TUSCALOOSA — After shaking off an initial block attempt from Osirus Mitchell, Shane Lee kept his eyes fixated on Mississippi State’s Tommy Stevens as the senior quarterback took a two-step drop before firing his first pass of the game … right at Lee.
Alabama’s true freshman middle linebacker barely had time to react before the ball was tucked safely against his chest, at which point the 6-foot, 245-pound Lee quickly began running toward the end zone 30 yards in front of him.
“He’s understanding what offenses are trying to do better, and he found himself right in the passing lane,” Lee’s high school coach, Henry Russell of St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, said Thursday. “I think the quarterback thought (Lee) would keep on chasing the ‘back and he sat there in the throwing lane and boom, the ball hits him right in his hands.”
Stevens, realizing his mistake almost as soon as it occurred, tackled Lee at the 20-yard line.
Tua Tagovailoa turned the mistake into a touchdown with a 19-yard pass to Najee Harris to give Alabama a 14-0 lead barely two minutes into the game.
"That was big. First drive out and you go get an interception,” Alabama senior safety Jared Mayden said. “That's probably something that also helped him calm down. Once you realize you can really play with everybody in the league, now you're just getting to the thinking part."
Lee’s interception was just the start of what was his best all-around performance at Alabama, racking up a game- and season-high 10 tackles and helping spearhead a bounce-back effort by a Crimson Tide defense that limited the host Bulldogs to just 82 passing yards.
Alabama coach Nick Saban agreed it was one of Lee’s top games.
“We still have the occasional mental error by some of the younger guys that shows up, but I thought this was his best performance, most consistent game and I see him sort of starting to develop confidence in what we’re asking him to do and how he’s going about doing it on a consistent basis,” Saban said.
Still less than a year removed from playing his final high school game for St. Frances, the 18-year-old Lee has already established himself as a key figure in the center of Alabama’s defense — both for its future and present — after working through early-season growing pains.
“He looks a lot more comfortable to me, making the calls, and I think he’s adjusted well to the speed of the game,” Russell said of Lee.
Lee, who has started all 10 games this season at the pivotal Mike/middle linebacker spot in place of preseason All-American and Butkus Award contender Dylan Moses, was initially thrust into duty after a series of preseason injuries decimated the Crimson Tide roster in mid-August. Lee is one of six true freshmen to have started multiple games for the Tide defense this season, including Will/weakside linebacker Christian Harris, who stepped into the starting role beside Lee following a similar ACL knee injury to fifth-year senior Joshua McMillon.
Despite his youth, Lee has been one of Alabama’s most consistent defensive playmakers, ranking third on the team and 20th in the SEC with 63 total tackles, just one behind redshirt senior outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings, to go along with 5½ tackles for loss and 3½ sacks, three quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and the one interception.
“He’s a really good player even though he’s young,” defensive back Shyheim Carter said. “He’s still got a lot to learn and improve on, but he’s a really good player. He’s a starting linebacker as a freshman and that speaks highly of him.”
As the Mike linebacker, Lee has a lot on his plate, including the responsibility of distributing the play call from defensive coordinator Pete Golding. From there, Lee must make sure everyone is in the correct position to properly defend the play, including adjusting the defensive line setup based on what the offense is showing. And that all has to be done in the 10-15 seconds before the snap of the ball.
“When he’s been in there, he’s really done a good job of communicating, and getting guys lined up and getting the right defense called,” Russell said. “Overall it seems like he’s doing a real good job of that, and putting guys in the right places and making sure everybody’s on the same page of what that defensive call is.”
And while there have been some obvious mistakes, Lee has shown continual growth in his ability to develop and learn from those missteps rather than let it to affect him.
It's in that development that the young rookie has shown flashes of becoming a veteran the rest of his teammates can depend on moving forward.
"I really see the maturity in him, from being all over the place when he was first announced as a starter,” Mayden said of Lee. “(From) a young age, especially with the Alabama defense, it does take a while to learn. … I knew he was overwhelmed (early on) but the coaches helped him learn, we helped him gain confidence in calling, because you do need to call.
“But overall, he's just getting mature. I think now you can see him not being so kind of confused or sporadic. He's come into his own."