Q&A with Pitt's Conor Lee
|Jason Bridge/US PRESSWIRE|
|Pittsburgh senior kicker Conor Lee is one of the best in the nation.|
Pittsburgh senior placekicker Conor Lee is the Big East's active leader in career field goal percentage (83.3 percent), missing only six kicks in his two years for the Panthers. The Lou Groza Award candidate took time after practice tonight to visit with us by phone:
You hold the school record for consecutive extra points made at 75. Is that a source of pride?
Conor Lee: PATs are a given. It's more of a testament to how our special teams are, because a lot of times when extra points are missed, they're not the kicker's fault. It's a bad snap or a missed block. I think our team takes it very seriously, and that extra point streak just shows the stress we put on special teams.
How did you become a kicker?
CL: I played soccer my whole life and just started kicking on my grade school team. I actually quit football, and my freshman year of high school, the kicker for our team tore his ACL. That was the second game of the season and they asked me to come out, and I was playing varsity the third game of the season. It was almost meant to be.
Then I went to Fork Union Military Academy to try to get recruited more. But the recruiting didn't go like I had hoped and I kind of got sick of it, so I walked on here in January of 2004. I just wanted to go somewhere and try to get the job.
Considering how little was guaranteed at the start, how amazed are you by the career you've had so far?
CL: Every time I look back on it, I think it's pretty crazy. I had moments when I never thought I'd play and now I get to do interviews and stuff and I'm really grateful for that. I know where I came from. It's been a long road, but I think it's possible for people to do if they get some luck. And I think the journey of that is going to help me in life.
Your younger brother, Sean, is a linebacker at Penn State who's out for the year with a knee injury. Did you try to pick his spirits up when he got hurt in the spring?
CL: Yeah, he and I are real close. We talk almost every day during the season. He's got a great attitude. He's a hard worker and he kills himself every day to get better. This injury is just a little hiccup. He'll be fine.
Do people ever ask you how one brother became a linebacker while the other is a kicker?
CL: Yeah, and I would switch sides and be a linebacker if I could, to be honest with you. (Laughs). I was a pretty good football player when I was younger but I was pretty the much same size back then as I am now. The growth stopped for me and kept going for him.
You had two big field goals, including a 48-yarder at the end of the first half, in Pitt's 13-9 win at West Virginia to end last season. How big was that moment for you?
CL: After that win, a couple days later it kind of sank in how important it was. I used to go to Pitt games when I was a kid, and I remember the game against West Virginia that went to four overtimes and Pitt won, and when we upset Miami at home. But that was quite possibly the biggest win in university history. I mean, I realize there was a national championship here, but what went down that night, how we were 28-point underdogs in their place, they'd never lost a night game under coach Rich Rodriguez and they were going to go to the national championship game and we just ruined it. Being a part of that was amazing.
Can that win be a program-changing moment for you guys, or is too much made of that one game?
CL: I think so because in any sport, winning is the way you approach it and having confidence. People always say you get used to wining, but you can get used to losing too. Some programs, they get used to losing. They don't mean to, but they expect to lose almost when they play a big team. So beating a team like West Virginia just shows us we can do that. It switches our attitude. Not that we expected to lose, but we were kind of in a rut there for a little while. We had teams beat, we'd be close and it was really frustrating because we knew we were a better team than that. And I think that (win) kind of put us over the hump.
In that same game, Pat McAfee missed two field goals for West Virginia and later received some death threats from fans. Could you empathize with what he went through?
CL:. Yeah, I wrote him an (e-mail) right after that game. He's a Pittsburgh guy and I played soccer against him when we were kids. We kicked this summer together; we both went to a camp in Wisconsin and we both exchanged texts through camp and stuff.
I felt for him because that could happen to anybody. I mean, Adam Vinatieri last year missed a 29-yarder, a game-winner, and he's considered the most clutch kicker in NFL history. I've missed a 19-yarder before; it was the first miss of my career. So it happens.
You've already graduated and are currently working on your MBA. Is that tough to balance with football?
CL: The materials are similar to my undergrad -- I was a business and economics major -- but the amount of work is doubled. But I have a lot of time. I'm only taking three classes and also, being a kicker, it's not like I really need to study the opponent as much as a quarterback would.
When you watch film, do you just watch your own kicks?
CL: I do that, but I also watch the opposing kicker for the coaches, to pick up on things we might use. Like, if I think we could block a field goal the way their operation is. I chart all the operation times of other teams. I look to see if a kicker has a tipoff with their steps and where they typically kick the ball (on kickoffs) so we can prepare a return. I enjoy that. I love football and I'm trying to do whatever I can to help.
People expect your offense to be much better this year. Do you think that means less work for you?
CL: I think I will be kicking a lot because of our offense. Not because they're not getting in the end zone, but if you look at offenses that score a lot of points, they kick a lot of field goals because they're getting down there a lot.
I think our offense is primed to get after it and score a lot of points. A lot of people didn't know that last year we were really young and had key injuries at key spots. That hit us hard. And toward the end of the year, things were kind of getting rolling. It's time for this program to turn the corner.