LAWRENCE — Alex Barnes received two rewards for testing Mike Lee’s budding reputation last season.
A few extra inches, and a world of pain.
Barnes, the Kansas State running back, was dashing down the sideline at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, capping another long gain in the annual Sunflower Showdown contest against in-state foe Kansas. Not satisfied with the already large chunk of yards he’d picked up, Barnes lowered his shoulder and attempted to take on the incoming Jayhawk defender.
Torpedoing toward Barnes was Lee, a 5-foot-7, 176-pound then-true freshman safety whose reputation, as Barnes soon found out, was beginning to dwarf his stature.
Lee walloped Barnes and sent him crashing to the sideline where he lay in a heap for several moments, his hands clutched to the sides of his helmet. When Lee returned to the KU sideline, an excited teammate told him he knew it was only a matter of time until Lee made a play like that in the rivalry game.
“No,” Lee responded, “it was going to be that play.”
That play is the one Lee labels his favorite to this point in a college career which, after an up-and-down start, culminated in several postseason honors, including a Freshman All-America nod from Rivals.com.
Car-crash-esque collisions against opponents at Texas Tech, Oklahoma and, yes, even in KU’s own spring game have transformed the former unranked national recruit into one of the faces of a rebuilding program, a likeness which will appear on tickets, programs and giveaway posters in the Jayhawks’ season opener at 6 p.m. Saturday against Southeast Missouri State at Memorial Stadium.
Hits like the one on Barnes have also added to his growing reputation as perhaps the Big 12’s hardest hitter — a highlight reel of Lee’s top freshman moments has eclipsed 124,000 views on YouTube.
But those who have known Lee the longest will tell you it’s always been this way.
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Midwesterners know it as Pop Warner. New Orleanians like Lee and KU associate head coach Tony Hull, though, call it park football, named for the recreational youth leagues played throughout the city’s parks.
That is where Hull first got wind of Lee’s growing reputation.
“Mike came in right after Leonard Fournette left the park, so he’s kind of one of those legends, and the legend that followed him is being a hard-hitter,” said Hull, who coached at Warren Easton High School in New Orleans before joining KU. “He has no awareness for his body. He’s going to throw his body into any adverse situation. So that legend has followed him.”
It followed Lee to Landry-Walker High School, a rival squad to Warren Easton. Hull had a loaded squad there with four eventual Power Five wide receivers, a group so confident it never met to discuss a specific upcoming defensive back.
With one exception, of course.
“When we played Mike Lee and Landry-Walker, they talked religiously about not going across the middle, about watching out for No. 13,” Hull said. “They purposely tried to refrain from going around him, and these guys were reckless. They didn’t care. They weren’t scared of anything. But they definitely took notice of Mike Lee.”
Lee has been the crown jewel secured by Hull in his time recruiting for the KU coaching staff, the most prominent of a so-called “Louisianimal” pipeline that now includes Class of 2018 oral commits Devonta Jason (five-star wide receiver) and Corione Harris (four-star defensive back), both from Landry-Walker.
While Hull can’t talk specifics on unsigned recruits, he does acknowledge the affect Lee has already had in opening that pipeline up.
“I think that’s extremely important to him,” Hull said. “Mike fell into that black hole of not being an SEC-prototype player, and I think he’s bust down a door for kids that usually don’t fit the SEC mold but can be successful at any Power Five school.
“So he’s kind of changed the way people have started recruiting Louisiana, and I think that was very important to him, to set new trails for individuals in the state of Louisiana.”
It may be jarring to read a college coach say a sophomore who has posted 77 tackles, two forced fumbles and one interception across 11 career appearances and eight starts has changed the face of recruiting in a football hotbed like Louisiana, but given his track record recruiting the state, perhaps its best to defer Hull.
It’s certainly not an assessment Lee is going to dispute.
“I got here and did what I did my freshman year, and everybody is talking about Kansas football now (in New Orleans),” Lee said. “Really, I made that happen, so I’m really excited for when I go back home and people talk about Kansas football. That really just makes me smile.”
As for his park football feats, Lee’s memories of that time period are clear — even if the same can’t be said of some of his opponents.
“Ah yeah, they always had they head on a swivel,” Lee said. “Even if they did have they head on a swivel, I still hit ’em.
“If you’re going to play football, you’ve got to get hit. If you don’t get hit, why you playin’ football?”
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David Beaty remembered the hits.
The blur-like images of Lee darting across the field, the cracking sounds of the safety flattening an opponent and the on-field delays that often followed were all fresh in the KU coach’s mind when last season came to a close.
What film of Lee’s freshman campaign showed, though, was less memorable.
“You remember Mike for all those big hits, but if you go put the film on and you watch some other things, you’re like, whoa, hang on now, c’mon,” Beaty said. “I mean, there’s some things that you got to get better at.”
It’s part of why Beaty has admittedly been harsh on Lee in practice this fall, riding the standout secondary player about avoiding a “sophomore flop” season. Lee’s fundamentals have to get better for the second-year player to avoid getting exposed without the safety blanket of playing alongside sure-tackler Fish Smithson, who graduated.
So far, Beaty has been pleased with Lee’s progress.
“When you play as a freshman, all you guys are going to tell him how good he is, everybody in the world is going to tell him how good he is, and the truth is he’s not very good yet,” Beaty said. “But he’s getting there. He is going to be good. He just ain’t good yet.
“Our job is to continue to keep our thumb on him to make sure we don’t let him be less than he’s capable of being. We’re not going to anoint him. … I think he appreciates that. There’s times when he doesn’t. At the end I think he appreciates it.”
A late signee last June who reclassified in time to play in 2016, Lee was behind schedule all season and often found himself simply shadowing senior Tevin Shaw and other teammates when he lost control of what was happening on the field. He said he’s been primarily focused on two things this offseason: learning the playbook, and trading some of his hard-hitting stops for more sure-tackling fundamentals.
Whether he’s mastered that last goal may not be clear until actual in-game action.
“When I get to the defender (in practice) I just touch ’em,” Lee said. “I really don’t want to tackle at practice ’cause I know I’ll probably hurt ’em.”
Despite the confidence dripping out of every quote, Lee is soft-spoken, a player Hull said is the type to lead through infectious energy and enthusiasm in lieu of over-the-top speeches.
“I’m never going to say never, but leading by words is not his cup of tea,” Hull said. “He’s always been one to lead by example.”
What Lee isn’t, for the record, is concerned about regression in Year 2.
“Really, I ain’t gonna worry about no sophomore slump,” Lee said, “because I know what I can do, and really I’m gonna come every game with a lot of energy and bring good performance to the ball, interceptions, forced fumbles. That’s what I’m going to do. I don’t worry about a sophomore slump. I’m just here to play football.”
While Hull respects Beaty and the defensive coaches’ efforts to squash a “sophomore flop,” he said he has “no worries” that a player from Lee’s humble upbringings will develop a big head.
“Mike Lee’s on a mission,” Hull said. “Mike Lee’s on a mission to be successful on and off the field, so he can provide for his family in the upcoming years.”