And given unhealthy trends in quarterback health the last few falls, State's staff has pushed Lee and redshirt freshman Chris Relf to be ready for activation at any point. Lee, the newest man on the depth chart but ironically also the eldest, gets the point.
"The thing about it, one, two, or three is one play away every time. If you're number-two and number-one goes down…" Nothing more needs saying along that line, other than Lee to update the progress of both himself and the whole summer squad. "It's going well. We had a good June, had a few days off, and now we're getting ready for the season. From now on out it's just preparation for the season."
Lee has plenty of prepping left before his first college campaign. Oh, the ability is there. It was at Columbus High School, and again in two outstanding years with Itawamba Community College. And during spring training Lee earned favorable reviews from head coach and offensive coordinator alike for how quickly he fit in. But this is not the same thing as being ready to manage a game. Lee said there is sooooo much still to be learned about this offense.
"It's a lot more technicalities as far as anything I've ever run." Note that: Lee did not talk about the number of plays to learn. He went right to technical issues, which points to a popular mis-conception of his position. It isn't the size of the playbook that new quarterbacks must struggle with. It's knowing what, why, how, who, and when to do what must be done within the context of the base system.
"I think that's the biggest thing," agreed Lee. "When I watched I never knew, but now that I've got into the playbook I can see how it's run. And I can see how people would get that conception, but the thing about it is it's a good offense and if we are willing to make it work on the ground and in the air it can be a great offense."
The reason Lee is convinced he can make this offense work is that he's gotten a head-start. Though not directly recruited and signed to scholarship first, Mississippi State was attracted because not only was Lee local but a December graduate. Meaning he could go right from a second juco season to the spring practice field without a long layoff.
"Oh, it was huge," said Lee of his first semester. "Getting familiar with the guys, getting familiar with the offense. That's one of the biggest things in any sport, especially football, is experience. Spring gave me a chance to get out there and actually run the plays and get accustomed to things going on the field, not just off the field." Though it was obvious Lee became comfortable very quickly with everything on the practice field. He went from walk-on to co-#2 man with Relf, and based on post-camp evaluations really is the second quarterback going into August.
Nor should his seasons with ICC be overlooked, Lee added, in making the mental and emotional adjustment. "I think junior college was priceless. It allowed me to really realize the speed of the game. That's the biggest difference from high school to college, the speed. And junior college prepared me to play. I tell my junior college coach that the very first practice, the first play we ran pretty much looked like a blur! So it's definitely been a help in the transition to here at State."
State is already counting on Lee being a help this season. Not merely as insurance but an active contributor. Oh, and after quipping that a solid spring made the (maybe) 5-11 Lee look much taller, Croom rewarded the walk-on with a scholarship. He earned it by adding a dimension to State's spring attack, showing a knack for rolling-out and either keeping for steady gains or flipping to open eligible receivers. It's not a classic option, of course, nor exactly a free-lancing approach, but definitely the sort of twist this offense has the tools for.
Lee certainly advocates his favorite style of run/throw football. "A lot of people don't realize that once you get outside the pocket as a quarterback it's so much harder on the defense because they have to respect your run, whether it's three or four yards. If you can make plays like that you make the defense have to respect you in the air and on the ground." True. And Lee just seems to have a knack for doing it right. At least, in spring ball he took care of the ball and took what was available without forcing poor throws or turning it over. That, he said, is just how he's played the game all his life.
"I guess it's just a blessing, God has given me a lot. And there is something I think about a quarterback that you can't really give them, just that ‘it.' Sometimes they can do things that you can't really teach them, just maybe in their nature."
The good news for Mississippi State's offense is that sophomore Carroll clearly has already successfully shown ‘it' in the heat of SEC competition. He has the Ws to prove ‘it.' Besides, Carroll knows something about making plays on the run himself as shown in the Liberty Bowl. Then there is Relf, the raw talent still making up for lack of extensive high school experience but with all the potential a quarterback coach could ask. He, too, thrives on the move, though in his case more by tucking and taking off as an extra running back. Yet Relf has a cannon attached to the right shoulder that is getting increasingly accurate.
Lee and Relf do understand their current place in the 2008 scheme of things, that Carroll is #1 and has no intention of stepping down. Nor should he. "Wes did a great job last year," said Lee. "I tell him that all the time, the way he managed and the way they did last year was phenomenal. And this year we plan to be even better. Wes, Chris, and I will all push each other to have a better season than last year.
"I think it's just motivating each other. We all have the same goal in mind, that's winning the SEC West and to make it to Atlanta. And to do that you can't be selfish, we have to realize whoever is ready to do the job at the time, that's who needs to be on the field."
The motivation continues for three more July weeks as the Bulldogs go through the regular rounds of lifting and running. And, going to the practice field for unsupervised sessions that mimic as much as possible game-play situations. Lee knows all about playing pitch-and-catch with receivers of a summer afternoon. This is different, the quarterbacks are doing lots of seven-on-seven stuff to refine the aforementioned technicalities.
"That's one of the biggest things. You can throw one-on-one with your guys all day, but when you get a simulated defense out there covering not just for the quarterback but the wide receivers, you're able to tell what you need to work on a lot more."
One other thing that has been worked on, a lot, by the whole program is setting a mentality. An example this summer is how players conclude their working day. It's not merely with a huddle, prayer, and shouted "Dogs!" Now Dogs clasp hands and half-hug, say something encouraging, and head to the locker room and on to supper. And nothing about it appears forced or faked, no matter how grueling the day's duties.
"And it's got to be like that," Lee said. "You talk about the family atmosphere, that's what championship teams have. You can have good athletes, great athletes, but until you become a tight-knit family, become a unit, there is only so far that you'll go. But with the kind of camaraderie we have right now we've got to expect this season. I'm definitely ready for August to get here."
Which is when Lee will take the next step in his quarterback development. Whether that step means moving up the depth chart, well, the junior is preparing that way.
"I feel we're all working for that number-one spot and whoever gets it will play."