Lee has big impact in Blue Hens’ backfield

Blue Hen running back DeJoun Lee tries to break free from a Villanova defender in Saturday’s game. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

NEWARK — If it was up to DeJoun Lee, he might be a James Madison football player right now.

Growing up in Virgina, JMU is where the young running back wanted to go.

“JMU was actually one of my favorite schools,” Lee admitted. “But they told me I was too small.”

Considering he stands only 5-foot-7, 185 pounds, the Dukes weren’t the only ones to tell Lee he was too small for them.

But he finally found a place where his stature wasn’t an issue — Delaware — where he’s emerged as a pleasant surprise in his first season playing for the Blue Hens.

Ironically. now the sophomore finds himself going up against No. 6 JMU (8-3), which hosts No. 21 Delaware (7-4) on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA FCS Division I playoffs.

While Lee admits to having a chip on his shoulder because the Dukes rejected him, he also says the snub has turned out to be a good thing.

“I’m grateful for them saying that,” said Lee. “It really helped me work harder and it’s something in the back of my head every time I’m doing something.”

Compared to 6-foot, 240-pound running mate Kani Kane, Lee gives the Hens a quicker, faster option.

The two backs’ rushing stats are pretty close: Kane has 595 yards on 147 carries with Lee adding 579 yards on 112 carries. The big difference is in rushing touchdowns where Kane has 10 and Lee has two.

Lee scored both his TDs in Saturday’s 42-21 loss to Villanova. With Kane slowed by a knee injury, Lee has run for a team-high 169 yards on 29 carries in the last two games.

DeJoun Lee is Delaware’s second-leading rusher going into Saturday’s FCS playoff game at JMU. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

Lee has also turned in a couple big kickoff returns, including a 47-yarder to set up the winning touchdown in the Hens’ 40-36 upset of No. 10 Towson a couple weeks ago.

The newcomer may have been something of an unknown to UD fans, but Delaware’s players had a pretty good idea of what Lee could do after practicing against him last year. Lee had to sit out last season after transferring from Army, where he spent a year.

“I don’t think many people even knew he was going to be coming here,” said senior linebacker Troy Reeder. “But it was kind of like we showed up to (2017 preseason) camp and had this special guy. It was like, ‘Oh wow, I wish we could use him this year.’

“Obviously, this year, it’s been really special watching him. He creates an element of excitement and energy. That’s his style of play and his personality. I’m happy that he’s having such a good year.”

Kane, the Sussex Tech High grad, and Lee have turned out to be good friends. They room together on campus.

Lee likes the way their running styles compliment each other.

“Throughout the year we were like a ‘thunder-and-lightning’ kind of duo,” he said. “If Kani makes the call (to play) on game day, then the thunder is there. I’m ready to step up to the challenge. Whatever comes my way, I’ll face it.

Lee said he and Kane also point things out to each other, like how to attack opposing defenses. A lot of times, defenses use different strategies against the two backs.

“When one’s not on the field, the other one’s looking for what the other team is doing — and seeing something that you can’t see when you’re on the field,” said Lee.

As for being small on the football field, Lee said that’s something he learned to deal with a long time ago. His father had him play up a weight class in organized leagues when he was a youngster.

At Lake Braddock (Va.) High, was a first-team All-Stater as a senior and a two-time all-region pick.

“I’d be like, ‘Why are you making me play against bigger guys?’” Lee recalled asking his father. “‘I could really be doing crazy stuff if I was playing against people my age and my size.’ He was like, ‘Because there is no weight limit when you’re older.’ I was like, ‘OK, I understand that.’ When I got to high school, it really helped me take off.

“I’m grateful to my father for that. I think it was really just building toughness as a young kid and carrying it out throughout my career.”

When it came to transferring to Delaware, Lee said Blue Hen coach Danny Rocco never made a big deal out of his smaller stature.

Even though most other Colonial Athletic Association coaches also thought Lee was too small, Rocco first started recruiting Lee when he was still coaching at Richmond.

“He believed in me from day one,” said Lee. “And he liked my attitude with everything. I’m ready for anything.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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