Syracuse receiver Alec Lemon tries to get by Pittsburgh defensive… (Mark Konezny-US PRESSWIRE,…)
Rob Moore had just watched Missouri open up a 14-3 first quarter lead on the Syracuse football team, and the wide receivers coach knew the Orange was in desperate need of a spark. So he pulled Alec Lemon aside and implored the senior wideout to will the team back into the game.
"'You're going to have to take over,'" Lemon recalled Moore telling him. "'If we're going to win this, we're going to need you to step up.'"
That's exactly what he did. Lemon caught 12 passes for a career-high 244 yards and two touchdowns — including a game-winning 17-yard score with 20 seconds remaining — to lead Syracuse to a 31-27 win over the Tigers on Nov. 17.
For Lemon, it was nothing new. Ever since his freshman year at Arundel, the Crofton native has been a player who performs best when the game is on the line.
Now he'll have to do his best with a potential career at stake. With the NFL draft less than two weeks away, Lemon hopes his flare for coming through when it matters most helps him hear his name called at Radio City Music Hall.
"It's exciting, being able to have a chance to work toward your dreams," Lemon said. "My whole life, my dream has been to play in the NFL. And it's so close."
Eight years ago, it didn't seem so close. Lemon was still a year away from beginning his Wildcats career, and aspirations of playing professionally, or even in college, were still far off.
But Chuck Markiewicz saw something special. The Arundel football coach said the then-scrawny eighth grader used to come from the middle school to lift weights with the team after school, and Lemon continued to impress when he joined the team a year later.
Lemon was a consistent force for the Wildcats during his career, developing into one of the best wide receivers in Maryland during his senior season. He tied state records with 103 catches and 23 touchdowns that year, and he set a new state mark with 1,616 receiving yards.
But that on-field success didn't transfer into any major college recognition. His only scholarship offers came from Syracuse and Delaware, and he didn't receive much interest from many other Division I schools.
It was simply because of his size, Markiewicz said. Lemon didn't grow into his 6-foot-2, 202-pound frame until his senior season with the Wildcats, so the junior film most colleges wanted to see didn't show the wideout at his best.
When he got to Syracuse, though, Lemon was confident he would succeed. Arundel ran a lot of the same route combinations that the Orange did. And when new Syracuse coach Doug Marrone decided to keep all the players who committed to former coach Greg Robinson, Markiewicz knew Lemon would make an impact.
"I asked him, 'How do you feel like you compete with these freshmen studs coming in?'" Markiewicz said. "He said, 'Unless they ran what we ran in high school, I know I can compete with any freshman because they can't do the things I could do coming in.'"
Lemon spent his first two seasons as the third wide receiver on the Orange's depth chart, but by his junior and senior years he was the team's leading pass-catcher. He increased his reception, yard and touchdown totals every year he was on campus, and his 1,070 receiving yards in his senior year led the Big East.
He finished his Syracuse career as one of the best receivers in program history. He set program records for career receptions (201) and single-season receptions (72), and he ranks second and third in Orange history, respectively, in career yards (2,596) and touchdowns (18).
But that season ended with a late December win over West Virginia in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and the past three and a half months have been all about the NFL draft.
He spent the early part of the year training alongside around 20 other NFL hopefuls — including Oklahoma's Lane Johnson, Florida State's Lonnie Pryor and Arkansas' Alvin Bailey — at Fischer Sports in Tempe, Ariz., and he participated in the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis at the end of February before heading back to Syracuse for the Orange's pro day a few weeks later.
Lemon said the whole process has been a fun experience, despite how intimidating it is.
"This is your biggest dream, and you're so close," Lemon said. "You just want to get there, but you don't want to mess anything up, make a bad impression, not run a fast 40 or anything. It's kind of nerve-wracking because in these next couple months, your life could change."
So far, though, Lemon hasn't messed up. He said he ran faster than the pundits predicted he would, and he caught all the passes thrown his way at the combine and his pro day. He's held individual workouts with four teams so far, including the Buffalo Bills, who are coached by Marrone.
When asked which NFL receiver he best compares to, Lemon mentioned Jason Avant. The Philadelphia Eagle has "great hands" and runs "great routes," and Lemon said he could, like Avant, be a "quiet receiver that makes a big impact."
Markiewicz, though, has loftier expectations.