By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
ELON, N.C. — It was on a pleasant college football trip from Fresno to San Luis Obispo, California in 1979 when I first learned about a legendary warrior known to history as Vlad the Impaler.
As a sports writer for my student newspaper at Fresno State, the Daily Collegian, I was traveling to Cal Poly for a football game that evening at what was then called Mustang Stadium.
My companion, a brilliant, budding photographer named John Walker, regaled me with stories for some reason about this brutal, but beloved Romanian prince, known for the creative ways he executed his enemies.
The memories of that day were rekindled on Saturday as I watched James Madison quarterback Vad Lee perform a similar destruction of Elon on Saturday afternoon. It was a painful homecoming for the host Phoenix as Lee and his teammates dismantled them 51-0.
Lee only needed to play three quarters before exiting to the sidelines on this warm and sunny autumn afternoon with a 44-0 lead. This strong and elusive senior was 16-of-22 passing for 198 yards and two touchdowns and scampered out of the backfield eight times for 66 more yards — rather pedestrian numbers for an athlete who is earning the reputation as the most dangerous player in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Rumors of Lee’s prodigious talent had caught my attention for some time and I watched him on several occasions on film before finally getting a chance to see this skillful performer in person for the first time Saturday.
And Lee didn’t disappoint anyone in the crowd of 8,342 spectators, outside of those wearing Elon’s maroon and gold colors.
Taking the role of a director, more so than the main character, Lee guided the Dukes to 604 yards of total offense, 406 of those on the ground. Tailback Cardon Johnson was the biggest beneficiary, carrying the ball 17 times for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
JMU came into the contest leading FCS in total offense (614 yards per game) and first downs (192), while ranking second in points per game (48.3), thanks largely to Lee’s maturing ability.
Just a couple of days removed from being named as one of Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd for his monumental performance at SMU three weeks earlier after passing for 289 yards and rushing for 276 as the Dukes pulled out its 48-45 victory in the final seconds, Lee has arrived on many people’s radar.
“That game was awesome,” said Lee, who had the support of a lot of family and friends from nearby Durham, where he prepped at Hillside High School and won the 2010 state 4-A championship. “Being in Sports Illustrated was a huge deal. Dreams do come true.”
Lee came into Saturday’s game averaging 385.7 yards of total offense per game, good for second in FCS and was first in points responsible for (132). He has increased his completion percentage to nearly 70%.
Poised, personable and smart, Lee has bigger aspirations he wants to see fulfilled this year — team goals, not individual ones.
The Dukes were stunned last year when they lost to Liberty in a first-round playoff game. That has wetted their appetite during a 7-0 start in 2015.
“When you expect success, you want more,” said Lee. “This journey is not over.”
The biggest difference for James Madison this season is preparation in Lee’s mind.
“Everybody knows their job description this year,” Lee explained.
This uber-talented quarterback has found his coach, second-year-man Everett Withers, in agreement on that assessment.
“Everybody has bought into what we’re trying to do here,” said Withers, who came to JMU after a year as the interim coach at North Carolina, having helped clean up the mess left by Butch Davis. “We take the same approach with everybody we play.”
Withers has found his perfect field general in Lee, who transferred to James Madison from Georgia Tech in January, 2014.
“Vad does a lot of good things leadership-wise for this football team,” said Withers, who tried to recruit Lee when Withers was an assistant at UNC.
“Leadership is something I cherish,” Lee said.
Lee is also having fun playing football again, something that wasn’t always the case at Georgia Tech.
He didn’t think his multi-faceted skills were being utilized in Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack at Georgia Tech and bristled about sharing time at QB with Tevin Washington, who graduated in 2012.
“I just wanted to be happy,” said Lee. “Even though a lot of people don’t know about (James Madison), this is a great place.”