Marquel Lee has been preparing his whole athletic life for this moment


Marquel Lee has been preparing his whole athletic life for this moment

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.”

Raiders fire defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

Raiders fire defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

Ken Norton Jr.'s time with the Raiders is up.

With the team underperforming, Oakland has fired Norton as the defensive coordinator, the team announced Tuesday afternoon. John Pagano will handle the play calling duties when the Raiders take on the Broncos this Sunday.

Head coach Jack Del Rio issued the following statement regarding the news:

“After careful thought, I have made a difficult decision to part ways with Ken Norton, Jr. as defensive coordinator. I have the utmost respect for Ken as a person and as a coach, but I feel that moving John Pagano into the play-calling role will best utilize his wealth of experience. I appreciate Ken’s passion and commitment to the Raiders since coming aboard and wish him the best going forward.”

The Raiders defense under Norton this season ranks 26th in the NFL in yards allow per game (367.0), is allowing 24.7 points per game and has yet to record an interception through 10 games.

"We played under our talent level. Those things come with consequences," defensive lineman Justin Ellis told reporters shortly after the news broke.

"The axe fell on all of us. We love Coach Norton. We didn’t want to see this happen," safety Reggie Nelson said.

Norton joined Del Rio's staff prior to the 2015 season.

Raiders will face a familiar foe calling plays for Broncos


Raiders will face a familiar foe calling plays for Broncos

ALAMEDA – The Denver Broncos shook up their coaching staff prior to Sunday’s game with the Raiders, firing offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and promoting quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave to that spot.

The name should sound familiar to anyone who doesn’t suffer Dory-style short-term memory loss. Musgrave was the Raiders offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016 and introduced a system still used in these parts, to far greater effect.

Musgrave orchestrated the No. 6-ranked offense last year, with 120 rushing yards and 253 passing yards per game. They were seventh with 26 points per game.

Head coach Jack Del Rio still decided to let Musgrave’s contract expire. The two didn’t always agree, and the Raiders chose to keep the coveted Downing in house with a promotion.

The offense has not maintained previous course.

All those numbers are down under new coordinator Todd Downing, largely operating with the same talent base plus receiving tight end Jared Cook.

They’re averaging 50 less yards and 5.5 fewer points, thus far.

Del Rio was asked on his 95.7-FM radio show whether he regretting making the switch. His answer was swift and direct.

“No, I do not,” Del Rio said. “And I wish (Musgrave) the best this week. Really, I do.”

Del Rio doesn’t wish him too well heading into an important matchup at Oakland Coliseum. The Broncos offense has struggled mightily this season, and will go with 2016 first-round pick Paton Lynch for the first time this season.

Del Rio insists the Raiders are going up against the system, not the new (yet familiar) play caller.

“You can’t change dramatically what you’ve done with your system in Week 12 or Week 13,” Del Rio said. “We’ll prepare ourselves and be ready to go against the system. Understand that there may be some things that Bill likes a little more than what Mike might do.”

The Raiders know Musgrave well and vice versa, which should make for an intriguing chess match at Oakland Coliseum.