Alijah Lee was quick to come up with a comparison for his running style.
“I like to think of myself as a mini Beast Mode,” Lee said. “I’m only 5’6”, but I carry a little load on me. I like to get physical, but I also like to make people miss. It’s so fun to see a defender arm-tackling you, trying to arm-tackle, because you’ve made him miss.”
The senior Montana running back is just 5-foot-6 and 196 pounds, but he uses his stature to his advantage, calling to mind bowling-ball running backs like Maurice Jones-Drew (5-foot-8) or Doug Martin (5-foot-9)
“People joke about it all the time, like in the locker room,” the Montana senior said, smiling. “‘Oh, you’re short, you can’t do this and that.’ I’m like, you know, it’s not my fault. I’ll just take it and run with it.”
So far, Lee has run with it a long way.
In fact, he probably has the most wide-ranging experience of anyone on this Griz team, both in terms of where he’s been and what coaches he’s played for.
Lee is from Venice, California, where he actually grew up with former Grizzly basketball star Kareem Jamar. He was a first-team All-City running back in both 2012 and 2013 for Venice High School before walking on at Washington State.
“As cliché as it sounds, growing up in my city, you don’t want to get stuck in there,” Lee said. “You get stuck in the wrong things and living the wrong life, and I wanted to get away from that. Pullman was a great place, because, if you think about it, it’s in the middle of nowhere.”
While at Washington State, Lee played under offensive guru Mike Leach, known for both his occasionally infuriating eccentricities and his occasionally devastating Air Raid offense.
Lee redshirted in 2014 and didn’t play in 2015. In 2016, his redshirt sophomore year, he played on special teams and also recorded four carries for 20 yards and a touchdown, which came against current Big Sky rival Idaho.
But he also still didn’t have a scholarship, and paying tuition was stretching his family’s finances.
“My mom was paying out-of-state tuition, and I felt like I could play somewhere else,” Lee said. “Coming out of high school, I didn’t know a lot of FCS programs, really, but when I was in college I started hearing about them. I was like, ‘You know what, I can go there and play, hopefully get a scholarship and help my mom out.’ So that was my biggest motivation.”
That led to former Grizzly head coach Bob Stitt bringing Lee to Missoula on a full-ride scholarship in early 2017.
With Stitt, Lee found himself under another coach hailed for his offensive mind, but, like Leach, who sometimes had trouble turning the X’s and O’s into wins.
“The similarities in those offenses were the backs were getting out a lot,” Lee said. “That’s even in this offense [under Bobby Hauck], but I really had to be able to catch passes and make plays. The thing with coach Stitt’s offense is it was more run-based, and Mike Leach obviously is Air Raid, but it wasn’t a bad transition for me.”
Lee ran for 517 yards under Stitt in 2017, second on the team, and also caught 23 passes for 130 more yards.
The offseason brought more changes, with Stitt being replaced by Bobby Hauck, but by that time, Lee was used to making adjustments.
“Just starting back in high school, I always had one coach, and then at Washington State, it was one coach. Coming here, that was my first coaching change,” Lee said. “But it’s all about adjustments. You gotta adjust, buy into the program.
“The biggest change under Hauck I would say, is the physical aspect, and discipline as well. You have to be on top of every little detail, have your shirt tucked in, you know, just all kinds of things that I’ve never really been through before.”
With returning starter Jeremy Calhoun suspended for the first three games of the season, Lee has split time with redshirt freshman transfer Adam Eastwood in a sputtering Montana running game. Lee has eight carries for 22 yards and three catches for 25 through three games.
Lee said that the competition among the running backs, which was fierce all through fall camp, hasn’t fazed him.
“It was good, because no one ever wants to get complacent or none of that,” Lee said. “[When Eastwood came in], it was probably like when I came here. People were like, ‘Oh, a new guy coming in.’ It kind of motivates you. You hear it, and then you just want to get better. You go in the weight room in the spring, the summer, just try to get better and stronger.”
While he’s been competing, Lee has also remained one of the most popular players in the locker room.
When he was being interviewed after practice Tuesday, he was the recipient of some needling from receiver Lamarriel Taylor, who was standing nearby.
“Alijah is popular with his teammates, because he’s a fun guy to be around, would be my perspective on that,” Hauck said. “He’s worked hard. He’s a guy that can give us some plays and do some good things on the field.
“I think he’s great in the locker room with the guys. … He’s good with the younger running backs, he’s good with all the guys on offense, and he’s just kind of popular with his teammates.”
That’s how “mini-Beast Mode” has made such an outsized impact at Montana.
“I’m going to be proud of myself,” Lee said. “Just all the obstacles I’ve been through. I’ll look at it as a good thing, just leaving home. That was the biggest thing, and I’ve learned so much and met a bunch of my friends. It was a good thing, when I look back at it.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.