Adapting To The Secondary
By Brian Price
If you walked into the local coffee shop in Coral Gables, Fla., in 2007 there was a good chance you were served by a barista who had a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash.
That barista was Mo Lee, Utah's newly minted corner for the 2011 season, and needless to say you probably got your latte very quickly.
However, this wasn't originally part of Lee's life plan.
"I was just working there, making coffee for the people, trying to make a few bucks, thinking about how I was going to get back to playing football," he says. "I was just surviving."
Lee had finished Coral Gables High School, but his marks prevented him from getting a full scholarship to any collegiate football programs. He spent his first year out of high school working to support his family.
"Me and my older brother had to look after our younger brother and sister. The way I grew up was learning how to take care of my younger siblings," Lee explains. "That was my focus in high school."
His mother Joanne worked as a teacher to support the family and Lee became the man of the house. His father was out of the picture from early on.
At 17, he was taking care of his 14-year-old brother and 9-year-old sister.
"My primary goal was making sure each of them had done their homework, gotten ready for bed, been fed and had their clothes laid out," Lee says. "My life was secondary to theirs and the school work I did [after that] only translated to 'C' and 'D' grades."
Lee needed a plan to move ahead in the football world. His first step towards playing D-1 ball and getting a full scholarship was enrolling in junior college, boosting his academics, re-establishing himself on a national level and building a personal foundation for success.
In 2008, Lee felt things were secure enough on the home front for him to find a new home at Palomar Community College in California. He went on to lead all receivers in 2008 and 2009 in every major statistical category. This was highlighted by 60 catches for 919 yards in 2009. He describes the experience as integral to his current success.
"I was a freshman in junior college who always wanted the ball," he says. "I felt I couldn't help the team if the ball wasn't in my hands. I had to learn how to be unselfish and gain confidence in my teammates."
In 2010, Lee was offered an opportunity to redshirt as a receiver for Utah, but his contributions this year will come in the secondary.
"In the NFL, corners are always among the top positions drafted," notes Norm Chow, 38-year veteran assistant coach and Utah's current offensive coordinator.
Chow, a Utah graduate himself, observed that among the challenges of filling out a roster, securing corner backs are the toughest positions to fill.
"In our defense it is hard to find the guy who can play in the middle of the field and play sideline to sideline," Chow says. "We've been lucky. In the last [few] years, we've had some great players back there."
Given Lee's speed and the Utes' need to fill spots in the secondary, the switch seemed to be the right move.
In the past 10 years, the program has put 10 defensive backs in the NFL, including Andre Dyson, Eric Weddle, and Sean Smith, all of whom contributed to a lineage of top corners in the nation while at Utah. Chow is confident that Lee has the athletic ability and skills to continue the tradition, especially given his abilities to overcome the odds.
"I didn't know what to think when [Lee] first began making the transition," admits Chow. "He has a good understanding of route structure because he played receiver. That helps him comprehend what routes he can and can't jump as a defender. He also has a tremendous ability to go up and get the ball. It's now that we're seeing that he has the mental toughness to be 'out on the island' defending the middle of the field."
Utah has consistently been a program at the top of the heap in college football. 2009's Poinsettia Bowl win over Cal was one of six bowl wins in a row, all in the Whittingham era. Additionally, Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham was named 2008 National Coach of the Year when he led the team to a perfect 13-0 record. In his time at Utah, he is 58-20 overall.
Now a part of this fine football heritage, Lee is excited about his playing future.
"At first, I was nervous. I hadn't played defense since high school," Lee says. "I had to ask myself, 'Do I still have the ability to play defense?' But I remembered during my previous experiences, I always had fun with it so when [given the chance] I just decided to go for it."
Now there's big work to be done in Salt Lake City.
"I'm very excited," Lee says. "Maybe too excited. I'm just constantly thinking about the game and what's ahead. I wake up from dreaming about football and then I can't stop visualizing practice."
From a primary role in his family to locking down the secondary for Utah, it's been a long journey for Lee, but he hasn't lost sight of either goal.
What will happen if the NFL comes calling?
"I'll sign a check for a million dollars over to my mother," Lee says without out hesitating. "As well as building a football program in my old neighborhood for the kids."
The Utes begin the 2011 season against Montana State on Sept. 1, whom they are 9-0 against.