COLUMBIA — “The Question” comes for Brandon Lee all the time. It follows him around his hometown. It comes from friends and old teammates, coaches and family.
It’s an honest question. Anyone who saw Lee star at middle linebacker for Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis has reason to ask: Think you’re going to start this year, Brandon?
Well, no. Lee, the No. 22 Tigers’ backup middle linebacker, won’t be starting, not unless something happens to star-studded first-stringer Michael Scherer.
Try rolling out that explanation to anyone who saw Lee play, his rock-like frame hurtling from sideline to sideline, drilling ball carriers in the open field. Ask Missouri teammates to describe the way he hits people, and they come back with a one-word answer: “Violently.”
“I remember watching his highlight tape from high school and seeing that carry over here,” said Kentrell Brothers, a senior outside linebacker who had an All-American-esque first two games. Brothers is another guy ahead of Lee, a redshirt freshman, on the depth chart.
Really the explanation he gives folks to answer The Question is no simpler than that. As good as Lee might be, and as high as coaches are on him, it’s hard to hit the field when a potential all-Southeastern Conference pick is in front of you.
“I don’t take too much time to explain it,” he said. “There’s nothing to really explain.”
But after sitting out last season to redshirt, and up to the start of this season, it was 18 months since Lee regularly played in a football game.
Redshirting is a process by which players can save a year of eligibility if they don’t appear in games during their first year on campus.
Lee graduated early from Lawrence Central to spend his spring semester at MU and get an extra leg up learning the playbook and hitting the weight room, a move that’s supposed to help incoming freshmen with enough talent get on the field sooner. That was Lee’s plan. And teammates saw it that way, too.
“He was ahead of us in terms of plays and in terms of body size,” said Thomas Wilson, a sophomore safety who was part of Lee’s recruiting class “He was stronger (than the other freshmen).”
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel had other thoughts. He redshirted Lee and put him on the scout team so he could go up against the first-string offense every day in game situations. He went back to the weight room.
Most of all, Lee said, he used that year to convince himself he could play every down at an NCAA level. He needed to mature both physically and mentally.
“Yes, I’m a 19 year-old young man, but I can play with these grown men who are 23 and show them I can compete,” Lee said. “I should have known that just from the fact that they recruited me to come here to play.”
Which means the plan for Lee worked, Pinkel said. He saved a year of eligibility. He’s more mature and comfortable within the confines of the college game.
But sometimes redshirting gets a bad rap, Lee said, because it forces players who just left high school on such a high note to sit out for a season and cuts them off for a season from a game they played for years of their lives. Some players take it as a sign that coaches don’t like them.
It’s quite the opposite, Pinkel said. If one freshman won’t end up playing a big role of the Tigers, why not give him the extra year to develop and get accustomed to Missouri’s scheme’s before just throwing him in the fire?
Pinkel in the preseason said he instructed a graduate assistant to draw up a list of accomplished former Missouri players who took redshirt years and what those years did for them.
Recent alums include NFLers Zaviar Gooden, Kony Ealy, Justin Britt and Mitch Morse. Andrew Wilson, an unsigned free agent, used the extra year to start on a master’s degree.
Pinkel said he spends 15 to 20 minutes with each new redshirt at the beginning of the season to explain what can come out of that year. Lee said his opinion about the year changed after that discussion.
“There’s a great example of a guy who’s a very, very talented player that redshirted a year ago, and I think he’ll do a lot of good things in his career here,” Pinkel said.
This season for Lee is one filled with excitement for his chance to get back on the field. He starts on special teams — you can find him by spotting the dancing No. 4 in the backfield — and takes over for Scherer every couple series.
And for a new recruiting class of Tiger linebackers, Lee, teammates say, might soon be the name in the depth chart they’re stuck behind.
Missourian staff writer Aaron Reiss contributed to this report.