MANHATTAN, Kan. — Freshmen don’t play much at Kansas State.
It’s not a hard and fast rule, of course. More like a rule of thumb. But that’s the way it’s been in Bill Snyder’s program, where just about every freshman who steps on campus better be ready to redshirt his first season with the hopes of playing the following year.
Elijah Lee was ready to do that, too. But the athletic linebacker from suburban Kansas City has turned out to be the rare exception, playing so well Snyder can’t keep him off the field.
"He is a talented guy," Snyder said. "He runs around and makes plays. He is a bright young fellow. Right now, it is at the level of needing experience. Every repetition he gets in practice, every repetition he gets in a game just adds to his strength."
Oh, that bit about being bright? Yale once recruited him to play basketball.
There was never really a doubt that Lee would stick with football, though. There was never much doubt that he wound up at Kansas State, either. He committed to the Wildcats relatively early in the recruiting process, and then held firm to his commitment when Iowa, Missouri and others tried to pluck him away during his senior season at Blue Springs (Missouri) High School.
That wound up being a good thing for Kansas State.
Lee impressed Snyder and his defensive staff enough during fall camp to warrant playing time in the opener, and he ended up with two sacks in a victory over Stephen F. Austin.
That led to something else rare at Kansas State: acclaim from Snyder for a freshman.
"I do not want that to be the kiss of death for any of them," he said in praising a bunch of newcomers, Lee among them. "They still all have a long way to go."
That is clear in the case of Lee, who has proven his ability to get to the quarterback — he has 3 1/2 sacks this season — but is still learning the nuances of run defense and dropping into pass coverage. But that will come with time and experience.
He’s gotten more of both after Mike Moore sustained a season-ending injury.
"I have become more confident, especially in this game (last week against Texas)," Lee said, "because I got to play more than I usually do because we played our base package."
He’ll do that again Saturday when Kansas State (6-1, 4-0 Big 12) plays Oklahoma State.
While his learning curve remains steep, Lee has already made a believer of the veterans on the Kansas State defense. His never-slow motor combined with raw physical ability is impressive enough, but so is his vast maturity — a rarity for someone fresh out of high school.
"He’s just been a great student of the game," Kansas State defensive back Morgan Burns said. "He’s spent a lot of time with the older guys that have been through the system, asking questions and trying to learn the defense. I think that shows a lot of maturity on his part."
Kansas State linebacker Will Davis praised Lee for his relentless optimism.
"He definitely does not act like a true freshman walking around the complex or at practice. He brings the same mindset that a junior or senior would," Davis said. "I feel like his biggest upside is his maturity that he brings every day. He is never down or out like a normal freshman might be some days after a bad practice or a bad play. He always has a good mindset."
Kansas State has a history of producing talented linebackers, especially in the two-plus decades that Snyder has been in charge. Elijah Alexander and Percell Gaskins started the run in the early 1990s, Mark Simoneau and Ben Lever highlighted a flood of them to the NFL in the early 2000s, and Arthur Brown was a second-round pick of the Ravens last year.
Whether Lee lives up to their lofty standards will be played out over the next few years. But at least for now, the freshman linebacker is off to a good start.
"Elijah has done well. He’s making improvements," Snyder said. "He’s going to be a very fine player. He was good enough as a freshman to move up to the backup role at the onset of the season. The more playing time he gets, the better he gets."