Some of Lairamie Lee’s earliest memories are of playing in the yard with his friends.
And he remembers running into things — poles, walls and anything else that got in his way.
“I would get back up and keep playing,” Lee said. “It wasn’t on purpose. It was just what happened.”
In that way, not a lot has changed for the North Texas sophomore safety.
Lee is still running into things, getting up and doing it all over again. It’s what he’s good at — what has helped make him perhaps the biggest surprise this season for UNT’s defense.
The former Tyler Chapel Hill standout has posted a team-high 27 tackles and an interception for the Mean Green, which will face Troy in its Sun Belt Conference opener Saturday at Apogee Stadium.
UNT (1-2) has dropped games to a pair of ranked teams in LSU and Kansas State and can’t afford another loss heading into a two-game road trip if it wants to make a run at its first winning season since 2004. UNT will have to contain or at least slow down a potent Troy offense to avoid that fate in what could be its most important game of the season.
Troy features the Sun Belt’s leading passer in Corey Robinson (337.3 yards a game), its leading rusher in Shawn Southward (124.7 yards a game) and ranks first in the Sun Belt in total offense at 537.7 yards a game.
Troy rolled up 572 yards last week and nearly knocked off Mississippi State before falling 30-24.
“When you put up 572 yards of offense against an SEC defense, you have talent, you have a really good system and are executing,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “They are sure doing that.”
Lee will be a big part of UNT’s plan to slow down Troy’s offense, which shows just how far he has come in a short time with the Mean Green.
Lee arrived at UNT as a lightly recruited and somewhat undersized safety at 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds.
What caught the attention of McCarney and the Mean Green’s staff was Lee’s aggressive nature that helped him earn all-state honors at linebacker while rushing for more than 1,400 yards.
What Lee lacked in size, he more than made up for with a willingness to plow headfirst into anyone he encountered on the field.
Jeremy Loyd, an assistant coach at Chapel Hill who played for McCarney at Iowa State, enthusiastically endorsed Lee when UNT began recruiting him, largely because of his physical approach.
“[Loyd] told me, ‘Mac, you’ll love this kid. He has all those things you are looking for on and off the field,’” McCarney said.
Lee, who McCarney and his teammates say has a quiet and reserved personality that contradicts his on-field persona, has more than lived up to that endorsement. He picked up the nickname “Hit Man” during his freshman season for the blows he delivered on special teams while waiting his turn behind four veteran safeties who filled the depth chart last season.
UNT’s staff didn’t believe Lee was ready to start in the secondary as a freshman, especially with so many experienced players in front of him.
Lee showed glimpses of his potential in limited action in 2011, posting big hits for UNT’s coverage teams and blocking a punt in a season-ending win over Middle Tennessee.
UNT’s players saw a lot more of Lee in practice and had a feeling he would become a key contributor.
“Lairamie doesn’t fear anyone,” running back Antoinne Jimmerson said. “He will hit anyone, big or small.”
One hit Lee dished out last week against Kansas State has been a topic of conversation among UNT’s players.
Lee moved up to make a tackle and ended up hitting Richard Abbe, UNT’s 319-pound defensive tackle.
“He hit Abbe in the leg and made him do a front flip,” defensive tackle Tevinn Cantly said. “It gave him a bruise. He said he had never been hit that hard by a guy that small before.”
It’s just part of Lee’s nature.
“I know I’m not the biggest guy, but I’m not afraid to stick my head in there and make the tackle,” Lee said. “I like to hit. I’ve been physical and aggressive my whole life, ever since I was a little kid running into things and hitting things.”
That nature has given Lee a basis from which to develop as a player.
McCarney said Lee takes pride in tackling and works on his form and technique.
The next step in his maturation process will be improving in pass coverage, which will be particularly important against Troy. Lee posted his first interception two weeks ago in a win over Texas Southern.
UNT fared well against the Tigers, limiting TSU to 154 passing yards while intercepting three passes, but struggled at times against LSU and Kansas State. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger connected on 19 of his 26 pass attempts for 192 yards, while Kansas State’s Collin Klein threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns while hitting of all but five of his 20 attempts.
UNT knows Troy’s Robinson could exceed those numbers if it cannot hold up in coverage.
“It will be a big challenge with the way they throw it, but we think we will meet that challenge,” Lee said. “If we are all on the same page and focused, we are pretty good.”
No matter who comes Lee’s way, whether it’s a wide receiver or a running back, UNT’s coaches and players know what’s coming next. It’s what Lee does best.
“He’s smart and always puts himself in position to be successful,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “For a guy who’s 185 pounds, that dude will bring the wood.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .