From the first drive of his career at Kansas State, Elijah Lee made his name known.
Opening the 2014 season against Stephen F. Austin, it took Lee only six plays to log his first sack. Late in the fourth quarter, he wrapped up the quarterback yet again. That’s what he was expected to do for the Wildcats — be a sack specialist. All he had coming into Manhattan, or at least what was seen in high school, was a quick motor and strength to work around the edge.
A quick look at his past two seasons shows that he’s finding new ways to improve for Bill Snyder
Against Arkansas in the (January) 2016 Liberty Bowl, Lee intercepted a pass from Razorback quarterback Brandon Allen, who had thrown only seven picks prior to that. It was a true statement-making play. Not only is Lee expected to get to the quarterback; he is counted on to make good reads against quarterbacks’ passes, disrupting opposing offenses with his mind as much as his physical prowess.
Of course, two drives — especially two seasons apart — do not make a concrete statement about Lee’s development. It’s purely anecdotal. There’s more substantial evidence why Lee finds himself on the preseason all-conference team with three other K-State defenders.
After those two sacks against SFA, Lee slowed down, notching just 2.5 sacks the rest of the season. The rest of his sacks came against Iowa State, Texas and Kansas. In 2014, that wasn’t saying much — those offensive lines each gave up over two sacks per game. His impact was certainly felt on numerous levels — for instance, he got into QBs’ heads with near-sacks on many occasions — but measurably, his production was best defined by his sack total. His sacks made up over 20 percent of his tackle total, and those were the only tackles for loss he accumulated.
Flip to 2015 as a full-time starter: Lee’s tackle total spiked to 80. Five sacks comprised just over six percent of his tackles. His 66 solo tackles also ranked fourth in the conference and were tied for the best total from a linebacker. Not only did his tackle total and subsequent help against the run increase, but his full-time role also made him better in coverage. Repeated reps sharpened his skill set.
He ended the season with three interceptions, leading the team. Of course, the Wildcats only had two other players log a single interception, but his two picks against TCU stood out; Trevone Boykin threw only 10 interceptions all season. Throwing two to a linebacker previously seen as an edge rusher is particularly striking.
At the moment, Lee seems comparable to Eric Striker, a staple of Oklahoma’s recent defenses (albeit a taller version more true to the typical pass rusher). He’s become a play-maker who can be used rushing the pass as much as working in the secondary. Don’t be surprised to see Lee’s presence rise in a more broadened role.
The Wildcats should have one of the best defenses in the conference if Lee can keep surpassing the hype… just as he has since the first few downs of his career.