Everyone agrees: He is simply too athletic to keep off the field. Faster than the other quarterbacks, he moved to wide receiver. Tougher than his teammates, he was made captain. More versatile than any other offensive weapon in the Lions’ arsenal, he stepped up when injuries torched the depth chart and led the Lions to victory as receiver, running back, and quarterback—often all at once and often interchangeably.
Now, senior Kyle Castner is positionless, indefinable, and, more importantly, irreplaceable.
Castner joined the team in 2015 as a skinny 6-foot-1 quarterback from Indianapolis, buried on the depth chart behind then-sophomore signal caller Anders Hill, CC ’18. Back home, he was Indiana’s Mr. Football 2014: a Class 6A state champion coming off a record-setting career at Ben Davis High School.
Then he tore his ACL. It happened early on in his first season as a Lion. He never made it onto the field that year.
Castner, despite a productive rehabilitation period and a full recovery, didn’t see the field as a sophomore, either. Hill was too good and considered too important to the program.
2016 spring workouts changed that. Head coach Al Bagnoli and his offensive coaching staff saw Castner dominating speed and explosion drills and asked Castner to move to wide receiver seemingly out of nowhere.
“Doing those shuttle [drills], he was like a 60 million dollar man. He was remade. We said as an offensive staff: ‘What if the day before spring practice starts, we move Kyle?’ He was shocked by it,” offensive coordinator Mark Fabish said. “We called him and he said, ‘Anything to help the team.’”
Once Castner’s chance came, he caught and ran with it.
Growing up a quarterback undoubtedly aided the transition to wideout—Castner admits as much. He had to learn the intricacies of perhaps the most skill-oriented position in football, with his time as a passer helping him master his timing on breaks and giving him an intuitive understanding of how to find holes in zone coverage, as well as when to look for the ball.
“It gave me a one up, [knowing] going into a play what the quarterback sees.” Castner said. “It helps me get leverage on a route and understand what the defense is doing while I’m running the route.”
Castner’s first full season as a wide receiver was solid—interspersed with highlights—but far from dominant.
Through the first six weeks he posted more than four catches in a game only once. Then, he hit a switch. Coming alive down the stretch, he accumulated 97 receiving yards at Yale in the seventh week and caught his first touchdown the following week versus Harvard.
Players still talk about the diving, one-handed 41-yard grab Castner made in New Haven. Senior safety and captain Landon Baty called it one of the best catches he had ever seen.
While his raw statistics as a junior don’t scream “star”—24 receptions for 286 yards with one lone touchdown—Castner became known in the locker room as a workout warrior and leader by example. An offseason player-only vote made him one of four team captains.
“He’s a great leader,” fellow receiver and junior Ronald Smith II said. “He leads by example. He works hard every day—he comes in and doesn’t care what else is going on. He comes in and puts in the work, and he makes everyone else around him want to put in just as much work as he is.”
Defensive backs know him as one of the hardest players on the field to guard because of his explosiveness and wide catch radius. According to Baty, he is nearly impossible to cover in practice because he gets open without the defender realizing and is able to catch anything thrown even remotely in his vicinity.
Despite his skill set and leadership role, Castner entered this season third on the receiver depth chart once again.
Junior wideouts Smith and Josh Wainwright, the 2017 season’s Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year, were slated to be the focal points of a high-flying, post-Hill offense. But Wainwright tore his ACL in week 1, and Smith, after dominating the following two games, has dealt with nagging injuries ever since.
The Lions have been decimated by injuries all season, most significantly at the quarterback position, where six different players have taken snaps.
Castner finally had his chance to be the guy, but after a career-high 112 yards receiving in week 4 against Marist, inconsistent quarterback play limited him to 77 yards combined in weeks 5 to 7.
The coaching staff had to get creative, unable to get the ball to its best available playmaker through the air.
A week 7 play against Yale was the first sign of things to come.
The Light Blue, up seven over the Bulldogs late in the fourth quarter, was facing a 3rd-and-5 situation with a chance to get a first down and run out the clock. On the precipice of a much-needed win, the coaches handed the ball to their best remaining playmaker.
They gave it to Castner, putting him behind center and direct snapping him the ball for a power run play behind the offensive tackle. He picked up just 3 yards on his only touch of the game, forcing a Columbia punt, but the implication was clear: Castner was getting the ball when it mattered.
Week 8 at Harvard continued this trend, with the athletic, 200-pound hybrid starting the game behind center.
He ran for 2 yards on the first play from scrimmage and threw a 13-yard completion on the second.
Over the rest of the game, a Crimson blowout, he caught four passes and ran three more times in short-yardage situations, scoring one of two Lions touchdowns on a 1-yard plunge in the second quarter.
The tone had been set, and Bagnoli knew he had to make a concerted effort to get the ball in Castner’s hands even more. The result was historic: Last week at Brown, after two touchdowns in his prior 18 appearances, Castner accounted for five total touchdowns—two passing and three rushing, tied for the most single-game touchdowns in program history—leading the Lions to their best win of the season.
Castner knew he would get ample touches but noted that he was pleasantly surprised by how much faith the coaches had in his abilities.
“I knew I was gonna come in having to play quarterback, put the glove back on, and go out at wide receiver,” Castner said. “I think it gave us some momentum, gave us some big plays, able to keep the defense on their toes. And I think it worked.”
By Columbia’s second drive, the game plan was clear: Put the ball in Castner’s hands and let him work.
He received 18 snaps behind center, running the ball 15 times for 88 yards and going 2-for-3 passing for 27 yards, both completions hitting pay dirt. He also caught four passes for 48 yards, rounding out his game the way only such a dynamic weapon could.
“Going against him in camp and practice every day, he’s a true talent. That diverse, jack-of-all-trades player,” Baty said. “It’s really hard to defend. He’s a guy that can do everything. Those type of talents don’t come around very often, and I’m just happy that we have him on our team.”
His first touchdown was a 2-yard jump pass to junior tight end Rory Schlageter, a perfect play design against a defense expecting the elusive Castner to simply run straight ahead. The second, a 1-yard leap over a goal line pile up, they saw coming but were powerless to stop.
Castner’s third score was more of the same, a 2-yard grind into the end zone that, after the extra point, gave the Lions a 21-20 lead they would not relinquish.
The fourth echoed his days back in Indianapolis, Mr. Football catching what looked like a screen, waiting, and throwing a laser back across the field into the hands of first-year back Ryan Young, who rumbled for a 25-yard score.
“As far as the number of touchdowns, one can only hope for that performance,” wide receivers coach Todd Gilcrist said. “As far as production and what he is able to do on the field, it was not a surprise at all. If you watch him practice, he practices fast. So when he goes out there on game day and does it, he’s been doing it all week.”
The final end zone venture was the exclamation point, a 4th-and-short much like ones he had failed to convert against Harvard and Yale, that saw him burst untouched through the line and sprint past the shell-shocked Bears for a 31-yard touchdown.
Brown was Castner’s first game with more than nine touches—he had 22. If last week is any indication, he will continue to dominate the ball in Columbia’s last game of the season when Cornell comes to town.
The Lions’ final match—taking place at home—will double as the team’s Senior Day. This will surely be a special moment for the veteran Castner, regardless of whether or not his injury as a first-year will grant him a fifth year of eligibility for next season.
Castner never expected to be in this spot. Born and bred a quarterback, he thought his coaches were crazy when they proposed the position change. Finally comfortable at receiver, he was surprised when they wanted him back behind center.
The captain has never flinched, though. Injuries, position shifts, quiet games—Castner has worked through them all, and Mr. Football, once again, has emerged as the most dynamic player on the field.
“None of this is surprising to us,” Gilcrist said. “That’s Kyle Castner.”