Aug 16, 2013
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Cory Lee knows that he and the rest of the Southern Illinois outside linebacker corps will need to step up their big-play production in 2013.
Graduation claimed linebacker Jayson DiManche, who led the team with 8.0 sacks and 15.0 tackles for loss last year, as well as linemen Eze Obiora (8.0 sacks) and Ken Boatright (13.5 tackles for loss). That's a lot of big plays the defense must try to replace.
"We did lose a lot of talent, but I feel like this year we can be just as good," said Lee, a fourth-year junior who started all 11 games on the strongside opposite DiManche last year. With no sacks and 2.0 tackles for loss, Lee's numbers were not on par with his high-profile teammate, who signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent in April.
"I didn't have too many huge plays for us and that was pretty disappointing," he acknowledged. "I was challenged during the offseason to work on my pass rush, work on getting turnovers. I feel like my pass rush has improved quite a bit, and I'm more conscious of when I see a running back carrying the ball, just knocking it out. We want big plays, big turnovers from our defense."
Tyler Williamson, who didn't start but made 4.5 sacks and forced three fumbles last year, will take over for DiManche. A pair of redshirt freshmen -- Chase Allen and Leonard Garron -- are two more potential playmakers, according to Lee. The Salukis frequently rotate defenders to keep them fresh, meaning all four outside linebackers will get plenty of opportunities.
"I didn't have too many huge plays for us and that was pretty disappointing. I was challenged during the offseason to work on my pass rush, work on getting turnovers. I feel like my pass rush has improved quite a bit, and I'm more conscious of when I see a running back carrying the ball, just knocking it out. We want big plays, big turnovers from our defense."
"I'm 5-foot-11 on my best day," he laughed. "I've always been a little shorter than everyone else, but I pride myself on being physical with the tight ends and offensive linemen. I use my size to my advantage by getting leverage on guys who are taller."
Like teammate and fellow Alabama native Taylon Hunter, Lee grew up in an area that is obsessed with football.
"People eat, breathe and sleep football back home," he said. "People get divorces over the Auburn-Alabama game every year. During football season, Friday through Sunday night, all you care about is football. At church, the pastor will be talking about the game the night before. It's a way of life."
Lee also starred on the baseball diamond at Prattville High School and could've pursued a college career in that sport as well. He pitched and played infield before tearing the labrum in his right shoulder during his junior football season. As a senior, he played strictly in the outfield.
Among his college suitors to play football were The Citadel, Vanderbilt, Wofford and Chattanooga, but there was a school from up north that kept contacting him.
"I didn't know much about Illinois, so I kind of pushed SIU to the back burner a little bit," Lee recalled. "As my senior season went on, Coach (Bubba) Schweigert kept calling me and ended up setting up an in-house visit. I knew it was serious then. I came here on my official visit and loved the place."
While Lee said football is a big part of his life, he is quick to add that it is "not the only part of my life." He comes from a close-knit family that includes two olders sisters, plus six nephews and a niece under the age of 16. His parents, Debbie and John Lee, have been married nearly 40 years.
"My mom stayed on me about school, and my dad was the disciplinary figure in my life and pushed me to excel in both sports and school," he said. "They never let me step out of line too far."
Lee, who sports a 3.35 GPA and received the MVFC Commissioner's Academic Excellence Award last year, admits there was a time he ran with the wrong crowd as a kid.
"There were some guys doing the wrong thing, and I'm not saying I was perfect, because I sure wasn't," he explained. "My parents sat down and said you have a lot of good things going for you, and you can go one way or the other. Luckily, I straightened up."
He's been with his high school sweetheart, Kristen Hendrickson, for seven years, and they keep in close contact through Skype and text messaging. She will graduate from Troy University in the spring. His parents and girlfriend will be frequent visitors to Carbondale this season to watch Lee's games.
Lee mentioned that he and a number of players enjoy country music, so I asked him how that goes over in the Saluki locker room. He said the team has agreed to play rap music before practice and country music afterward.
During today's final practice of pre-fall camp, QB Kory Faulkner continued to impress. He was especially sharp during the two-minute offense, swiftly moving the ball with completions to WR John Lantz and WR LaSteven McKinney. The play of the day was a leaping catch on the sideline by WR Josh Sullivan on a pass from Faulkner.
The field-goal kicking battle has come down to junior Thomas Kinney and sophomore Austin Johnson. Kinney appears to have the edge in both accuracy and distance. The ball just explodes off his foot. He is also competing with K Chris Adams for the kickoff job.
After practice, Coach Lennon gathered the team and reminded them of the importance of tomorrow morning's scrimmage. He said he's anxious to see if the team can make a statement about who they are on both sides of the ball. He wants the offense to establish an identity, especially in the running game, while he wants the defense to try to create chaos and disrupt the offense.
The University is hosting a pep rally for all incoming students at the stadium tonight, and the football team will be present. Afterward, there will be a movie shown at SIU Arena.