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Better late than never, S Eric Lee Jr. emerging for Nebraska

September 5, 2019
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In this Aug. 31, 2019, photo, Nebraska safety Eric Lee Jr. (6) walks off the field next to head coach Scott Frost following an NCAA college football game against South Alabama, in Lincoln, Neb. Lee finally had his breakout game for Nebraska last week. The fifth-year senior safety saw his role increase against South Alabama when Deontai Williams went out with an injury. Lee ran back an interception for a touchdown and picked off another pass. This week he returns to his home state to play against Colorado. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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In this Aug. 31, 2019, photo, Nebraska safety Eric Lee Jr. (6) walks off the field next to head coach Scott Frost following an NCAA college football game against South Alabama, in Lincoln, Neb. Lee finally had his breakout game for Nebraska last week. The fifth-year senior safety saw his role increase against South Alabama when Deontai Williams went out with an injury. Lee ran back an interception for a touchdown and picked off another pass. This week he returns to his home state to play against Colorado. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Eric Lee Jr. was a high school junior in February 2014 when he told Bo Pelini he would accept a Nebraska scholarship. Most of the last 5 ½ years has been a grind for him.

Pelini is long gone, so is Mike Riley and new coach Scott Frost wasn’t sure Lee would fit into his plans.

Then last Saturday happened.

Lee ran back an interception for a touchdown early in the third quarter against South Alabama after starting safety Deontai Williams went out with an injury, and he picked off another pass in the fourth. With Williams’ status in doubt, Lee’s in line to start when the co-No. 25 Cornhuskers (1-0) visit his home state to play Colorado (1-0) on Saturday.

Lee was the top-rated prospect in the state his senior year at Valor Christian High in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and he chose the Huskers over the Buffaloes and several other Pac-12 schools.

Pelini had been fired by the time he arrived in Lincoln, and he was mostly a backup cornerback all three of Riley’s seasons and last year under Frost. With a lack of depth at safety, Lee made a position change by mutual decision with the staff last spring and went into the season No. 2 on the depth chart.

“I think the biggest thing for me is that I’m just going to do my job each day,” Lee said. “If things work in my favor, it does. If not, it doesn’t. If not, then I did all that I can to provide for the team.”

A year ago, Lee wasn’t listed on the two-deep chart, and he didn’t play a down in the 33-28 loss to Colorado in Lincoln.

“It hurt a little bit,” he said.

Coming off the best game of his career, he’s excited about the opportunity awaiting him in Boulder.

“Just being able to go back to Colorado,” he said. “I had last year’s game circled on my schedule and I have this year’s game circled on my schedule. Being able to go play against those kids — and I know a lot of the kids on their team. I’m just excited to go back out there and take CU down.”

Lee considered transferring after Riley was fired. He said his father, Eric Sr., encouraged him to stay. When the two talked on the phone shortly after last week’s game, Lee said, his father was in tears because he was so proud.

Now the younger Lee has never been happier to be a Husker.

“The biggest thing is an attitude change,” he said. “Just a lot of bad habits the way Mike Riley had his system and how Coach Frost wanted his thing. So it took a little while to discard all of those bad habits, and I saw what it took to get on the field.”

Lee said the light went on for him in early November after the Huskers’ defense forced three turnovers while playing then-No. 8 Ohio State within 36-31 on the road.

“I got to see where we were going, especially after a game like Ohio State where we were just so close,” he said. “You really have no choice. Your brain just tells you to do what coach Frost says because he knows what he is doing, and I’ve been doing that ever since.”

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