One drive and one play.
After sacking Stephen F. Austin quarterback Zach Conque in his very first play in a K-State uniform, linebacker Elijah Lee opened the eyes of all 52,830 fans in attendance at Bill Snyder Family Stadium for the Wildcat’s 2014-15 season opener on Aug. 30.
But the freshman didn’t stop there; he tallied one more sack in that game and he’s added 1.5 sacks since. He now sits in a second-place tie with former K-State linebacker Mark Simoneau for the most sacks (3.5) as a true freshman.
It didn’t take long after Lee’s arrival to Manhattan last summer from Blue Springs, Missouri for his teammates to take notice of his physical and football attributes.
“He has just been a great student of the game,” junior defensive back Morgan Burns said. “He has spent a lot of time with older guys that have been though the system, asking questions and trying to learn the defense. I think that shows a lot of maturity on his part. I think a lot of freshmen come in and expect that they are going to redshirt and wait a year to play. He just shows a lot of poise on the field.”
Head coach Bill Snyder acknowledged that the season-ending injury to linebacker Charmeachealle Moore played a role in Lee’s presence on the field, but he was more than happy to give the Missouri native an opportunity to play as a freshman.
“Elijah has done well,” Snyder said. “He is making improvements. He is going to be a very fine player. He was good enough as a freshman to move up to the backup role at the onset of the season. The more playing time he gets, the better he gets. I think it is an accumulation of a lot of things. He is a talented guy and he runs around and makes plays. He is a bright young fellow.”
Regardless of how the depth chart set up, Lee was motivated to make his coaches aware of his ability – even if he was only an 18-year-old pass rusher.
“I came in thinking I was going to redshirt,” the freshman linebacker said. “Then, throughout the summer and camp, I decided that if I worked hard there would be no way they could keep me off of the field.”
Playing time became even more realistic for the pass-rushing specialist when linebackers coach Mike Cox asked Lee to step into the first-team defense in a practice before the season started.
“Toward the end (of preseason camp), Coach Cox was like, ‘Ellijah, go in,'” Lee said. “I said, ‘Me?’ because I thought Mike (Moore) and I were just sharing reps and he told me to get out there and it was my turn.”
As soon as word came that he would be able to play as a true freshman and not redshirt, Lee was able to make a phone call he’ll never forget.
“That was the first thing (that happened),” Lee said. “Coach Cox said, ‘Elijah, I want you to call your parents and make sure it’s okay.’ I called my mom because that’s who I’m really close to and I told her. She was hooping and hollering through the phone. I called my dad and he told me that he knew I could do it.”
Life at home has traveled with Lee to the Little Apple, as he said he fields roughly 30 texts and five or six missed calls after each game. With a smile, he said Twitter notifications provide plenty of support from the purple-clad faithful at K-State.
With the positivity came a few negative comments as well, but it has only added fuel to his fire.
“You see all this stuff on social media about how I had this very little chance (to) come and play right away,” Lee said. “I took that in and told myself that I can’t let them guess as to what I was going to be able to do or predict what I was going to be able to do. I try to come out and give my all to show anything is possible.”
As one of three products from Blue Springs High School this year (joined by safety Kaleb Prewett and running back Dalvin Warmack), the trio upholds a strong reputation of football from the Blue Springs version of the Wildcats.
The school has two players currently in the NFL in Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Donald Stephenson and San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. They also have seven players who are currently playing at the NCAA D-I or D-IAA level.
Lee gave credit to high school head coach Kelly Donohoe as a guiding force behind his high school’s program success and carries advice from him to this day.
“He said, ‘Keep your motor going,'” Lee said. “Because when your motor’s going, it’s hard to stop you.”
Sophomore linebacker Will Davis said Lee makes daily impressions with the strength and speed of the above-mentioned motor.
“He definitely does not act like a true freshman walking around the complex or at practice,” Davis said. “He brings the same mindset that a junior or senior would. I feel like his biggest upside is his maturity that he brings every day. He is never down or out like a normal freshman might be some days after a bad practice or a bad play.”
With years of successful linebackers lining the K-State history books, Lee is ready to build upon an already successful first year in Manhattan. Snyder is excited to see what his freshman phenom can offer the rest of this season and beyond – if he keeps up the pace.
“Right now, it is at the level of needing experience,” Snyder said. “Every repetition he gets in practice, every repetition he gets in a game, just adds to his strength.”