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80 Days Until Kansas Football: In KU’s Defense – Mike Lee

The hard-hitting safety leads the Jayhawks’ secondary coming into his junior year.

NCAA Football: SE Missouri State at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Despite ranking near the bottom of the country in points given up per game, Kansas has produced professional-level talent in its defense in this decade. This series looks at the current players in the best position to carry on that tradition set by guys like Dorance Armstrong and Ben Heeney.

Kansas’ secondary has not inspired much fear in opponents lately. But if any opposing wide receiver or running back is not looking around for Mike Lee, they’re making a mistake, and have likely learned their lesson by now. Lee has built a reputation as a hard hitter, unafraid to lay out his body to make an offensive player pay for trying to get an extra five yards. Hell, he did this to his own teammate in the 2017 spring game.

That’s a good place to start. Because despite putting up solid numbers, few KU defenders have developed the type of feared persona that makes defensive players stand out in the eyes of opposing coaches and scouts. Few have put fear and intrigue into their eyes, but Lee is steadily working toward that persona.

The Stats

Lee hit the ground running (quite powerfully, as he hits most things) as a freshman, tallying 76 tackles. Of those 76, 69 were solo tackles, which was the fourth most in the Big 12. Alongside the tackles in Lee’s 2016 stat line were an interception, a forced fumble, and three passes defended. He mostly maintained that production as a sophomore—despite leaving the Baylor game with an injury and coming off the bench to end the season against Oklahoma State—with 71 tackles, 59 of which were solo, and two interceptions.

With the addition of Corione Harris and another year of Hasan Defense at corner, it’ll be interesting to see if better cornerback play can help Lee maintain that level of production. If so, he can be on a path similar to Fish Smithson a few years earlier.

The Accolades

The breakout freshman season in 2016 led to Lee being named a Freshman All-American by Rivals, a member of the Athlon Freshman All-America Second Team, and honorable mention for the All Big-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year as voted on by coaches. After being a preseason fourth-team All Big-12 by Athlon as a sophomore, Lee just earned the same recognition in the preseason for 2018. The question this year is if Lee can break through into those top three all-conference teams to build on the hype he received as a freshman.

The Moment

In the first article of this series, I mentioned Dorance Armstrong’s outstanding performance against Texas in 2016. As good as Armstrong was, Lee was potentially better. He tied a career high with 12 tackles, forced a fumble, and made a crucial interception in overtime that helped lead Kansas to victory. And that came after a week he set a career high in tackles (12) against Iowa State.

Lee is a playmaker, who has shown a propensity for coming through in big spots (his first interception of 2017 saved a touchdown in the end zone). And did I mention he hits people hard? The foundation has been set for one of the more productive careers of a secondary player Kansas has had this decade.