Alabama Football: True freshman Shane Lee grew up on the fly

Freshman All-American inside linebacker Shane Lee had to do a lot of growing up on the fly for Alabama football in 2019.

Imagine yourself, a normal, non-Alabama football-playing you, at the age of 18. You’re a freshman in college. You’re excited, you’re a little scared. You’re ready to make your mark, but if you have any ability to self analyze, you realize you’re a little out of your depth.

Now, imagine you go to college for something you’re really good at, but have to do at a level that may be too advanced for you at the moment. Maybe it takes you six months or so to really become acclimated to the way “things are done.” Maybe it clicks for you immediately. Regardless, it’s different.

By the time Shane Lee enrolled at the University of Alabama in January of 2019, the 247Sports Composite (an amalgam of Rivals, ESPN and their own recruiting rankings), had him as the 78th best player in the 2019 class.

Pretty good, right? All the recruiting services liked Lee’s upside and thought he could be successful at the next level. However, the rankings don’t necessarily account for an athlete’s ability to come into a college football program and start from Day 1.

Former five-star offensive tackle Evan Neal wrested the left guard position away from a couple of candidates by fall camp, but it still took him enrolling early for the spring to work to that position. Less-heralded former four-star defensive tackle D.J. Dale won the starting job at nose guard by A-Day, but one could say the lack of depth at the position left an opening.

Like Neal and Dale, Lee came to Tuscaloosa to participate in spring practice. For anyone projected to play the Mike linebacker position, especially for Nick Saban, this is a good plan, because you have five extra months to learn a playbook that is downright Joycean in its heft.

Following A-Day, Lee firmly planted himself in the two-deep behind projected starting inside ‘backers, Dylan Moses and Josh McMillon. McMillon was going to be more of a run-stopping player, but Moses? 2019 was his season and he was going to be a star. Freshmen need not apply.

Of course, we all know what happened next.

McMillon went down with a knee injury following the first Alabama football scrimmage of fall camp, followed by Moses a mere four days out from the first game of the season. McMillon (a fifth-year senior) going down was hard enough, but the staff rationalized putting true freshman Christian Harris in his place because, at the very least, he had Moses to help him along.

But Moses being lost for the year was inconceivable. No one could imagine two true freshmen manning the Mike and Will spots. Being the Mike ‘backer means you’re the nerve center of the defense. The safeties can help out a bit on the back end, but you’re tasked with relaying the call from the coordinator to the entire squad. If there are any audibles from the offense, you have to be studied and experienced enough to change the call for the defense.

Moreover, it’s a Saban defense. This means, you’re the one dictating what the offense is doing. You have to get the call to the defensive back who may be disguising a blitz or the defensive front who shifts left or right an entire gap.

All of this is in the span of 10 seconds, by the way. And lest we forget that you, yourself, must know where you have to be, as well.

Now, imagine yourself doing this in front of 100,000 people and you’re a freakin’ kid! A deer-in-the-headlights, sitting-in-a-high-school-classroom-less-than-a-year-ago kid.

What followed in 2019 went about as expected. Lee and Harris missed assignments in big games. This indirectly led to the worst Alabama football regular-season record since 2010. Lee was tasked with following Joe Burrow (a damn wizard in 2019) wherever he went in the LSU game, along with having to guard the revelatory Tiger running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire one-on-one.

Lee is 6’0″ (maybe) and he weighed around 245 pounds in 2019. If you saw video of him, he didn’t have much bad weight. He was a block. Getting hit by him most likely hurt.

The size of the collegiate inside linebacker has shifted a bit, though.

At his heaviest, Butkus Award winner C.J. Mosley weighed 235 pounds. This is a guy who has a solid two inches on Lee and he still weighs at least ten pounds less. Fellow Butkus-er Reuben Foster, about an inch taller than Lee, famously lost fifteen pounds between his junior and senior seasons because he wanted to play faster.

Without postulating too much, one has to wonder whether Lee may benefit from doing something similar. Mentally, he’s there. Surely, dropping to the 225 range would give Lee all the sideline-to-sideline mobility that he would want.

Statistically, Lee was great. He was second on the team in total tackles with 86 (54 percent of those were solo). He also tallied 6.5 TFLs, to go along with 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. All of this on his way to Freshmen All-American honors.

For perspective, in 2007 true freshman Rolando McClain had 74 total tackles (51 percent solo) with five TFLs, one sack and two picks. And this was against much blander offenses.

However, you read your Twitter timeline or scroll through enough message boards, you would think Shane Lee is undeserving to be on an NAIA team. As a true freshman, Shane Lee started for Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide defense at the most important position and he never folded. He had some good moments to go along with enough bad ones and he still kept playing the next play.

Next: What Saban does better than anyone

Yes, Lee most likely takes a demotion in 2020 following the somewhat unexpected return of Dylan Moses, but his invaluable experience in 2019 allows Alabama football, at the very least, to have the deepest inside linebacker unit in the country next season.

Point being: get off Shane Lee’s back and know he’s going to prove us all wrong in due time.

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