The linebacker skipped the 2008 season while rehabbing a torn right ACL. He also missed most contact this past spring for precautionary reasons, but is now back at full strength and expected to participate in all drills this preseason.
But Lee's return leaves the staff with a bit of a dilemma, albeit one most coaches would love to have. He spent his first three years in the program at outside linebacker, and was a starter in every game in 2006 and 2007. In the spring of 2008, he moved to inside 'backer, following a pattern established by PSU All-Americans Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor.
As of Big Ten Media Days in Chicago late last month, neither Lee nor head coach Joe Paterno was sure where the former would play this season. And that brings us to the key question at hand.
THE QUESTION: INSIDE OR OUTSIDE?
I'm not sure, Paterno said when asked whether Lee would play inside or outside in 2009. For his part, Lee said he'll play wherever the staff puts him.
THE CASE FOR INSIDE
Lee was well into making the move inside when he blew out his knee in the spring of 2008, so it is not as if he'll have to learn a new position. He also remained extremely close to the team during his rehab, serving almost as a student assistant coach, and that would seem to serve him extremely well at a position that is considered the quarterback of the defense.
Playing Lee inside would allow the Lions to get the three linebackers with the best combination of size and speed on the field at the same time. Lee and redshirt junior Navorro Bowman (an outside linebacker) are both proven All-Big Ten performers. With Lee in the middle, the staff could play super sophomore Mike Mauti at the other OLB spot (the Frtiz), giving Penn State quite possibly the most athletic starting linebacker corps in the nation.
The downside from the staff's perspective is that playing Lee inside would translate into a demotion for rugged senior Josh Hull, a starter in every game in 2008. Though not quite the same type of natural talent as Bowman, Lee or Mauti, Hull is extremely strong, intelligent and a respected team leader.
I don't want to push Josh aside as if he's not very good because he is very good, Paterno said.
THE CASE FOR OUTSIDE
At the end of spring practice Paterno had made up his mind to play Lee inside in 2009.
Then I started to look at some of the people we are going to play and I started to second-guess myself, Paterno said.
He could well have been talking about the Sept. 26 Big Ten opener against Iowa at Beaver Stadium. The Hawkeyes have one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Ohio State, Minnesota and even Michigan have very well-regarded offensive lines, too.
Why does that matter?
Well, against opponents with strong offensive lines, the middle linebacker finds himself dealing with serious contact on every play. Outside linebackers are not involved in nearly as much traffic.
In 2006, when Posluszny was returning from a knee injury, he played middle linebacker and seemed out of sorts for the first four games of the season. In a week four loss at Ohio State, he had a season-low four tackles. Playing on either side of him, Connor and Lee combined for 19 stops in that game. Posluszny eventually rounded back into form, winning a second Bednarik Award. But there was a transition period while returning from the injury.
As this argument goes, Penn State can avoid such a readjustment period with Lee by keeping him outside, at the Fritz, where he can worry more about making plays and less about who is zeroing in on him on every play. Hull can remain at middle linebacker. And Mauti can be the first man off the bench at either outside spot.
HOW WILL IT PLAY OUT?
We expect Lee to land in the middle by the time the season-opener rolls around. Penn State begins with three opponents not exactly known for their power rushing attacks -- Akron, Syracuse and Temple -- and that should allow Lee to get used to being in the middle of all the action.
As was noted earlier, Bowman and Mauti are both superior athletes, and it will be important to work Mauti into the flow of things before the Big Ten season hits.
As for Hull, he has played at all three linebacker spots in his career, and with his knowledge of the game can be a primary backup at all three spots. That will be important while spelling the starters and should any of the starters sustain serious injuries.
One final note on Lee: he has had 16 months to recover from his injury. When he was getting back into action in 2006, Posluszny was less than eight months removed from a knee injury.