If there’s one thing Jalen Lee’s figured out during his time playing football, it’s that good things often come to those who work for them.
Partly because of that, the Live Oak senior defensive lineman and University of Florida signee was selected the All-Livingston Parish Defensive MVP by the parish’s football coaches.
“It’s pretty big knowing there are some good teams in our parish and good athletes and players in our parish, so I feel real good about it,” Lee said.
Former Live Oak coach Brett Beard tipped his hat to Lee and said his work ethic was one of the main factors that helped him secure the honor.
“The kid made it happen,” said Beard, who took over as the head coach at District 4-5A rival Denham Springs on Nov. 22. “He loves the game. He was all in on every little thing that you had to do to be successful. God gifted him with some size and some ability, but of course, there’s plenty of people that have wasted that. He made the commitment not just in school but away from school and to put everything he could into his craft. And because of it, the kid became a dominating force, a heck of a football player and just a huge part of Live Oak athletics and Live Oak football.”
Beard said Lee’s effort on the field wasn’t the only reason he solidified the parish's top defensive distinction.
“He’s just got the respect of everybody,” he said. “Just the way he plays the game. The way he remains very humble and hungry. He’s just got an awesome soul about him. You can tell he comes from a great family. Everything about this kid is one you want, and that’s really another point that we sold to colleges was that this is a dude that you’re not going to have to worry about getting phone calls in the middle of the night of him being in trouble.”
Getting to this point took some work, with Beard noting the turning point for Lee came late in his sophomore year and continued into the summer before his junior season, where he worked in the weight room, with Live Oak assistant Brent Baker on technique and with a personal trainer to improve his skills.
“It was my sophomore year I realized I could be really good at football and get Power 5 (Conference) offers and things like that just working hard, doing extra work outside of football and things like that,” Lee said.
Even before then, Baker, Live Oak’s defensive line coach, knew Lee could be a special player, but it took some refining to get there.
“He was just that guy that was just always bigger and stronger than every other kid he probably went against," Baker said. "So his technique was really just completely wrong, so he’s kind of gotten used to just being able to use his size and his athletic ability to just beat people, so we had to try to convince him that if we can put some technique with his already natural ability, the sky was the limit. So he started working on that stuff.”
Baker said he knew things were starting to click for Lee when the Eagles faced Walker during his freshman year.
“He went in and just completely dominated, it was a particular skill we were teaching at the time,” Baker said. “We were teaching him how to run with the pulling guards. Jalen, at the time, was just in the habit of just kind of wanting to run up the field. Walker at the time, did a lot of stuff where they pulled guards, and I remember that night, he got to where he’d get in that guard’s hip, and I think he had about four or five tackles for loss. I think at that point he realized, if I just quit trying to make all the plays and I play my technique, it will put me in position to make a whole lot more plays.”
Watching film of the game only reinforced Lee’s progress.
“I remember calling Coach Beard, and I’m like, ‘Man, this (isn’t) normal. This kid’s special,’” Baker said.
Adding fuel to his transformation was the fact that he had to work against former Live Oak standout Jacoby Lee, who’s now at Nicholls State, in practice every day, which put things in football perspective for him.
“Practice my sophomore year, I had to go up against Jacoby Lee and all those guys up front, so I had no choice but to get better or get mauled every play,” Jalen Lee said. “You’ll figure something out if you get beat every play.”
Lee said his focus turned to staying in shape and getting stronger to help with explosiveness to improve his game.
“He really did everything you’re supposed to do to get to that level,” Beard said.
The work paid off when Lee was named first-team All-Parish and All-District 4-5A with 74 tackles, nine quarterback hurries, eight tackles for loss and 5 ½ sacks as a junior.
“He really just kind of blew up and started dominating his junior year really early on until everybody started to account for him,” Beard said. “You always kind of knew who he was, but he really became a force his junior year, and from there just continued to work everyday and buy in and sell out. It was a lot of fun to watch him grow up and become who he’s become.”
With that success, however, came attention, not only from some of those Power 5 schools Lee looking for, but on the field as well, something he grew accustomed to during his senior season.
“They had (players) team triple-teaming me and stuff, taking me out of the play and run(ning) the ball away from me,” Lee said. “I feel like I did what I could do.”
Beard said that extra attention required a bit of a change in philosophy from Lee this season.
“He just thought he was going to have to be that guy that goes and runs around and makes plays to get his named called and in the paper and get stats to get noticed being at Live Oak,” Beard said. “Instead, he understood as he got older his part of the business and his part of his job, and he really did a phenomenal job for us. He didn’t make all the plays that he wanted to make, but he did his job. I couldn’t have asked any more of what he did and how he did it, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate him for that.
“Sometimes he’s not able to make all the plays he wants to make,” Beard continued. “When you’re getting double and triple teams, you’re having to account for them, therefore, you’ve got other people that are open that are able to move around and make plays and help us do what it is we want to do. Sometimes his X-factor spot is not necessarily being a guy that blows everybody up and gets in the backfield and disrupts the timing of everything. Sometimes it’s just the fact that he’s eating up two or three guys. You could tell at times that was frustrating for him, but that’s respect. When you’re a good player and everybody knows who you are and what you do, they’re not going to let you beat them.”
Baker noted Lee took part in 6 a.m. workouts from May-July working on details such as hand placement, pad level and pass-rush moves. That work didn’t stop during the season, either.
“I don’t know if Jalen really changed what he was doing,” Baker said. “He started fine-tuning little stuff a little more. It was like every day of the season, we worked on his pad level. It’s kind of hard teaching a guy like that because he’s so dominant that he was splitting double teams playing with really poor technique, so we had to get him in the film room and we’d show him, ‘Look man, see how your pad level’s up high?’ We’ve got to fix this, because if not, at some point, he’s going to play two guys, and it may not be this year. It may be some time next year in the SEC to where they’re going to maul you and embarrass you, and I don’t want to have to come back and (say) ‘We could have fixed this during high school.’ So every day, we worked on pad level.”
Baker said film study only helped Lee get better.
“He was so good that in the high school level, it doesn’t even matter what two guys were trying to block him,” he said. “He was still splitting double teams.”
In turn, Lee said some of those double-teams he faced helped some of his teammates.
“I’m a player’s player,” Lee said. “I play for the team, so I know if three guys are on me, we have at least one guy coming free. We had some pretty good linebackers this year – Bret McCoy and Gabe Kimble, so they got the job done.”
Off the field, Lee committed to LSU over the summer but de-committed in November, eventually remaining in the Southeastern Conference where he signed Dec. 19 with Florida. His teammate, running back Kee Hawkins, signed with Army.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Lee said. “I just put faith in God and let him (point) me in the right direction.”
Beard said he thinks Lee is exactly where he’s supposed to be with his college choice.
“Sometimes you can’t be upset about one door closing because there are still multiple doors open because of who he is, who his family is, the student-athlete that he is,” he said. “He might have wanted LSU more at the time, but I think after he opened it back up and started looking at all his options, he’s always kind of had a little inkling for Florida. He’s always just kind of had a little love for them as well. I thought they did a great job recruiting him and building that relationship. As one door closed and he was upset and disappointed, but realistically, there were so many opportunities out there for him to explore now that he wasn’t going to explore. He feels like he found his fit and his home, and he’s only going to flourish there.”
Lee said he enjoyed his visit to Florida.
“It went real well,” Lee said. “I really love it in Florida. It’s a real nice campus. The players, they’re cool to be around. I feel like I’ll be good up there.”
Lee knows he’s going to have to put in some work to get playing time, but it’s not a new concept to him.
“I’m just looking forward to getting better, becoming a better player and trying to play early,” Lee said. “They’ve talked to be about it, but (Florida defensive line) Coach (David) Turner told me it all depends on what you do with it. I have a very high chance (of playing early). It all depends on how I come in and work.”
“I’m going to be ready for it.”
If you’ve followed Lee up to this point, there’s no doubt about that.