PROVO — Austin Lee grew up being the fastest kid in grade school and combined with his competitive nature, it often got him in trouble.
That’s the skill set he brings to his role as a starting safety in BYU’s defense during spring practice. BYU head coach Kalani Sitake likes the progress of players like Lee, who are just now getting their first chances to compete.
Last week in a first scrimmage setting in pads with full contact, Sitake made hits on everyone live, as he put it, “to welcome some back to football.”
The offense, flooded with new plays, formations and ideology, won the day by all accounts. But as Sitake pointed out, coaches held out key players like linebackers Sione Takitaki, Butch Pau’u and Zayne Anderson, and defensive end Corbin Kaufusi.
After reviewing film of that scrimmage, Sitake said the defense getting kicked around a little wasn’t as bad as previously thought.
Lee helped lead Alta High to a pair of state titles before signing to play at Utah, where he put in a year before serving an LDS Church mission to Tulsa, Oklahoma. He transferred to BYU following his church service and was on the roster this past fall.
Lee starting at safety?
He’s got the intangibles. He has athleticism with a 4.5 time in the 40-yard dash and a 38.5-inch vertical. Lee also has been measured with a 10.5-foot effort in the standing long jump.
An honor student, one must be smart to play safety, a spot most defenses like to fill with a player who has a quarterback-like mind for the game and is an all-around athlete capable of getting it done on the ground as well as in the head.
“I always remember being so competitive in elementary school my mom would always get calls. I felt I was fast and if I ever thought I was losing a battle or a race, I’d get competitive and almost get in a fight and she’d get calls. I just loved the game at a young age.”
Lee is now in an incubator role as a starter. He’s got a new position coach in Preston Hadley.
This spring could be called a “developmental” experience, a session for the entire team to “learn basics and fundamentals” while digesting what coaches call “installs” on both offense and defense.
“I think I’m doing pretty well. I love the defense and the new coach. It’s spring ball and a time to develop. I think I’ve done a good job learning and getting better.”
Lee says he gained a lot from being a witness on the sidelines in 2017.
“At first I had to understand the scheme and then a blessing to learn what offenses are trying to do and trying to accomplish because everything matters and every little thing counts," he said. "That is what coach Hadley is trying to teach us, so being able to see that, to see what offenses are trying to accomplish, I can take my responsibilities very seriously.”
Lee calls Hadley a solid addition to the coaching staff.
“He’s great. He’s played the position and coached the position for a few years. He’s fun to be around but he knows the game and the position very well. He can read routes like nobody else.”
It may be too early to place a label on BYU’s defense, but Lee sees characteristics they can hang their helmets on.
“We are competitors; we are fierce," Lee said. "We go out 100 percent. Right now we’re trying to get the fundamentals down, to be able to be in the right place at the right time. That’s who we are. We will ball out. Right now we are trying to get the basics and when we do, we’re flying around. It’s a lot of fun.”
Conversely, Lee is in a position to see the offense under new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes evolve daily.
“They are making great strides,” said Lee.
“It’s fun to hear them talking about their new offense and how well they’re doing with it. It’s fun to see them progress and how much energy they bring to practice. They did it the first practice and didn’t let down but have continued to bring it every day.”
Spring: Seed time.