CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jamall Lee’s hometown team liked him so much they traded up to take him No. 3 overall in the draft. The only problem was that it wasn’t the NFL draft.
Lee was practising with the Carolina Panthers on Saturday when the B.C. Lions traded up to take him in the CFL’s Canadian college draft. Canadian university football’s rushing leader the last two years didn’t realize he’d become big news north of the border until he checked his voicemail several hours later and found it filled with congratulatory messages.
He had been too busy practising and learning a different style of football.
“I’d love to make it here,” Lee said Sunday after finishing his final minicamp practice with Carolina. “The CFL is a great league and I’m really proud of the guys up there.
“But right now this is where I want to be. This is where the quote-unquote best players are.”
With Carolina already deep at running back, Lee faces long odds to make the Panthers’ final 53-man roster. The speedy, six-foot-one, 225-pound Lee feels he has the talent to play in the NFL. To do so he’ll have to adjust to a game that has one fewer player per side, an extra down to get a first down and a much narrower field.
“Even on the snap count, I would jump the snap count up there,” Lee said of the CFL’s more relaxed rules for going in motion. “Down here I just wait until the ball is snapped because I don’t want to be offside.”
Lee grew up a basketball fanatic in Port Coquitlam, B.C., about a 30-minute drive from Vancouver. But soon he realized his best sport was football. It shouldn’t have been a surprise because his father, Orville, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1988 CFL draft and spent five years in the league as a running back.
Oregon State suggested he attend junior college in the United States and maybe transfer there later, but Lee declined. He enrolled at Bishop’s University and went on to become a two-time Canadian Interuniversity Sport rushing champion, finishing with 4,296 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Lee caught the attention of the Panthers and other NFL teams after setting CFL combine records in the 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds) and vertical leap (44 inches). He wasn’t taken in the NFL draft, but the Panthers were on the phone with his agent five minutes after it ended.
“Carolina showed a lot of interest before the draft. It was a good situation,” Lee’s agent, Zeke Sandhu said.
“Yes, they have DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but he’s got a shot to be a third-down back and return man.”
Signing with Carolina didn’t scare away the Lions. They traded the sixth and 13th picks to Hamilton — a deal that was agreed to Friday, pending Lee’s availability — to get him.
“Things fell into place for us after the first two selections were made and we are very excited to draft a player of Jamall’s calibre,” said Lions general manager and head coach Wally Buono. “He’s a tremendous athlete who I believe is capable of having a big impact on the field.”