Auburn, Ala.--With the game on the line Thursday night at South Carolina the Gamecocks had the match up they wanted with Sidney Rice against Auburn's Patrick Lee. Unknown to Steve Spurrier and his troops though is that is also the match up defensive coordinator Will Muschamp wanted.
Auburn's biggest cornerback, the 6-1 Lee muscled up and knocked the ball away from Rice to end the game and preserve the Auburn victory. It was yet another good play from the junior that has come on strong this season for the Tigers' defense. Muschamp says that without Jonathan Wilhite they were counting on Lee to deliver and he came up big.
"Pat played outstanding," Muschamp says. "He played really well in the throwing game. He's a guy who can play vertically downfield and judge the ball well. Obviously the big play on fourth down was an outstanding play. He had several opportunities to in man coverage. We played a good bit of man in the game and he did an outstanding job."
For Lee this was a day that he thought might never come. Stuck down the depth chart and struggling with injuries in 2005, Lee could never catch the attention of then defensive coordinator David Gibbs. Miserable and wanting to catch a break, Lee got just that when Muschamp arrived on the scene.
"Things have progressed a lot," Lee says. "Last year during the season I was hurt a lot. My knee was messing with me and I fell on the depth chart. I still knew what was going on though. I had to go to the doctor in Birmingham to get it checked out. It's way better now. I don't even feel it that much.
"When I started understanding his defense basically," Lee adds of when he knew Muschamp was a good fit for him. "I understand what he was doing and why we run this and why we run that. I was asking questions and he understands I was trying to know it. It was a big breath (of fresh air)."
Mushchamp hugs Lee following his game saving play against South Carolina.
Last season wasn't the first time Lee had second thoughts on being a Tiger. A native of Miami, Lee struggled with the transition to life in a small Alabama town and says it was tough to handle early in his career. "It's very hard and everybody thinks about leaving at first because they're not playing," Lee says. "These freshmen are going through it now. You just have to look at it and say your time will come."
The time came this season for Lee and he was ready. Learning to fight through the minor injuries that would have sidelined him at one time, Lee says that working with Strength and Conditioning Coach Kevin Yoxall has made him a stronger player on and off the field. He also says that feeling more comfortable in his surroundings has turned his career around.
"Coach (Eddie) Gran is a good recruiting coach," Lee says. "When I was a freshman I said ‘I shouldn't have ever come here' but now I'm comfortable. It just feels like home. Almost like Miami but it's not Miami. It's a very hard adjustment. This is just the country up here. Everybody is talking slow and now when I go back home everybody thinks I'm country."
Currently Lee is tied for ninth on the Auburn team with 14 tackles and has broken up three passes this season. A very athletic player that is known for having one of the best vertical leaps on the team, Lee's energy on the field is often times matched by Muschamp's, something he says he enjoys.
"He's aggressive," Lee says of Muschamp. "That makes it fun. When you make a good play and come to the sideline you're going to get open arms from him. He's going to jump on you and hype you up basically."
With Wilhite expected back this week for Arkansas, Lee will once again become Auburn's "third starter" at cornerback because Muschamp says he earned that right early in two-a-days. Working to improve his craft, Lee has improved by leaps and bounds since the start of fall practice and Muschamp says his best football is ahead of him.
"In the spring," Muschamp says. "He's got tremendous ball skills down the field. He can judge the ball and play the ball. He's a big corner and a guy that can play the ball down the field. He's got great vertical speed. He's gotten tougher and he's been more competitive and consistent. Those are the things we told him after the spring we felt like he needed to do. He's done that and he's answered the call every time we called on him."