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After missing three weeks with injury, Washington State strong safety Jordan Lee makes impact in return

PULLMAN – Jordan Lee played in 47 of Nevada’s 48 games over the past four years. He hadn’t missed a game since 2018, his true freshman season.

In his second appearance at Washington State – a Week 2 win at Wisconsin – the senior transfer strong safety sustained a lower-body injury, which kept him out of action for the next three weeks.

“Missing the past few games after missing like one my whole career, I was kind of down about it,” Lee said this week. “There were some times that I definitely cried in my coach’s office. I had a couple of one-on-ones, just being frustrated, ‘Why is this happening right now?’

“Whenever I get my shot, I know I’ll take advantage of it. I always stayed prepared.”

Lee made an impact almost immediately when he returned to the field Saturday during the Cougars’ 30-14 loss at No. 6 USC.

Although he considers himself to be more on the quiet side – a less-boastful kind of player – Lee couldn’t help but let out his emotions after producing a defensive highlight early in the game.

With the Trojans facing a third-and-1 in the second quarter, Lee crept up to the line on a blitz and identified the play. He avoided a blocker and burst into the backfield, tripping up Jordan Addison on a receiver sweep for a loss of 6 yards.

Lee popped up and launched into a dance as his teammates huddled around him for a quick welcome-back party.

“I’m not really a big celebrator, but I had to release it all,” Lee said. “For me, my first few plays back out there after a few weeks, I was just ecstatic to be with my team and celebrate with my team, and make a big play for the team. I hope I can make more in the future. I know more will come.”

Limited to just 25 of 69 defensive snaps against the Trojans, Lee finished third on the team with six tackles and led the Cougars with 1½ tackles for loss. He did not start and played sparingly in Los Angeles, but will see his workload expand when he returns to the first-team lineup Saturday.

“We’ll probably get him to about 50 snaps this week,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said.

With their veteran safety back in the fold, the Cougars (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) visit Oregon State (4-2, 1-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Corvallis. Lee, known most for his tackling abilities, will be a crucial piece for the WSU defense against the Beavers’ strong ground game.

“I just think J-Lee is an elite box defender,” Dickert said of the 5-foot-11, 202-pounder. “There were a couple of times in last week’s game that (USC) had an extra hat for him, and he beats the block and goes and makes a big play. He just has that feel in that box and that aggressiveness – which, in this game (versus the Beavers), is going to be everything.”

Lee, who has played in 50 career games, adds poise to WSU’s secondary. His experience – and the relaxed demeanor that comes with it – provide a boost in confidence for the Cougars’ less-proven safeties: freshman backup Jaden Hicks and junior college transfer free safety Sam Lockett III.

“When (Lee) is out there, everybody is really calm,” Dickert said, “because he’s just seen all the checks. He knows where we’re supposed to be and he’s a really good communicator and leader.”

While working through the injury, Lee adopted additional leadership responsibilities and mentored his younger teammates. He took on a “big-brother role” for Hicks, and got a head start on his next career.

“Being a coach is what I want to do in the future,” said Lee, who felt “uplifted” as he saw Hicks absorb the teaching and make strides.

During a difficult three-week stretch out of action, Lee kept himself busy. He soaked up insights from assistant coaches and viewed the game through a different lens.

“Just having my coach be in my ear – ‘Coach these guys up. Tell them what you would have done (on a play),’ ” Lee said. “Of course, I’ve been more vocal in that aspect, but I feel like it’s the same whether I’m on the field or not playing.

“With how old I am, I just have to stay ready and everything will take care of itself. I have a good feel for the game no matter how long I’m out.”

One of the Cougars’ top recruits of the offseason, Lee wrapped up an accomplished career at Nevada with 147 tackles and 11½ TFLs.

A walk-on from prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, Lee served on Nevada’s special teams units as a true freshman in 2018. He broke into the Wolf Pack’s secondary rotation late the following season, totaling 40 tackles and earning a scholarship.

“I knew, if I stayed patient, my time would come and I wasn’t gonna run away from anything,” Lee said during an offseason interview with the Spokesman-Review. “There were times that I was at my lowest and I felt like people didn’t believe in me. But I believed in myself. That’s where it starts.”

Playing under a new defensive staff in 2020, Lee had a down year. But he soon gained the trust of Nevada DC Brian Ward.

Lee became a star in 2021, recording 86 tackles, with a team-high 67 solo stops. He recovered five fumbles and forced four – both top-five marks in the FBS – en route to an All-Mountain West honorable mention nod.

“Senior year (at Nevada), I knew I had to go all out,” he said. “I took advantage of my opportunity. When it came, I didn’t look back.”

Ward accepted the DC job at WSU after the season. Lee followed him from Reno to Pullman, committing to the Cougars on Jan. 1 and capturing starting duties at strong safety during spring camp.

“The hype around Power Five versus Group of Five, I saw that as a challenge and an opportunity for me,” he said. “As far as coach Ward, that’s my guy. We built a strong relationship over the past couple of years. I trusted his system. He trusted me to make plays. I’d run through a brick wall for coach Ward. I’m here because he believes in me.”

Recruiting an experienced safety was a priority this offseason for the Cougs, who lost all of their depth at that position after the 2021 season. Dickert was impressed with Lee’s physical play, smarts and knack for takeaways.

“He said that I’m everything he looks for in a strong safety,” Lee said.

In three WSU games, Lee has recorded 15 tackles. He is fourth on the team with 3½ TFLs. With Lee on the field, the Cougars’ rushing defense will improve and their communication in the secondary – an issue at times early this season – should be better.

“I’m trying to be the encourager,” he said. “I’m trying to be the most vocal on the field. If I’m more vocal, the energy picks up.

“Being back out there, it just felt natural. … I felt healthy. I look forward to playing in a bigger role this week.”