MANHATTAN – Elijah Lee is proud of what he accomplished as a freshman, but the Kansas State linebacker is careful not to reminisce about the past.
He knows that will not help him as he looks to advance his college football career.
Sure, he surpassed everyone’s expectations last season, including his own, by making 19 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks and forcing a fumble months after graduating from Blue Springs (Mo.) High. But he did that as a pass-rush specialist, entering on third-and-long with the specific goal of coming around the edge and creating havoc in the backfield.
As a sophomore, his job will be much different. Now, coaches expect him to contribute on every down as an outside linebacker. That’s a big change.
“The main thing that stood out is just the adjustment of playing linebacker and getting into a bigger role than last year,” Lee said. “You know, last year I was part of a package, and now, this year, I am more involved with the defense. I am learning how to pressure my gap and be more physical. The biggest difference is you have to be in the trenches more.”
Lee is making steady progress in both areas. K-State has not publicly shared any of its spring depth charts, but coach Bill Snyder says Lee has been practicing with the first-team defense.
The expectation, Snyder added, is that Lee will start on the weak side of K-State’s defense in the fall.
“Elijah has good quickness to him and pretty good range,” Snyder said. “He has that characteristic about him. He runs around pretty well and has the experience of last year. That has been beneficial for him.
“Like everybody else, he is still trying to get himself better and he works at it. I see his confidence building and that is always a positive thing, as long as it is an accurate assessment, which in his case it is. He still has a lot of growth to make, but for the most part is playing well.”
It has been a quick rise up the ranks for Lee, who wondered if he might redshirt as a freshman until his main competitor, Charmeachealle Moore, had to sit out the season with an injury and was later granted a medical hardship waiver. The opportunity to play immediately presented itself, and Lee made an immediate impact.
“To be honest, I didn’t really think I would be able to contribute that much,” Lee said. “But once I started to get the feel of how to play in the game, I felt confident. That’s how I played each game.”
Lee showed his confidence quickly, recording a sack on his first college play against Stephen F. Austin. He went on to make at least one tackle in nine games, maxing out at four against UTEP.
Snyder liked what he saw. At 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds, he saw a player worthy of a promotion.
“He is still young and there is a learning curve to it, but I think he has made great strides during the spring to get accustomed to it,” fellow linebacker Will Davis said. “I am excited to watch him play.”
The easiest part about the transition has been providing a pass rush. As a former defensive end, Lee loves playing with his hand on the ground. The hardest part has been moving laterally to make tackles, and backpedaling to cover slot receivers and tight ends. He has no experience with either.
But he focused on improving his side-to-side quickness during winter conditioning drills. He thinks he has made improvement, though there is still much room to grow.
“The biggest challenge is keep your eyes on the receiver instead of the quarterback,” Lee said. “Because a quarterback’s eyes will always lead you the wrong way if you pay attention to him.”
He is learning these tricks now so they are not an issue when the season begins. His freshman year was a success, but he won’t be happy unless his sophomore year is better.