Jan. 14—CUMBERLAND — TJ Lee is a fighter. When you're in the trenches sparring with the big uglies at the weight of 150 pounds, you don't have any other option.
If Carter Hess was the anvil on the Fort Hill defensive line, then Lee was the hammer. The senior collected 103 tackles (33 solo), 20 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.
So it should come as no surprise: The most disruptive player in the region was voted Defensive Player of the Year by the area's coaches.
"If you need to go to battle, that's the guy you want to go with," Fort Hill head coach Zack Alkire said. "Especially when you know he has your back. He's definitely a fighter, a kid that's willing to do everything he possibly can to have some success.
"TJ is kind of like a glitch in the matrix. You think he's going to do one thing, and next thing he's somewhere else making a play. A lot of times in practice, we're trying to call plays to beat TJ, and we never could. He'd figure it out, he was that good."
Lee marks the third consecutive day a member of the Fort Hill program has won an end-of-year award, following Alkire (Coach of the Year) and Hess (Lineman of the Year).
Lee took the top defensive award over the likes of linebackers Chance Ritchey (Northern), Braylon White (Allegany) and Caden Youngblood (Keyser).
Conventional thinking wouldn't have pegged Lee as a defensive lineman — he's listed as a defensive back on Fort Hill's roster — but Lee is anything but conventional.
In fact, he wasn't mentioned once in the Times-News' Sentinels football preview, other than on the roster. The senior quickly made a name for himself as part of a pass rush that sacked opposing QBs 40 times.
He wasn't just good in one phase. On special teams, he made a team-high 18 tackles as a gunner.
"TJ's a kid that has really come a long way from his younger years," Alkire said. "It's not a secret that TJ and I butted heads a lot."
Alkire didn't sugarcoat how his relationship with Lee has evolved over the past three seasons. The two had their differences on the junior varsity team Lee's sophomore year and lessened little by little during his junior and senior campaigns.
That all came to a head with a conversation following Fort Hill's win over Northern to open the 2021 slate. That discussion proved to be the wake-up call Lee needed, and if people in the area hadn't heard of TJ Lee beforehand: they were going to find out.
"I essentially told him, 'He needed to play, but he needed to show up and do the same thing everyone else is doing,'" Alkire said. "I opened up my heart to him, 'I'm going to trust in you if you can trust in me.' I'm really glad that he did buy in. All the success that he has is well-earned."
Lee fits the mold of the kind of player Fort Hill has used on the defensive line in recent years. John McKenney — a Sentinels assistant coach for 11 seasons, most recently in 2018 — began slotting players who were linebackers on the line, allowing them to use their athleticism to blow past slower blockers.
Tanner Wertz, who tallied 82.5 tackles and seven TFLs this past season, while also rushing for 858 yards on 9.4 yards a carry as a home-run hitter on offense, is another player who fits that archetype.
"They're faster than most of these kids," Alkire said of his ends. "They can't use their power to move our guys off the ball."
While Lee's stats are eye-popping, only seeing him play could do the senior justice. It all started with his defensive instincts.
In Fort Hill's 37-7 win over Mountain Ridge during the regular season, Lee picked off Bryce Snyder — who would go on to throw for more yards in a single season than anyone in Allegany County football history.
Lee read the offensive tackle instantly, realizing his blocker was setting up for a screen, and he jumped the passing lane to force a turnover.
During the rematch in the 1A state championship game against the Miners, another Fort Hill triumph, Lee noticed Mountain Ridge running back Jaden Lee coming out of the backfield into the flat and made an athletic over-the-shoulder deflection.
In a 42-7 Fort Hill beatdown of Oakdale, Lee was the lead blocker on Breven Stubbs' 98-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Few, if any, defensive linemen could make just one of those plays, and Lee made them week in and week out all year.
"That's instincts," Alkire said. "Not that he didn't prepare, he did buy in and come to practice everyday. The vast majority of his game was strictly instincts and having a nose for the football."
Lee may have not been on many people's radars coming into the 2021 campaign, but he was a vital part of Fort Hill's record-tying eighth state title season. For that, he was voted Defensive Player of the Year.
Alex Rychwalski is a sports reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @arychwal.