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WVU football: With struggles in past, Lee leads No. 2 Tigers

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Jarrett Lee threw 21 touchdown passes during his freshman season at LSU.

Seven of them happened to go to the wrong team.

Lee threw 16 interceptions in 2008 - the sixth-highest total in the country - and seven were returned for touchdowns. It may have gotten worse had an ankle injury in the 11th game not knocked him out for the rest of the season and opened the door for Jordan Jefferson.

Jefferson started all but one game the next two seasons with Lee coming in periodically to fix a problem. This year, Lee has started all three games for the second-ranked Tigers (3-0).

He'll start again in Saturday's 8 p.m. nationally televised game (ABC) at Mountaineer Field against a 16th-ranked West Virginia team (3-0) that had three interceptions and returned one for a touchdown last week against Maryland.

Jefferson is indefinitely suspended for his alleged involvement in a fight last month. Lee is 40-for-59 for 444 yards, three touchdowns and one interception this season.

"I think very much that the success of our team to this point is due to the fact of how strong our quarterback stepped right in and played," Coach Les Miles said.

Lee was 1-for-1 for 5 yards in last season's game against the Mountaineers. He played one possession late during a victory in which Jefferson struggled. He was 10-for-22 with two interceptions.

Lee, a 6-foot-2 fifth-year senior, was 420-for-614 for 5,819 yards and 68 touchdowns during his final two years of high school football in Brenham, Texas. He was among the top prep QBs in the nation and recruited by most of the big schools, including Texas Tech, where WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen was the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator.

Holgorsen knew the West Texas area and knew Lee's father, Stephen, who was an assistant coach at the high school. Holgorsen got to know Lee when was growing up and looked at the quarterback as next in line with Graham Harrell (Texas Tech), Case Keenum (Houston), Kirby Freeman (Miami) and Jevan Snead (Texas/Ole Miss) to come from that area.

"He's in the same mold as those guys," Holgorsen said. "Things didn't work out for him as well as they would have liked early in his career, but based on what kind of kid he is, based on his upbringing, he hung in there and it's good to see him get a chance and take advantage of it."

Holgorsen has watched all of Lee's games this season. He sees Lee playing now like the coach pictured years back - throws are going where they're intended to, he's playing with confidence and looks like he's in charge.

Holgorsen can't help but feel good, though only for a moment.

"I want him to have a really bad game against us," he said. "But for me, knowing his family and all that, it is good to see him out there."

Despite the struggles in 2008 and the fact he and Jefferson were freshmen looking at three years of competition against one another, Lee never transferred. He was valuable from time to time when the Tigers needed him to fill in and he was prepared when Jefferson was given an indefinite suspension.

"Jarrett Lee was always pursing the field as a starter and not any other capacity," Miles said. "He wasn't going to settle on being second team in any way. He came in to compete with Jordan Jefferson and to see if he could be the starter."

His teammates took notice and were impressed, which turned into trust. LSU was No. 4 in both preseason polls with a first-place vote in the media poll and two first-place votes in the coaches' poll. It was clear the Tigers could win a lot of games and were heavily favored to win the SEC championship with their defense, running backs and receivers.

They felt as if none of that changed when Lee came in before the season-opening game against then-No. 3 Oregon. Nothing has changed since the 40-27 victory and Miles marvels at the way Lee leads the Tigers, physically and mentally.

"When you get to the back end of your career, you take all the experiences you have, both the positives and negatives, and you recognize where that little piece is and if you make the decision properly, this really works," Miles said. "If you continue to make those decisions and head in that direction, that's where you want to be.

"You draw on all of those moments and that allows you to step forward and have comfort in different positions and situations each game because of the fact you've already been there. He's played a lot of football and gone up against some great teams and played in a lot of tight quarters and that's allowed him to be a stronger man."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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