Malik Lee has succeeded in just about everything he’s done on a football field.
In the past two years, the running back has posted statistics that could be called video-game numbers – only video games are more realistic than what Lee has done. He has rushed for close to 6,000 yards and 78 touchdowns. He’s also played in state championship games and was the driving force for his team when it won it all in 2012.
There’s one catch. Lee’s greatness was achieved while playing for Wardlaw Academy, which competes in 8-Man football.
Although the principals of the game and rules remain the same as the traditional football that’s played at the majority of South Carolina high schools – with a 11 players on a side – there’s no disputing 8-Man is different.
But any questions about Lee’s ability could be answered this season. The rising senior has transferred to South Aiken High School and will play football for the Thoroughbreds, who compete in the traditional 11-man formations.
Lee explained he transferred to South Aiken to draw greater attention from college football coaches and scouts. Based solely on the numbers he produced at Wardlaw, Lee said he’s already been contacted by Nebraska, Cincinnati and Furman, among others, about the possibility of carrying the football for them in the future.
How Lee will fare, and just exactly what his role will be, remains to be seen. But those questions alone are reason enough that Lee is No. 6 on The Standard 10, the list of the players to watch for the upcoming football season.
“The big thing is the transition from 8-Man football to 11-man,” said Jeremy West, Lee’s new head coach. “There’s going to be growing pains.”
While the increased number of players on the field will pose a new challenge for Lee, West pointed to their ability as another issue to deal with. The T-Breds play in Class AAAA – the largest in the state – and by far bigger than the South Carolina Independent School Association, where Wardlaw competes. Most of the players at the higher level are simply bigger and more athletic than many of those who previously taken the field with Lee.
“I’m not knocking anything,” West said in describing the differences. “But the speed of the game is faster. A lot of guys at this level run 4.5 or 4.6,” times in the 40 meter dash, which is the top tool in measuring the speed of football players.
While the South Aiken coach explained that the greater number of players with elite speed will make it harder for Lee to perform at such a high level, he did praise his new addition’s skills.
“He’s got a quick burst, good vision and is a quick learner,” said West, who isn’t promising anything to Lee, beyond the opportunity to contribute as a running back as well as a defensive back. “He’s going to help us in the secondary and in the backfield and add depth.”
Lee said the transition has been smooth so far. He actually transferred to South Aiken last year, following Christmas break. With a semester under his belt, Lee said he’s familiar with the school, classes and students – several of whom are his teammates.
While he admits to being a little nervous about playing football, he’s enthusiastic about the opportunity to perform on a larger stage. He said working during the summer in passing leagues and conditioning sessions has helped ease the transition. He also credited his new teammates for helping him out and making him feel at home.
“He has meshed well with other kids,” West said of Lee, crediting him for doing a good job of absorbing a lot of new information. “There is a learning curve, and he’s picked up the concepts. And the kids have opened their arms and helped him out.”
Not all of the feedback Lee has received has been supportive. He has heard from those who are critical of the move he’s making and dubious of his ability to succeed in the bigger game.
Lee said the doubts just serve to motivate him. Rather than engage in a war of words, he’s looking forward to let his performance speak for him.
“All the talk, with people saying it’s going to be different and I won’t be able to run like I did at Wardlaw,” Lee said. “But football is football. I don’t like to talk trash, but I want to show that I’m capable. I feel like I have the perfect chance to do something.”
Lee said he’s also received a lot of encouragement. There are a lot of people cheering him on and rooting for the best.
Some people are going even a step further. They’re expecting him to duplicate the awesome stats he produced at Wardlaw, as well as the winning.
“It makes me feel good, like I’m worth something,” Lee said of the high expectations being placed on him, including a 200-yard, two-touchdown performance against Aiken in the T-Breds’ season opener on Aug. 29.
Lee said he’s going to do his best and help South Aiken in whatever way he can and do whatever the coaches ask of him. It’s just part of his positive approach, which includes how he’s reacting to all of the feedback – good and bad, realistic or otherwise.
“It makes me more dedicated than discouraged.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.
This story is the fifth part in a series highlighting The Standard 10, the top 10 Players to Watch in the Aiken area for the rapidly approaching high school football season.
• July 21 — No. 10 DeAngilo Drayton, SB
• July 22 — No. 9 Dalton Swires, FC
• July 23 — No. 8 Tyree Stidem, ST
• July 24 — No. 7 Rashad Byrd, NA
• Today — No. 6 Malik Lee, SA
• Saturday — No. 5
• Sunday — No. 4
• Monday — No. 3
• Tuesday — No. 2
• Wednesday — No. 1
The order was determined by Aiken Standard sports editor Noah Feit, staff writers Jeremy Timmerman and Eric Russell, North Augusta Star news editor Scott Rodgers and staff writer T.J. Lundeen, as well as ASTV broadcasters Ed Girardeau and Ken Brace.