“What a difference a year makes” certainly rings true for Marquel Lee. The Oakland Raiders’ 22-year-old second-year linebacker is ascending the depth chart at a rapid rate and appears to have a hold on earning the starting middle linebacker gig.

That’s very different from a player who never truly captured the hearts and minds of the prior coaching staff.

“There is a guy that really stepped up”, head coach Jon Gruden said after Monday’s practice referring to Lee. “He had a great game. He’s physical.”

A productive linebacker at Wake Forest, who tested on the sluggish side at the NFL combine, Lee has shed the average label and opened up eyes in training camp and the preseason opener.

“I think he’s more and more of a complete linebacker,” Gruden said. “He’s getting more comfortable in pass coverage. I think he’s a presence in the middle of our defense right now. It’s something that is not going unnoticed with his teammates and coaches.”

Lee attributes the change to clear direction from Gruden’s coaching staff, something echoed by players who gutted through the prior staff’s tutelage last season.

“I know my role in the game, and with this defense,” Lee said. “So just trying to play to it, and do the best I can at that. Day in and day out.

“Hammer guy, energetic guy, that run-stopper, base [defender], and everything, and just getting our defense together, like, being the MIKE linebacker.”

The togetherness was resoundingly absent last year. The Raiders field a disjointed defense initially helmed by Ken Norton Jr. and then John Pagano. That is no longer the case as Gruden brought in Paul Guenther to captain the defense. In addition, with Guenther came season assistant coaches as well as familiar veterans who posses invaluable systemknowledge.

“It’s been great, to be honest,” Lee said of the veterans. “We have three guys that [we]really can look to as young players, with (linebackers) Derrick (Johnson), Tahir (Whitehead), and Emmanuel Lamur. So, those three guys, that combination, you can pick from them and get what you need from each guy, so it’s been a great help.”

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Let us face the facts: The Raiders got a middle linebacker who knew what he was doing mid-October last season. Until NaVorro Bowman arrived, it was a haphazard crew that lacked communication and working knowledge of Norton’s scheme.

With this season’s coaching staff, Lee and the rest of the team have the opportunity to hone their talents on a scheme with clear and concise direction and mission. Plus, the young linebacker is afforded the opportunity to grow with an impressive core of young prospects.

“I feel like we’ve had a chance to grow as a core together, going through offseason workouts, and then summer workouts, and then into training camp,” Lee said. “Just being around each other all the time and stuff, grow as a core, we have each others’ backs out there. Also having Emmanuel, he has been in the system for a long time, since he came out of college. He’s a great help, like, he knows the ins and outs, and if we have a question we go to him — or any of the guys — but Emmanuel for sure knows the ins and outs of this defense.”

Gruden said he loves players that “know what the heck is going on.” Same can be said about coaches. Moreover, Lee and Co. have the chance to reap the rewards.

– Ray Aspuria a writer with Full Press Coverage/Raiders. He covers the Oakland Raiders. Like and follow on and Facebook.

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