After redshirt season, Eric Lee wins praise in bid for snaps in Husker secondary

Eric Lee enrolled early at Nebraska last year but sat out the fall as a redshirt. Now he’s a top contender for the No. 3 cornerback spot behind returning starters Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones.

LINCOLN — The only thing Eric Lee can do is keep working.

The redshirt freshman isn’t as well-known right now as Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones, the juniors projected to be the Nebraska starting cornerbacks this season.

Lee also has moved on from the quirky spotlight and attention that go with Husker recruiting, which shifted last winter to Lamar Jackson, Dicaprio Bootle and Marquel Dismuke and has followed the talented trio to the start of preseason practice.

Thus he isn’t consumed at all by things out of his control.

“I’m just competing to be the starter right now,” Lee said Wednesday. “Because then I feel like when I do that, I push the young guys and I also feel like I push Josh and Chris to be on top of their games. So I think it’s just like a healthy competition all around.

“It keeps me focused and grounded every day.”

His efforts have been noticed by those whose opinions matter most.

NU cornerbacks coach Brian Stewart recently said Lee is having “a great camp” as the Huskers look for somebody to emerge as a clear third cornerback.

“He had an opportunity to have two full springs, a training camp,” Stewart said. “He’s got a pretty good idea of what he’s doing. And not just what he’s supposed to do, but how he’s supposed to do it. I think that’s boding well for him.”

The hows and whys have mattered as much as anything for the 6-foot 190-pounder from Valor Christian High in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

Lee started accepting the importance of technique, which never quite meant as much when he was simply more talented than opposing receivers in high school. He also better realized what Stewart had to offer as somebody with a coaching résumé that includes eight years in the NFL.

“When we watch (practice) film in our meetings, the guys that end up making plays are your guys that usually have the right reads, the correct footwork,” Lee said. “So it’s proven that it works.”

Even before the Huskers took to the field Wednesday, Lee said, Stewart was going over something Jones had done perfectly the day before, and pointing out the positive result.

“It’s all up there,” Lee said. “There’s no hiding. Film don’t lie. And like he says, film’s your résumé, and he’s just here to help you build it and correct it.

“We watch a lot of NFL film, because we do a lot of the same footwork. So we kind of get to see how he’s not just kind of making this stuff up, and how it’s actually helping people in the NFL, and it can help us as well.”

Lee spent about 12 months in survival mode after being an early enrollee with the 2015 recruiting class. His first year on campus was typical for a freshman as he acclimated during a redshirt season.

Then Lee set out to push for the kind of place that he reached in his second trip through spring practice.

“I’ve just been really focused throughout the offseason,” he said. “After that UCLA game (in the Foster Farms Bowl), after that redshirt year was over, I was kind of like, ‘Now it’s time to step up. You don’t have any time to waste. The clock’s ticking.’

“So I just had that mindset and I had to go get it.”

Kalu and Jones were going to have a head start on 2016 with their starting experience last season. But Nebraska was moving on without departed seniors Daniel Davie and Jonathan Rose, and Trai Mosley left the program.

That has left Lee and Boaz Joseph with clear views of new opportunities in advance of the first depth chart. Jackson and Bootle have come out strong, too.

“It’s going to be competitive,” Stewart said. “These next two weeks for sure, we’re going to be really looking carefully and closer to see who those people are going to be.”

Lee wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he can stay in that equation. He was a two-time all-state pick at Valor Christian, and ranked as the No. 1 recruit in Colorado by when he signed with NU.

It’s definitely more fun being closer to the action, and Lee said he’s just applying lessons learned from last year.

“If Chris or Josh were to go down, I need to be able to step up,” Lee said. “I’ve just been trying to prove to Coach Stewart that I can play consistently, and if they end up coming out for a play — or for however long — that he can trust me to fill that spot.”

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