"Orie has emerged as a big-time player," OSU coach Mike Gundy said. "I don't really talk much about my guys, but golly, he's come on. He's our player of the game every game. I felt bad when he hit (Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert) in the thigh. I thought he may have dislocated his hip or something.
"When (Gilbert) got up and the crowd cheered, shoot, I wanted to cheer for him, too. Orie got a direct shot on him. That kind of worried me a little bit."
But one thing Gundy doesn't have to worry about it Lemon's decision-making on the field.
The fifth-year senior from Houston is the unquestioned leader of a defense that has improved exponentially in recent weeks, making the No. 10 Cowboys (9-1, 5-1 Big 12) even more formidable as they close in on what could be their first ever South Division title.
And all this is coming from a guy who wasn't even supposed to be on the team.
Lemon's story has been told time-and-time again this season, but now more than ever, his importance to the Cowboys' success is evident to fans, teammates and coaches. Lemon was sidelined for the entire 2009 season with a torn ACL suffered the week before the season opener against Georgia but has emerged as the consummate team leader in 2010 upon his return.
Senior wide receiver Bo Bowling said he feels a special bond with Lemon after both had to sit out what would have been their senior years in 2009.
"Orie is a great guy and an unbelievable football player," Bowling said. "He had to miss last season too and he was feeling the same way I was in trying to get back on the field. Early on it took him a while to get back and there were some young guys playing a lot (making the defense look like an early weakness), but now they're getting some incredible chemistry, they're clicking right now and a lot of the credit goes to Orie."
And the defense, which has played its best football in the past month, is built on youth. There are freshman and sophomore making plays at every turn and Lemon's teammates know how much the senior's presence has impacted the rapid growth.
"He's definitely the heart and soul of our defense," Bowling said. "The young guys are really learning from him, looking up to him and learning to play that level of football. He's an irreplaceable part of this year's team. He's just a huge part of our success and I feel really lucky to be able to call him my teammate."
OSU cornerbacks coach Jason Jones echoed Bowling's feelings on the matter.
"He does a great job with the guys on and off the field," Jones said. "He helps them out, encourages them and tells them what they need to know. Honestly, we couldn't possibly ask for anything more from him from the leadership he's provided for us."
Lemon said he couldn't have predicted the success he and the Cowboys have had but the doubters provided the fuel necessary. The people that questioned his ability to make a full recovery and picked the Cowboys to finish in the conference cellar before the season made the Pokes free to do what they know how to do with the pressure of expectations — play football.
"We're just doing what we love to do," Lemon said. "It's just what we love, not only as a defense, but as a whole team. People had us under the radar, we didn't take it as a bad thing, just motivation. It motivated us to keep working harder and put in the effort every day to outdo our opponents. It didn't matter where: in the weight room, in the film room or on the field.
"For us to have that mindset and for people not to respect us at the beginning has just made us a better team."
Not only are the Cowboys a better team for it, they're one of the best teams to ever play football in Payne County. This Saturday in Lawrence, Kan., OSU will go for its first 10-win season since 1988 and just its fourth ever. It would be the first team the feat had ever been reached during the regular season.
What the Cowboys have been able to do this season has made Lemon take a different standpoint on the injury he suffered on the practice field in 2009.
"It's a blessing," Lemon said. "I was looking forward to last season and getting ready for that to be my senior year and, for me to go out like that, it just really hurt. Now when I look back, it really does feel like it was blessing that it happened. This has been the best thing that's happened to me."
But Lemon didn't always see his injury in such a positive light.
"It was very difficult, I mean, I was a senior and I was supposed to be a leader last year when so much was expected of us," Lemon said. "It was the group of guys I came in with, that was my recruiting class. Everything we went through, all the grind and struggle, I knew I wouldn't get to go out with them on the field. It just hurt so much."
Little did he, or anyone else, know that his injury would ultimately allow him to be a part of a special season on the plains. And of all the accomplishments the team has this season, one in particular sticks out to Lemon: the Texas sweep. For the first time ever, OSU beat Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Baylor in the same year.
"Me being from Texas, it means a lot to me because I have a lot of friends who went to all those schools," he said. "For me to be able to go back to Texas with the bragging rights now, they had it before but I told them the day would come when I got them. I got ‘em now, I feel great as because I've got it forever now because it was my last year."
Another thing he has forever is a place in the minds of Cowboy fans as one of the leaders of a special Cowboy team. Lemon enters Kansas ranked third nationally in solo tackles and has made some of the most memorable hits of a memorable season.
All this after Lemon went through one of the toughest challenges of his life. But looking back now, Lemon wouldn't have it any other way.
"I have no regrets, I'm glad I made the decisions that I made, they were the best ones for me, from coming to OSU in the first place to fighting through the injury," he said. "It's been great, there have been struggles, but I wouldn't change anything about how it is turning out. I am extremely grateful."