ALAMEDA – Marquel Lee insists he won’t be nervous before Sunday’s game at Tennessee, dream realization be damned.
The Raiders rookie middle linebacker will be juiced. That’s unavoidable. He’ll make his regular-season debut on the road, in the starting lineup, for a team with lofty expectations.
That won’t induce anxiety. Lee has been preparing his whole athletic life for this moment. He knows that studying hard helps pass the test and calm the nerves.
“It’s my first NFL game,” Lee said Wednesday. “I’ll be excited, but you have to find a way to channel it. It’s important I stay focused this week on everything. I feel like, if I’m well prepared, I’ll do my best.”
That’s a mantra instilled by Corey Lee early on. Marquel’s father preached preparation to a young son while coaching him from youth football through high school. (Read more about that here).
It was something Lee took seriously in his first NFL camp. The Raiders’ fifth-round pick had resources available and no Wake Forest class schedule demanding time, so he immersed himself in the Raiders scheme.
“It helped a ton,” Lee said. “In college, you only had a few meetings per day. Here, football is your life. I had a lot of time to spend studying, and I spent a ton of time doing it. All the extra time has helped me understand the system. You learn it, you act it out in walk-throughs and then you ramp it up to practice speed and then carry it over to the game.”
He spent downtime in training camp pouring over material with linebackers coach Sal Sunseri. Lee attached himself to defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.’s hip, trying to absorb knowledge from the former All-Pro middle linebacker.
“Marquel, he’s very talented,” Norton said. “He has big body, he’s really smart and cares a lot. When you combine the care with the passion and the talent and a guy who really wants to learn, my experience you get a lot of good things from the players.”
That was the Raiders’ hope early on. Lee was promoted to the first unit at the start of training camp, giving him as much time as possible to work with starters and rep against an explosive Raiders offense. There was a real possibility Lee would have to start right away.
The Raiders are shockingly inexperienced at inside linebacker, especially with Jelani Jenkins – the team’s lone defensive free-agent signing -- off the roster following an injury settlement. Lee’s getting ready to play his first game. Weakside linebacker Cory James has five starts to his credit. Backups Tyrell Adams and Nicholas Morrow are tied with Lee at zero.
That’s not ideal heading into a 2017 season where defense must improve to reach lofty internal and external expectations. It’s the situation facing Raiders defensive coaches, who have pushed to develop young talent.
Head coach Jack Del Rio has been quick to note football’s a team sport, takes 11 to execute a play right. Neither credit nor blame should fall on one guy. That’s accurate. The Raiders will use several different personnel combinations aimed to accentuate strengths. To that end, Lee should only be active in the base defense. In those moments, he must fill an important role.
He’s in charge of making pre-snap checks and calls, no easy task against a Tennessee offense that aims to confuse with motion and misdirection. Lee likely won’t get every call right against the Titans, but it’s important the Raiders still act as one and remain on the same page.
Strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin offered sage advice for those instances. Have a short memory. Believe in yourself and your reads.
“The biggest thing is being confident,” Irvin said. “Marquel is the (middle linebacker), so he’s basically the D.C. of the defense. He has the mic. He calls the plays. As a younger guy in charge of the defense, you have to be confident. You make a call, you go with the call. You can’t be out there confused, ‘is it left? is it right?’ Make the call, play the call. That’s the biggest thing. Just be confident.
"At the end of the day, it’s still football. We’ve been playing this game all our lives. Just go play.”