When Kansas football assistant Jake Schoonover watches senior Malcolm Lee during practices this preseason, the defensive ends coach sees more than a veteran with something to prove.
“Malcolm Lee’s kind of the hammer,” Schoonover began, “of not just our position, but really our defense.”
While that may sound like high praise for a defensive lineman who totaled 24 tackles over the course of his previous two years with the Jayhawks, Lee thinks some changes that occurred since the end of last season have helped him transform into a different type of player up front.
“Off the field, I think I can speak for the whole team, we all put in work in the offseason changing our bodies,” Lee said earlier this week.
“Just looking around the locker room you can see that people look different,” added Lee, a 6-foot-5 D-end who shared his weight these days is usually somewhere around 250 pounds — give or take a few depending on the day and whether or not he just left a practice and dropped some water weight.
“People are kind of walking around different. It’s not just me,” Lee said. “I went through my own little personal body transformation. Everybody’s looking really good right now.”
For Lee, the road to revamping himself into peak physical shape began when he first got to KU as a junior college transfer in 2019. During his freshman year at Iowa Western Community College, he played at around 260 pounds. But Lee got up in the 285 range before he arrived in Lawrence. He was listed at 270 pounds on the 2019 KU roster.
Lee said he really started dropping weight in 2020 during the season, and only improved from there.
“During that little winter break I really hit the weight room hard, kind of got my nutrition right and just lost a lot more fat and started building up muscle,” Lee said. “This is the best shape I’ve ever been in in my life, for sure.”
Some of the credit for where he’s at now physically goes to KU’s new strength and conditioning staff. As an example, Lee said as Matt Gildersleeve, the team’s director of sports performance, led the Jayhawks through offseason workouts this summer, one of the requirements was players had to show up 30 minutes before they lifted weights to have breakfast at the facility.
“At first, I can’t lie, I was a little irked by it,” a grinning Lee admitted.
He got over it, though. Lee said he now realizes getting in the building early helped him and other players get their minds right and make sure they were properly fueled for their workouts in June and July, leading up to preseason camp.
Another crucial change for Lee came with the arrival of head coach Lance Leipold and his staff earlier this offseason. Schematically, defensive coordinator Brian Borland runs a 4-3 base defense. Within that, D-ends such as Lee are asked to line up wide against an offensive tackle. In KU’s previous 3-4 defense, Lee had to line up on the inside of that O-tackle.
Lee said he had never played inside until he got to KU two years ago. He’s thankful to be back out wide again now.
“Playing at that spot, it feels really natural to me personally,” he said.
Heading into his senior season, Lee has starting experience at KU, but has yet to break through in terms of statistical production. In 2020 he made four starts — three in the first three games before Marcus Harris, who has since transferred to Auburn, started coming on for the defense. Even during his sophomore year with the Jayhawks, while playing at a higher weight, Lee also made four starts during the first half of the 2019 season.
He made 18 total tackles, one tackle for loss and was given credit for half a sack during his 10 appearances as a sophomore. Lee followed that up with six total tackles, no sacks, 0.5 TFLs and an interception while playing in nine games as a junior last year.
The expectations for Lee, though, have changed.
As Schoonover said: “He is a physical presence, an intense presence, kind of permeates that through the entire defense and the defensive line in particular.”