Tyjon Lindsey has never settled in. Not really.
A feeling of disquiet stays with him as defenders rarely can. One moment he thinks of getting into sports broadcasting — or maybe general business — after his days of playing football are over. The next he’s wondering how a person can major in fashion design, especially someone with so many ideas about streetwear for a generation of teenagers and young adults.
One of the country’s top wide receiver prospects in the 2017 class and Nebraska’s highest-rated recruit in six years prefers to call his an “active” childhood. With his father rarely around and his mother often working through drug addiction, Lindsey bounced from home to home, mostly in California. Usually he was with his grandmother and more than a half-dozen of his cousins she adopted. He’s lived with other family members too, and even strangers.
Lindsey knows what it’s like to move around on the football field, sporting the kind of elite athletic ability that lets him blow by defenders in a footrace or shake them with explosive double moves. Off the field, he’s never lived in one place longer than two or three years.
“Learning how to mature on my own has been my biggest challenge,” Lindsey said. “I’ve been on my own since I was a little kid, around 4 years old. From living with my sister, my brother, my grandma, I’ve never been in a stable household. To be able to accomplish the things that I have without some support from my family members is huge for me. It’s really big.”
The consensus four-star standout arrived last week in Nebraska, a place he believes offers structure and will be the home for which he’s always yearned. But while he isn’t the first player to emerge from an unsteady upbringing, most true freshmen don’t arrive on campus with expectations from an entire fan base to produce — and produce a lot.
There’s reason for that optimism. Lindsey’s junior-season highlight tape shows a burner who flashes around the field, making plays in the slot or spread out wide or as a return man. His final offer sheet is just as impressive, including the likes of Alabama, Oklahoma and a school to which he was once committed, Ohio State. His 247Sports composite ranking of .9756 is tops in NU’s class, 50th among all 2017 players and third-highest among incoming Huskers since 2001 behind Aaron Green (.9813 in 2011) and Baker Steinkuhler (.9786 in 2008).
So is Lindsey ready to live up to such lofty hype so soon?
Brendan Radley-Hiles, for one, has no doubts. And he should know: Not only is the 2018 Nebraska commit Lindsey’s cousin, but also one of the nation’s top cornerbacks in his class who has covered his relative on countless occasions.
What’s a little football pressure, Radley-Hiles asks, when Lindsey finally knows where he will be for the next few years?
“If he can get through his day, with what he’s been through, then I can get through mine,” Radley-Hiles said. “We always tell each other, ‘Sleep is for the dead. We’ll sleep when we’re done. Let’s go work.’”
Man on the run
Lindsey didn’t care much for football at first. He quit midway through his second-grade season and didn’t play at all the following year.
Those early games were in Oklahoma, where Lindsey lived for a time with his sister and niece. He played running back that fall and tried different positions — tight end, running back again and quarterback — up until eighth grade. Those 100-yard spaces became home as he grew up in California cities such as Corona, San Diego, Pasadena and Los Angeles, with stops in Tucson, Arizona, and Cleveland mixed in.
“It was either ‘Go to school’ or ‘Get into sports’ to keep me away from the streets,” Lindsey said. “From fourth grade to now, (football) honestly changed my life and the way I am.”
Gayle Jackson-Brown remembers her grandson even then as a confident-yet-humble “fashionista” with a big smile and penchant for collecting tennis shoes. With a house full of grandchildren, she did her best to make sure they stayed away from mischief. Sometimes that meant finding different places to live.
“That’s why I always kept them in sports, so they wouldn’t get involved in trouble,” Jackson-Brown said. “Whenever any gangs started moving into the area, I moved out.”
Lindsey still laughs at the eighth-grade memory of when circumstance forged his football destiny. His California all-star team had added another quarterback named Tate Martell, and both boys went through that first warmup keeping an eye on the other’s progress.
“He started throwing and I was like, ‘Oh dang,’” Lindsey said. “That whole practice I was like, ‘It’s time for me to switch.’”
Martell — who signed with Ohio State this year — hit Lindsey with three touchdown passes in their first game together and both began seeing their names on national recruiting lists. Lindsey received his first of nearly 30 eventual scholarship offers that year from Washington.
The quarterback and receiver connected immediately, so much so that parents Al and Tafi Martell became Lindsey’s legal guardians as they moved Tate to the more prestigious Poway High School in the San Diego suburbs. Following Lindsey’s freshman year, he and the Martells relocated again to prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas.
Lindsey ran wild as a sophomore and junior, totaling 79 receptions for 2,001 yards (25.3 yards per catch) and 29 touchdowns as Gorman won all 29 of its games. By the end, the Gaels featured him on fly sweeps, bubble screens, punts and kickoff returns in addition to regular passing routes. Anything to get him the ball and let him shake free.
“He gets in and out of his breaks faster than anyone we’ve ever had here — very, very explosive,” Gorman offensive coordinator Craig Canfield said. “His quickness is the highest of high. Quick-twitch, we call it. He’s special.”
Canfield said Lindsey’s impact at Nebraska this fall will depend only on how soon he picks up the offense. He should at least be a factor on special teams right away, and if he picks things up quickly — he needed to hear instructions only once before adjusting at Gorman — the 5-foot-9, 190-pound athlete would be an ideal slot receiver. The way he moves inside and out makes him virtually impossible to double team, the coordinator adds.
Some of Lindsey’s most memorable plays for Gorman happened when plans went awry and turned into “playground” situations.
“Somehow Tate would find Tyjon and the first guy would miss him and nobody else would catch him,” Canfield said. “He’s just so, so, so, so special as a receiver.”
Bookie and T-Wayne
Two-One-None. It’s the name of a defensive technique Radley-Hiles learned from fellow cornerback Darnay Holmes during their one year as teammates at Calabasas (California) High School last season, when Holmes was another Nebraska target before eventually signing with UCLA.
The practice calls for the defender to put two hands on the receiver at the line of scrimmage. Once the defender has control, he drops one hand. The second hand can come off when the wideout is contained during his route.
Radley-Hiles has found this to work against every receiver he’s shadowed since. All except his 18-year-old cousin.
“With Tyjon, you can’t put your hands on him. Otherwise he’s gonna blow past you,” Radley-Hiles said. “You can maybe get one out there, but you’re not getting two hands on him.”
The pair played two years together for Gorman before withdrawing from the school on the same day (Lindsey spent the spring semester of his junior year at Corona Centennial before going back to Las Vegas for his senior season while Radley-Hiles migrated to Calabasas for his junior campaign and is set to be a senior at IMG Academy in Florida this fall). They frequently went one-on-one in practices during their shared time with the Gaels as other players conveniently avoided the challenge.
But this was no recreational activity between relatives who have known each other their entire lives. Both teenagers say their on-field family feuds are about more than bragging rights or playing time. They’re about making your brother better, about helping him reach his potential in the name of winning games and — someday, hopefully — making the NFL and providing for those around them.
So “Bookie” (pronounced BOO-key) and “T-Wayne” — their nicknames since childhood — would go at it. Radley-Hiles knows Lindsey prefers his first route to be a vertical, but that he’ll break it off and come back to the ball if he can’t get behind his defender. Lindsey knows Radley-Hiles will try to trick him into a comebacker so he can jump the pass for a knockdown or interception.
“I don’t fear a receiver because there’s really nobody better than him, in my eyes, at the receiver position,” Radley-Hiles said. “He polished my game up. If I could beat him, I could beat anybody.
“He’s quick and he’s smart. He’s well aware of his body language. I would say his body control, his speed and his intelligence are what separate him from all receivers his size. He can control every movement. His routes are so polished. People look down on him because of his height, but that makes no difference in that type of receiver.”
Radley-Hiles and Lindsey still talk most nights about life and football. They dream about getting an apartment together in Lincoln and what they would do in goal-line situations in the Super Bowl. They’ve come a long way since middle school. Radley-Hiles remembers Lindsey always having a smile on his face even while homeless for a short time.
Lindsey left the Martells in the winter of 2015, he said, to allow Tate’s parents to “focus on their son” before he went to college. Radley-Hiles and his mother, Brenda, took T-Wayne in for two semesters — the spring of his sophomore year and the fall of his junior one — as recruiting attention reached an “overwhelming” level for the Gorman playmaker. The cousins even shared a bed and shoes for a time, with Radley-Hiles clearing out half his closet to make room for Lindsey.
All the while, their football battles continued.
“What that actually did is help us become stronger physically and on and off the field,” Lindsey said. “It helped build our relationship even stronger, realizing my cousin wants to get as good as me, get better with me.”
Deep route to Lincoln
Lindsey’s first impression of Nebraska came with a shock.
Amid a growing pile of offers, Lindsey recalls, he met Keith Williams during his spring semester at Corona Centennial in 2016. He remembers specifically because the Cornhuskers’ receivers coach waited more than two weeks to extend him a scholarship.
“Longest ever,” Lindsey said with a laugh.
Williams told Lindsey to call him after practice one day and the younger man expected a sales pitch on Nebraska. What he got instead was a brief message on how far his game still needed to come.
“I was just like, ‘What?’” Lindsey said. “I remember he just hung up and I was like, ‘Oh, he must not want me.’ I tell him that story all the time.”
The two spoke again a week later. Williams, who had initially watched only Lindsey’s seven-on-seven film, was impressed by what he saw in the wideout’s game and character.
“He’s ready. You get that sense by his personality,” Williams said. “I know he’s ready for the spotlight as a young man. He’s not afraid of that. It’s now on what he looks like when he starts playing in college-level situations. He’s gone through adjustments on a personal level and has been able to stay focused and stay driven and stay determined. That part about him is really unique.”
Still, Lindsey committed to Ohio State in August after transferring back to Gorman. He liked the Buckeyes’ on-field success. He liked having family nearby in Cleveland. He liked the idea of sticking with Martell and another prep teammate and U.S. Army All-American, defensive tackle Haskell Garrett.
Meanwhile, injuries derailed his senior season just as it began. He broke his collarbone in his first practice back at Gorman. On the first play of the opening game, he jumped to catch a ball on a post route. As he landed with his legs spread wide, a defender came down on his right knee. Lindsey played for a half before an MRI revealed he had torn cartilage.
Lindsey sat out the rest of the year as Gorman won its eighth consecutive state title. The extra time allowed him to study playbooks, do mental reps and re-evaluate his college situation.
Nebraska started coming back into play, in part because he knew Radley-Hiles had already silently committed to the Huskers. An experience from his official visit also resonated with him: An entire restaurant cleared out while he and a couple of other recruits ate a meal, with people coming back in afterward to ask for pictures and autographs.
A phone conversation with boyhood idol and friend De’Anthony Thomas — a similarly skilled Los Angeles native who played at Oregon and has logged three seasons as a wideout with the Kansas City Chiefs — further nudged Lindsey toward Lincoln.
Thomas’ advice: Make the right decision for you. Don’t just follow a crowd.
In a painful decision Jan. 11, Lindsey publicly decommitted from Ohio State. He pledged to the Big Red three days later.
“I thought if I went to Ohio State I could have been just one of those other guys — you know, they have other four- or five-star guys who will be just fine there,” Lindsey said. “I wanted to be one of those guys who go to a school where they’re surprised why I went there. I want to be the one to help them build their program rather than go to a program that’s already built. (Ohio State) doesn’t need that much help; they’re already set. I want to help build this school up.”
Opportunity awaits, which was another attraction for the former track star who will wear a No. 1 jersey and says he feels as healthy as ever. Nebraska lost 62 percent of its receptions from last season, with only senior De’Mornay Pierson-El and junior Stanley Morgan back as steady contributors. Somebody — or somebodys — will need to step up.
Williams says Nebraska isn’t sure where or how Lindsey will be deployed should he see time on offense this fall. Lindsey figures he will be a “Z” receiver (a slot man playing outside) and is best suited to run “tag” routes where he has freedom to read the field and adjust in certain spots, like providing an outlet for the quarterback if the primary option is covered.
Wherever he is, Lindsey believes he’s found a home.
“I’ve been very mentally prepared for this situation and it’s helped build me more mature,” Lindsey said. “I’ve experienced more things that kids don’t experience my age. My biggest motivation is to put a smile on all my cousins’, my grandma’s, my mother’s, my sister’s face — everybody that supported me.”
firstname.lastname@example.org, 402-525-6970, twitter.com/EvanBlandOWH
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