In the quest for his next 1, UConn became an easy choice for three-star football recruit Ricky Lee III

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When Ricky Lee III stood up on July 2 and removed his grey Cedar Grove High football hoodie to show off the navy blue UConn football jersey underneath, he crossed his arms over the No. 1 and smiled wide. It was a special moment for those in attendance who clapped and cheered, but even more so for Jim Mora and his staff in Storrs.

The three-star athlete held offers from Power Five schools like Louisville, Houston, Nebraska, Duke and Colorado. His decision to come to UConn, which has a 31-87 record since 2011, marks one of the first major building blocks in Mora’s revolution.

The Class of 2023 defensive back from Ellenwood, Georgia, liked Louisville ... a lot. Of course he did, the Cardinals have played in six bowl games since joining the ACC in 2014 and have had 24 players drafted over that span.

Lee’s decision, oddly enough, was about culture, UConn’s culture, even though it’s still in the formative stages.

“The decision really wasn’t hard,” Lee said.

The coaching staff at Louisville didn’t maintain consistent contact with Lee after he made his first visit. Typically the Cardinals pour all their attention onto the top recruits and Lee quickly realized he must not be one of them.

He had previously bonded with the new UConn defensive backs coach, Dalton Hilliard at a camp when Hilliard was the secondary coach at Arkansas State. Their relationship continued to grow over the offseason and UConn offered Lee in January.

“I could just go to UConn with a coach I trust instead of a coach that’s gonna end up leaving the college they’re at in the next two years. I just know with Coach Hilliard, he’s staying there,” Lee said.

That love for the coaching staff didn’t stop with Hilliard.

“The whole coaching staff is new, but the whole coaching staff is great,” Lee said. “I’ve never seen a coaching staff that cool with each other, making you feel at home for every recruit . They showed a lot of love, it was a lot of energy.”

Jersey has always been a special 1

Lee began playing football at the age of 4. He played on 11- and 12-and-under national teams where he traveled and played against many of the nation’s best. Lee even beat out Caleb Downs – a five-star safety who has received offers from several top Power Five programs including Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State – to win eighth-grade player of the year honors in Georgia.

He played in former NFL quarterback Cam Newton’s seven-on-seven league with Alabama receiver Javon Baker and consensus top-two overall recruit in the Class of 2022, Travis Hunter.

“I’ve been going against four and five stars ever since I’ve been 15 and I was never ranked. So it just made me feel like I’ve earned everything I had worked for,” said Lee, currently listed as 5 feet 11 and 170 pounds.

From the moment he started, before he was even in kindergarten, the No. 1 jersey was his.

“I got like 30 jerseys in my room right now with different No. 1s,” Lee said. “That number just makes me feel like I’m the only one. There ain’t nobody better than me. Ever since I’ve been wearing that number I’ve always succeeded.”

On his visit to UConn, Lee asked the question: “Can I wear No. 1?”

“They said, ‘Most definitely.’ If I’m a dog I’m gonna be wearing that number as soon as I come in. And I’m gonna prove that I’m a dog because I’m from Atlanta, I’m from Georgia, this is one of the best football states there is.”

If he doesn’t get his beloved single digit his first year, it doesn’t matter – he’s determined to earn it the next. But whatever jersey he does get the No. 1 will be on it somewhere.

“It’s gotta be 11 or 21, nothing above that,” Lee said.

Getting to know UConn

Lee knew a bit about UConn before he visited because he also played basketball. He knew Kemba Walker and Ray Allen were Huskies, but his knowledge of the football program didn’t go far past Byron Jones, a New Britain-born cornerback for the Miami Dolphins who he’d watched on tape.

It wasn’t until recently that the speedy, hard-hitting ballhawk found out about Connecticut’s close proximity to Boston and New York.

On his visit to Storrs, Lee’s comedic ability helped him quickly bond with the current team. Wide receiver Keelan Marion, who is from Atlanta and happens to wear the No. 1, and safety Durante Jones had “a lot to do with” Lee’s commitment.

“They already treat me like I’m their brother. They even wanted me to spend the night with them at their dorm but there’s only two beds in there,” Lee said, laughing.

Number 1 doesn’t sleep on the floor.

That familylike atmosphere is one Mora has quickly formed since joining the program last spring, and it all starts at the top.

“I can see that (Mora) is a good man because he hired one of his own players that was recently on his UCLA team in 2016, (recruiting assistant) Jaleel Wadood,” Lee said.

On Lee’s official visit, Mora’s staff made its pitch and its vision for the UConn program clear: If you come to Storrs you will have a shot at the next level. As they’d done with other recruits, the staff had Lee pick up the hat of his favorite NFL team – the Atlanta Falcons – and throw it on in front of a camera.

That was soon edited under a soundbite of Roger Goodell from the NFL draft and used in Lee’s commitment video.

“That was the first school that I ever did that with,” Lee said. “It was just crazy, made myself feel like I was already gonna be drafted and know what it would feel like if I came to UConn. That’s basically how they promoted me.”

There isn’t any doubt in the world that with my talent, I’m not going to make it to the league without (Mora) getting me in the door,” Lee said. “I’m just being 100. I’ve got good talent; I know coach Jim Mora is gonna look out for me the way I’m gonna look out for him when I play for him.”