return for his senior year. Like most top juniors, he filed papers with the league after the season to gauge where he would be picked in the draft. When he heard he’d be a second-day pick (rounds 4-7), the choice was easy.
“A lot of second-day juniors don’t even get drafted,” he said. “Plus, we have a lot of good players coming back.”
White, Slaton are back
The most notable are quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton, who are both expected to be top Heisman candidates this fall and NFL draft picks next April.
The Mountaineers have sent plenty of players to the next level, but two have received more attention recently for their legal problems: Titans defensive Adam “Pacman” Jones, who is serving a one-year suspension due to legal trouble and Bengals wideout Chris Henry, who has an eight-game suspension.
“Those two guys always worked hard when they were in Morgantown,” said Dykes. “Nobody practiced harder than Chris Henry. He never came in hurt, he lifted, he ran. He did everything he needed.
“When they got around money, they got in trouble. But here in West Virginia, they were good people.”
As for Dykes’ career, he plans to model himself after another of his former teammates: former Chaney quarterback Brad Smith, who is now in the NFL with the New York Jets.
“Brad’s a great guy and a great player,” said Dykes.