Boise State sophomore linebacker Darren Lee gave the world a glimpse of the thrill of leading the Broncos onto the field Friday night.
He wore a GoPro camera on his helmet for ESPN as he came out of the tunnel with the Hammer — the third time in eight games, and second consecutive home game, that he has carried the award that usually goes to the player with the best special-teams hit in the previous game. The footage was used during the game broadcast.
Lee also carried the Hammer in September against Louisiana and in December at the Hawaii Bowl.
“I think the craziest feeling is right before you go out and you’re standing there — you get that surreal moment of, ‘Whoa, there’s 35,000 people ready to go crazy’ and you’ve got the team behind you,” he said. “It really does symbolize that it’s bigger than you. It’s the values and traditions and principles the team has. Carrying that tradition, it’s a surreal moment. And then you run out there and it’s all chaos.
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“ It’s a blur. I remember most right before I go out. Once you go out, there’s the band and the smoke and the flags and people screaming and cheering. The only thing you remember is you’re on the other side of the field. It’s pretty cool. It’s good motivation for people to want to get the Hammer.”
Lee didn’t notice the camera on his head Friday, but he was aware of it.
“They were like, ‘Make sure to look at everyone,’ ” Lee said. “I tried to keep my head so it’s not bouncing. I did what I could.”
Lee has won the Hammer this year for a hit on the off-returner on a kickoff against Connecticut and for a block that put a Nevada player on his back on a kickoff return.
He is the latest in a long line of Boise State special teams gurus — guys who weren’t major factors on offense or defense but carved a niche in the kicking game. He’s a reserve weak-side linebacker on defense behind Ben Weaver and Tyler Gray.
“It’s the culture of the place and it’s been that way for a long time around here,” said special teams coach Kent Riddle, who previously coached at Boise State from 2001 to 2005. “Guys understand everybody has a role. What your role is — hey, everybody would like to be Jay Ajayi and touch the ball that much, but not everybody is going to be. The reality of it is where can I contribute? What can I do? Guys around here do a great job embracing that stuff and finding a way to matter. That’s a big part of the success of this program.”
Lee starts on three special teams.
He lines up wide left on kickoff and finds someone to hit — usually the wedge or off-returner — to force the ball to his teammates. “It sounds like the least-glamorous (job) but it’s probably one of my favorites,” he said. “The lack of an assignment — you don’t have to stress much. Just go do your thing. Go let someone know you’re out there right now.”
He’s an up-back on kickoff return, one of the blockers directly in front of the returners. He often deals with the opponent’s guy like him. “You know that’s going to be a fun little reunion,” he said.
He lines up in the middle of the punt-return team and attacks the shield protection for the punter. He tipped two punts against Connecticut, which has drawn opponents’ attention. “It broke my heart,” he said of not fully blocking the punts. “It was one of my goals this year to get a full-on block. I got a piece twice at Connecticut and after that (opponents) have locked down the shield pretty well.”
Blocking punts against the shield protections — where two or three blockers line up in front of the punter — is nearly impossible. Lee’s going to keep trying anyway.
“Something I appreciate that coach Riddle says, ‘You’ve just got to believe,’ ” Lee said. “It is frustrating, especially last week. Those are big boys. You’ve just got to believe one time that crease is going to be there. And once you do slip through, you can’t panic.”
It’s obvious from Lee’s enthusiasm talking about special teams that he enjoys his role.
“I never thought I’d come into college and be a special teams guru, but at the same time I really enjoy it and I’m glad I’ve found a place on the team where I have confidence and feel like I can contribute,” he said. “For a while, it was frustrating and I didn’t feel like I could.”
Lee also played on three special teams last year — kickoff, kickoff return and punt — as a true freshman coming off an LDS mission in Texas.
He arrived in January 2013 and it took a while for him to get comfortable. He graduated from high school and signed with Boise State in 2010. He hadn’t played football in more than three years.
“I was completely out of shape,” he said. “I didn’t remember anything about football. Really, it was a mental battle for me to stay in it. I had no self-confidence. I was really trying to find myself.”
Lee played at Lassen High in Susanville, Calif. He was a first-team All-State pick in Division III and his conference’s defensive MVP but he was completely off the recruiting radar. He’s one of the last of a dying breed — a guy who signed a National Letter of Intent with an FBS school without any media outlets or recruiting services knowing he had committed.
“I was a weird recruit,” Lee said. “I got all kinds of letters and didn’t really respond. I came to the summer camp at Boise State and I loved it here. They liked me. I threw all my chips on the table. I didn’t put myself on the Internet. I didn’t really do a highlight video — I just sent one up to Boise.
“Realistically, it wasn’t the smartest move I could have made, but it worked out for me. I didn’t know the process. I never knew anyone who went on to a major university.”
He has been asked several times this week how he feels about playing BYU. He’s one of two former LDS missionaries on the team, he said. The other is defensive tackle Deuce Mataele, who is serving an NCAA academic suspension this season.
“I wasn’t a huge fan of BYU sports, but I relate to them,” Lee said. “I love the school itself, the principle of it is great. I don’t think it’s a huge deal.”
Boise State has two signees who are currently serving missions. Defensive end Durrant Miles signed in 2013 and safety Kekoa Nawahine signed in 2014.
Tight end Jake Hardee has the Hammer this week for a block on kickoff return. “It was pretty spectacular to watch,” Lee said.
The Boise State-Fresno State game was watched by an average of 1,623,000 viewers and drew a 1.0 rating, according to ESPN.
Student ticket pickups were a little slow this week but it sounds like the section will be close to full for the planned pink-out for Friday’s game against BYU.
From this morning:
Less than 500 student tickets remain for this Friday's football game! Pick yours up before they're gone at the SUB. #ProtectTheBlue— BroncoSports (@BroncoSports) October 22, 2014
From last night:
72 hours till kickoff. We need you students! Still 1K student tickets remaining. It's a #StudentPinkOut. We'll wear a little pink as well.— Coach Bryan Harsin (@bryanharsin) October 22, 2014
BYU at Boise State
When: 7:01 p.m. Friday
Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387 , FieldTurf)
TV: ESPN (Dave Flemming, David Diaz-Infante, Allison Williams)
Radio: KBOI (670AM), KKGL (96.9 FM); Bob Behler, Pete Cavender
Records: Boise State is 5-2 overall, 3-1 Mountain West; BYU is 4-3.
Series: Boise State leads 3-1 (BYU won 37-20 last year in Provo, Utah)
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