Elijah Lee is on pace to make 99 tackles. That would be enough for the junior linebacker to finish the year as Kansas State’s leading tackler and to satisfy the goals he set for himself last summer.
Still, he wants more.
Now that he has seen what he is capable of – 33 tackles, one sack and one interception in K-State’s first four games – Lee isn’t content simply maintaining his current level of play. That’s why Lee chose not to celebrate when he was named Big 12 defensive player of the week on Monday.
“I want another one,” Lee said. “That is something I am going into this week pushing for.”
Lee figures to be a fixture on the award circuit coming off his strong showing against West Virginia, in which he led the Wildcats with 14 tackles and an interception. He is the leading tackler on one of the nation’s top statistical defenses, and he is showing no signs of stopping.
As a freshman, Lee surprised many by many by carving out an immediate role and finishing with 19 tackles. As a sophomore, he took a big step forward and led the team with 80. As a junior, he hoped for 100 or more tackles and a handful of turnovers.
His goals keep getting bigger, and so does his play.
“It’s been a steady progression,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “He is learning the defense better, learning more about offenses, having more practice repetitions and consequently improving day by day. He’s committed to making that kind of improvement. He likes the idea of being a quality player.”
It’s what he aims for.
Lee keeps himself motivated by posting his statistics on his bedroom wall, not as a shrine to past achievements, but as a reminder of the production he needs to increase.
“My expectations are just to do better than I did last year,” Lee said. “I have my stats on my wall and my stats up from last year. They weren’t the best. I try to improve each game and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to do better this week, because this week last year I didn’t do as well.’ Just going into a game and having those expectations that you’re going to do well, and just having that confidence to know you’re doing well will help and carry you a long way.”
Lee also stays driven by thinking of his high school recruitment. Though he was a sought-after prospect at Blue Springs (Mo.), he felt like an afterthought compared to K-State running back Dalvin Warmack and former teammate Kaleb Prewett.
He has been far and away the top college player of the trio, but that means little to him.
“I went unnoticed and had to live in the shadow of my two high school teammates,” Lee said. “That is something I carry on my back every day. Everybody overlooked me. I was the guy everyone said wasn’t going to pan out. I just go into every practice thinking there are people who doubted me and I have to prove them wrong.”
Lee has become so dependable that members of K-State’s defensive line view him as a safety net.
Their goal is to blow up plays before they get started in the backfield, but if they miss they can take solace knowing that Lee is there to back them up. A running back breaking free for a colossal gain against K-State has become a rare sight.
“He has made several tackles that saved us, that maybe could have been touchdowns,” defensive end Jordan Willis said. “They were difficult tackles in space, but he made them. I like his growth. He is continuing to grow and I think you are going to see bigger things from him in the future.”
Lee has improved in many areas since enrolling at K-State. He is faster than he was in high school and he has gained significant muscle. But his biggest step forward has come on the mental side.
He approaches the game with more passion and poise than he did even a year ago.
He has learned to always want more.
“I feel a lot more confident than I was last year,” Lee said. “There were some times I doubted myself, but my coaches and teammates tell me I have these capabilities and the sky is the limit. I try to live up to that every game. You never know what plays you can make until you try.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett