Elijah Lee didn’t trust his eyes or ears when Kansas State linebackers coach Mike Cox approached him at the beginning of a preseason practice and instructed him to take the field with the Wildcats’ starting defense.
The freshman linebacker was so surprised by the request that he didn’t immediately oblige.
“I was like, ‘Me?’” Lee said. “He said, ‘Yeah, you. Get out there. It’s your turn.’ I just skyrocketed from there.”
Lee arrived at K-State from Blue Springs over the summer with modest expectations, but you wouldn’t know it based on what he has accomplished in his first seven games. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound defender has done more than emerge as a pass-rush threat, entering the game on third-and-longs to provide pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He has thrived.
His 31/2 sacks are tops on the team and a program record for freshmen.
What’s more, coaches showed enough confidence in Lee last week to occasionally use him on first and second downs against Texas. Three months ago, he wasn’t sure how long it would take him to adjust to the daily demands of college football. Now it might not be long before he becomes an every-down defender.
“I have grown more confident, and now I don’t think of myself as a freshman,” Lee said.
Perhaps the confidence should have been there all along.
“When he first came in, I looked at him and immediately thought he could be a player,” K-State linebacker Will Davis said. “Just the way he ran in summer workouts, you could tell this guy has a lot of raw talent. Then coming into camp, he really showed he deserved to be out there. He has shown on Saturdays, too, he belongs out there.”
Lee has easily surpassed expectations at every turn, making a sack on his first college play against Stephen F. Austin and altering the game against Texas with important tackles. The No. 11 Wildcats dominated the Longhorns 23-0, but the score might have been closer without Lee. It was Lee who pushed Texas out of field-goal range in the first half by sacking Tyrone Swoopes nine yards behind the line of scrimmage.
When the game was over, Lee was bombarded with texts and voice messages from friends. It was his first ESPN highlight. Many had sent him video of the sack. Of course, his teammates were just as complimentary.
“I haven’t seen a lot of athletes like Elijah,” K-State defensive tackle Travis Britz said. “He is just naturally gifted. He is a great asset to this team. He is quick, he is strong for his size. … Now he has gone in there and had 31/2 sacks, which is amazing for a true freshman. He is moving along quite nicely. I have all the faith in the world in him.”
Lee won his teammates over quickly with his humble approach.
Cornerback Morgan Burns recalls Lee asking every senior on the defense for advice in summer workouts, even his main competitor, junior linebacker Charmeachealle Moore. Freshman and upperclassman pushed each other throughout August until Lee won the starting job. Moore likely would have rotated in, but he is out for the season with an injury. Regardless, Lee was ready for the opportunity.
“Most freshmen come in just expecting to redshirt, waiting a few years to get on the field,” Burns said. “That shows a lot of maturity and skill on his part. Not a lot of 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds could get thrown into a Division-I game in front of thousands of fans and perform the way he has.”
Few freshman play for K-State without first sitting out a year with a redshirt. Lee considers it an honor that he is on an accelerated path.
Coach Bill Snyder won’t ask him to slow down anytime soon.
“The more playing time he gets,” Snyder said, “the better he gets.”
Bill Snyder and athletic director John Currie are teaming up to ensure students can attend the Wildcats’ home football game against Kansas on Nov. 29.
They are jointly donating $5,000 to open all K-State residence halls early after Thanksgiving. The game will be played at the end of K-State’s weeklong fall break, when the residence halls would normally be closed. Snyder and Currie are each donating $2,500 to cover the university’s costs to open the residence halls at 1 p.m. on Nov. 28, allowing students to return early to campus.
“Our student body means so very much to our football program,” Snyder said, “and to assist in a way that will help them is the very least that we can do. We have the best student section in the country, one that attends our ballgames each and every week in record fashion, and everyone in our football program appreciates them so very much. We will always do anything we can for them.”
| Kellis Robinett, firstname.lastname@example.org