Published: August 7, 2013
Two years ago, Jon Lee took the baton in the field days that served as a break during Air Force's exhausting basic training. He was a freshman, an unknown.
He trailed Asher Clark, the football team's star halfback, by 15 yards when he took the baton on the anchor run of a relay at Air Force's track. Lee ran with the hopes of the entire Air Force freshman class.
Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh was in the stands, along with hundreds of others, watching Lee try to catch Clark.
"He blew him away," Mueh said. "He won it going away. And I thought, 'Boy, this is a kid to watch.'"
Mueh paused. He expected to see Lee make an immediate splash as an Air Force halfback. Instead, Lee has spent most of the past two seasons watching from the bench.
"I don't know where he's been, to be honest," Mueh said with obvious surprise.
Lee sometimes wonders the same thing. He expected to deliver instant impact to the Falcons.
He still has big ambitions. Lee is a rarity in recent Air Force football history. He boasts sprinter's speed. He is, in the words of backfield coach Jake Campbell, "as strong as an ox." He's quick and elusive and runs with his eyes locked on his favored destination, the end zone.
"This season, it's really going to be eye-opening for everyone, but right now I'm taking it day by day, just trying to get better," Lee said.
Eye-opening? Lee was asked to be more specific.
"I'm just going to say it's going to be an eye-opener in many ways," he answered.
Lee opened eyes the first time he touched the ball for Air Force, sprinting 49 yards to a touchdown. But the last time Lee touched the ball for the Falcons was just as revealing.
Against Rice in the Armed Forces Bowl, Lee took a first-quarter handoff into the teeth of the Owls' defense.
He fumbled. He did not touch the ball again in the game.
As he prepares for his junior season, Lee retains the gifts that have made him the next-big-thing for the Falcons. He also retains the shadow that has held him back.
He's known as a fumbler, and Calhoun despises fumbles.
"Oh, it's fair," Lee said of his reputation. "It's something that I'm trying to put in the back of my mind. When I think about it, that's when I fumble the most."
If he can keep a tight grip on the football, Lee could become this team's breakout star. He could flirt with 1,400 yards rushing. This is not an outrageous prediction. Lee collected 543 yards and a 6.2 per-carry average as Cody Getz's backup last season.
But that if is a big, troubling if.
Lee runs in a nearly straight-up style. This stance helps his vision, keeps him out of the clutches of tacklers, but this stance also makes him an inviting target.
Calhoun has long insisted Lee lower his shoulders when he runs. A more hunkered-down Lee would offer a smaller target for tacklers. He would also better protect the football. Calhoun hopes Lee finally pays attention to his advice this season.
Lee played high school football in suburban Atlanta and grew up a few miles from recent Air Force halfbacks Chad Hall, Clark and Getz. He's one of the top recruits of the Calhoun era, which began in 2007.
He was discovered in Georgia by defensive coordinator Charlton Warren, who also unearthed Getz. During that field day when Lee led the freshmen to a stunning comeback victory, Warren was there in the stands, not far from Mueh.
"That's what we want him to be," Warren said, thinking back to Lee's rapid finish. "The potential is there. It's all there. It just has to be realized."
Warren scrunched his nose as he considered what might be the biggest question of the season for Air Force.
"Can he take another step?" Warren asked.
Here's what Warren is talking about:
Lee must make a leap, and it's a big one. He must jump from the backup with questions surrounding him to the every-down runner with all the answers.