When Uniontown, Pa., linebacker Kevin McLee came to the WVU campus in the fall of 2002, great things were expected almost immediately. McLee had the heritage of uncles Billy and Reggie (both former Mountaineers), outstanding speed and a bulldog tenacity in rushing the quarterback. Everything seemed set for the former Red Raider to make a quick impact on WVU's defense, and especially on its pass rush.
As often happens, however, the realities of college life intervened. McLee was injured early in his first year, and missed almost the entire season. Last year McLee returned to the field, and put up solid numbers in his first year of play, but the results still weren't what he and the coaches were looking for.
On the positive side, McLee did record 46 tackles and three sacks in a back up role, which are good numbers for a player getting his first real experience in college. He also had seven tackles for loss, showing his ability to get into the backfield. However, McLee struggled to learn all of the nuances of playing an outside linebacker spot, which led to some missed opportunities on the field.
Over the winter, the Mountaineer coaching staff, as it always does, evaluated the entire offense and defense, and mapped out changes for the 2004 season. One of those involves McLee directly, and promises to have a big impact on his performance.
In addition to the basic principles of the 3-3 stack, the Mountaineers will also employ some of the schemes from the days of Canute Curtis and Gary Stills, when the Mountaineers employed what was called a "rush linebacker". Although that linebacker still dropped into coverage on occasion, one of his primary duties was getting into the backfield to rush the quarterback and disrupt running plays.
Such a position is perfectly suited for McLee, who has taken to the revised duties with alacrity.
"I think it suits me really well," McLee told BlueGoldNews.com. "I'm good at rushing the passer, and I'm really good at coming off the edge. I think it fits me and what I can do."
Observers of spring practice and scrimmage sessions have frequently seen #44 lining up on on the line of scrimmage and bursting into the backfield, so statements such as McLee's aren't just talk. His speed around the corner is difficult for tackles to adjust to, and offenses may have to assign a running back (thus keeping a potential receiver out of the pattern) to help block the speedy sophomore.
The tweaks in the defensive scheme also have the linebackers flip-flopping according to the offensive formation, which would seem to be another hurdle for McLee and his teammates to overcome in terms of the learning process. However, as he explains, it actually makes some things simpler.
"The changes aren't as tough as I thought they would be. When we first started working on it I though it would change a lot, but actually it's better for me," McLee analyzed. "I like playing the sam (strongside) linebacker, and now I'm doing the same thing more often, so I think it's better and easier for me to learn."
One of the goals is to get McLee into the backfield where he can wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks and ball carriers, but he knows that he can't make the big play every time. However, just applying pressure, or forcing an extra blocker to pick him up, or making the quarterback move can be the difference in the success or failure of an offensive play.
"I try to get the sack every time, but the quarterbacks are so quick that sometimes you're just not going to get there," McLee admitted. "I know that sometimes I'm not going to get the sack or make the play, but that's my goal."
As the spring has progressed, it has become apparent that the aggressive defender is playing with more confidence, much of which arises out of his increasing comfort level with the defensive scheme. And as that continues to grow, so should McLee's defensive statistics, and more importantly, the performance of the entire Mountaineer defense. McLee doesn't have to do it all, as he has experienced teammates in Adam Lehnortt and Scott Gyorko alongside him. If he can continue to improve, his performance should blend with those of the of the other linebackers, both of whom recorded more than 100 tackles last year, to give WVU a solid starting corps.
"I'm learning the system now. Since I'm getting it down, it's really just about playing ball now," McLee noted. "I don't have to think about my assignments or what I'm supposed to do as much as I did last year. I'm just going out and playing."