Thursday, November 19, 2015

Lee hoping for special home finale at UConn

Other than two-time captain Marquise Vann there might not be a more vocal member of UConn's senior class than reserve safety and special-teams dynamo Junior Lee.

So with the Huskies preparing for Saturday's huge showdown with undefeated Houston in a game that doubles as the final home game for the seniors, I felt it was a perfect time to catch up with Lee at practice a couple days ago and I don't regret that decision one bit as he set the scene better than I ever could have.

"You can't ask for anything better, since we have been here for five years we want to end it off great with a win against a top 15 team and also go to a bowl game so that is what we have been thinking of," Lee said.

"We are going to take it all in, Husky Walk, walking into the locker room, touching that Husky head, remembering what it is like as freshmen coming in, We will be remembering this moment that we are going to have leaving. It is going to be most memorable ever coming in against a top 15 team in the nation, that is something you want to end your senior season with, something you want to come up with a win and go to a bowl game. It is definitely something we are looking at."

Lee opened some eyes as a special teams performer in his first two seasons but the arrival of head coach Bob Diaco and defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter has paved the way for Lee to make an impact on defense as well. Poindexter's defense utilizes the backups on a regular basis so while Lee hasn't seen as many snaps as starting safeties Andrew Adams and Obi Melifonwu, he is certainly out there quite a bit on a week to week basis. Lee had a career-high 22 tackles last season and is at 17 stops this year.

"I feel great about the role, they ask us to do a while bunch of things, they put me in a position where I can succeed at whatever they ask me to do," Lee said. "I feel a lot more (comfortable) within the defense, some of the things I do I feel like I am very much capable of doing them. I have become a lot smarter watching film, reading concepts and things like that so they put me in a position where I learned more and got a better experience out of it.

"Special teams is something people always overlook, I went out there made plays left and right and coaches starting noticing that we need to put him in more so that really raised my participation up."

Lee is a leader on the kickoff and punt coverage teams

Houston ranks in the top 30 in both kickoff and punt returns with a touchdown on both a kickoff and punt return so UConn's coverage units that rank 30th on kickoff returns and ninth on punt returns will be tested.

"We are very aggressive on the coverage teams,  we have been able to run down there, hit people back and make a lot of tackles on the 20 yard line, 10 year line on kickoffs," Lee said. "On punt coverage nobody has been able to get punt returns on us and that is something we have been grateful for as well. Houston, they have been getting a lot of returns and they have great returners back there so we are going to have to continue to do that to stop that (against) Houston."

Lee and Brice McAllister are among the most consistent playmakers on special teams and Lee said there is nothing quite like the feeling that comes with a huge hit while covering a kickoff or punt return.

"You have a home game on opening kickoff, you go out there lay this dude out, helmet going off, that rolls everything into play even the offense, the quarterback feels, everybody gets the electricity out on the first hit," Lee said. "You go out on the opening kickoff and you want to make a statement, that is how you make a statement."

Lee was one of 16 players to sign with the Huskies back in February of 2011, seven have moved on while Deshon Foxx played as a true freshman and his four-year run ended a season ago leaving just eight of the 2011 signees with the program.

"This is where you distribute the boys from men," Lee said, "You get a whole bunch of guys here especially my freshman year when I was recruited by Edsall and it came to a point where we were going through a period where we were running through coaches You find out the boys from men, who quit on us and who is staying there fight through the storm, staying with the team. I was one of those guys as well as the seniors who are here with me now, they are very proud of being UConn Huskies and staying UConn Huskies through the mud and through everything we have been through.

"We have always been close. Me and Julian (Campenni, UConn's senior defensive lineman and team captain) have been roommates since freshman year, we have stayed roommates, always hung out with each other wherever we have went and that is how all of our senior class has been. We have always been close together, we always looked at each other as brothers, when we first came in we saw each other as teammates now we see each others as brothers and family that we will always remember and keep in contact with each other."

When adding in Graham Stewart, who played at Florida as a freshman, Tyler Samra (who played as a true freshman in 2012) and three either walk-ons or former walk-ons, there will be 13 seniors suiting up for the final time on Saturday.

UConn is being creative in an attempt to pack Rentschler Field for Saturday's game (3:30 p.m., ESPNU) including offering $15 tickets to people with ticket stubs from Saturday's men's basketball game against Furman. When I asked on Tuesday, the ticket sale number was in the 23,000-24,000 range.



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