Lee was more like one of the guys. He was a local Durham, N.C., kid who liked to spend time at Duke with former Hillside High teammates.
Lee became close with Duke coach David Cutcliffe. The friendship survived when Lee signed with Georgia Tech after being named the North Carolina high school player of the year in 2010.
Cutcliffe has watched with interest and pride as Lee, a redshirt freshman quarterback, has seen his role gradually increase this season. Finally, in Georgia Tech’s record-setting 68-50 win at North Carolina last week, Lee took over after the second series and played the remainder of the game.
There was no official proclamation, but it looked like a changing of the guard.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson hasn’t named a starting quarterback for Saturday’s important Atlantic Coast Conference game against Duke. Lee likely will play more than senior Tevin Washington.
After all, why mess with a winning formula? Georgia Tech (5-5, 5-4 ACC) has revived its season by winning two straight games. Lee’s role has increased even though Washington has remained the starter.
“The way we’re doing it has been working pretty well, and unless something crazy happens in practice is probably the way we’ll do it,” Johnson said. “Vad has a long time to play football. If he plays as well as he played on Saturday, then he’s going to play the majority of the snaps.”
Lee was 6-of-10 passing for 169 yards with one touchdown and an interception and had 23 carries for 112 yards and two touchdowns last week. The 68-50 win over North Carolina was the highest scoring game in ACC history.
Georgia Tech and Duke (6-4, 3-3 ACC) are trying to win the Coastal Division and earn a spot in the ACC championship game. Georgia Tech must beat Duke and hope Duke then beats Miami (5-5, 4-3) next week. Duke needs wins over Georgia Tech and Miami.
There’s a lot on the line, including Georgia Tech’s streak of 15 straight bowl seasons. Lee has won Johnson’s trust by gradually earning increased playing time through the season.
“I think it’s pretty cool, being able to progress throughout the season,” Lee said. “Of course I wanted to play early in the season. That’s just my nature, that’s just the competitor in me. He’s done a great job evaluating me and letting me play in key situations.”
Johnson said Lee “got a little tired” against North Carolina.
“That’s the most he’s played,” Johnson said. “That’s a learning experience. The more he plays, the better he’s going to get. Overall, he had to be happy with the way he played. I mean, he made a ton of big plays. He brought a lot of energy. I think he’s coming along great.”
Johnson stuck with Lee last week after North Carolina’s Tim Scott returned an interception for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“The worst thing you could have done was take him out,” Johnson said. “He’s got to go back out there and right the ship and that’s what he did. He went back out there and drove the team back down. That will probably help his development more than anything you could ever say or do, and his confidence.”
Washington is losing ground to Lee even though he ranks third in the ACC in scoring with 10.2 points per game. Washington is second on the team with 536 yards rushing and easily leads the team with 17 rushing touchdowns.
Johnson said Washington “was cheering Vad on” last week.
“We didn’t take him out because he wasn’t playing well,” said Johnson of Washington. “We took him out because the plan was we give those guys a couple series and see what happens and then Vad did nothing to have me take him out the game.
“You know, as long as you’re scoring every possession, it’s pretty hard to come out. Then we got to a point in the second half where we were so deep into it, to me then it’s his game.”
Duke defensive end Desmond Johnson said Lee’s dual-threat skills make “a big difference” in Georgia Tech’s offense.
“He’s one of those players that can make plays,” Johnson said.
Added cornerback Ross Cockrell: “He has a strong arm. He threw it like 60 yards downfield one time.”
Cutcliffe said he never doubted Lee would succeed at Georgia Tech.
“I have great respect for Vad and I always expected him to do extremely well at Georgia Tech,” Cutcliffe said Wednesday.
“You know, he’s a fine young man, fine family. And I’ll be honest with you, I’m very proud of Vad and what he’s accomplished. ... We really were very close and we’re still close.”
Lee has three former high school teammates, receivers Corey Gattis, Desmond Scott and Brandon Watkins, at Duke.
Lee said Cutcliffe, the former Tennessee offensive coordinator and Mississippi coach, would show him film of Peyton Manning and Eli Manning.
Lee says he expected Cutcliffe would win at Duke — but not this quickly.
“I knew the program was moving in the right direction but I didn’t think it would move this fast as they already are eligible for a bowl game,” Lee said. “Coach Cutcliffe, he recruited me hard and I was definitely thinking about it but I figured the best place for me was here at Georgia Tech,” he said.
Cutcliffe said the relationship with Lee “wasn’t all about recruiting.”
“We did recruit him but it was just different. ... I have to say I’m very proud of who he is and what he’s done. You know, I just hope he doesn’t do it so well against us, but more likely, that’s what he will do.”