TRANSITION GAME : Lee Impresses Raiders While Making Switch to Defense

Times Staff Writer

Former USC tailback Zeph Lee has at least one thing in his favor as he makes the transition to strong safety for the Raiders.

The switch was Al Davis' idea.

And the Raider owner has had his share of success placing his players in new positions. Among them:

--Todd Christensen, who was a Dallas Cowboys running back before becoming an All-Pro tight end.

--Lester Hayes, who was a linebacker/safety at Texas A&M; before crouching into his spot as an All-Pro cornerback.

--Phil Villapiano, former Pro Bowl linebacker, who was a defensive end in college.

Lee, starting his third season with the Raiders, made the change to defense late last season after spending his rookie season on the injured reserve list as a running back.

That may have put him in the right position at the right time. Regular starting strong safety Stacy Toran is out of camp because of a contract dispute, in which the two sides are reportedly $100,000 apart.

So far, the Raiders are pleased with Lee's showing.

"Zeph has made the transition well," Raider Coach Mike Shanahan said. "He fits in well as a strong safety, because of his size, speed and aggressiveness. Every day, he gets better and better."

Davis is also impressed with Lee's efforts.

"I am proud of Zeph, because he never gave up," Davis said after Lee's performance against the Cowboys last Saturday. "He was all over the field. He can really run. "

Until this season, when Lee imagined himself running, it was always with a football.

"I have always seen myself as a running back," said Lee, who will start Saturday at the Coliseum against the Washington Redskins. "It was always a thrill to me to make people miss and see their expressions."

Now, Lee is chasing ballcarriers instead of being one.

"What has helped me, is that I have never put pressure on myself to play only one position at any level," said Lee, who played linebacker in high school and some fullback at USC. "I thank God that I am still able to play this game. I play because I love to play, and not for the money."

Lee's fitness also has helped the transition.

"I have always prided myself on my conditioning," said Lee, the Raiders' ninth-round draft choice in 1986. "I am glad that I did, because I have found out that the better athletes are on defense and not on offense as I previously thought.

"You have to be in tip-top shape because you are in constant motion on every play. As a running back, once you are tackled the play is over, but on defense you can never stop running."

For Lee, 25, the move to defense may be his last chance to make it in the National Football League. He was released in training camp last season by the Raiders after their third exhibition game.

Said Lee: "I was at home after being cut from the Raiders, but then the strike came, so I decided to play for the Denver Broncos."

Lee's run with the Broncos did not last long. The Broncos decided to waive Lee after their first replacement game because he did not fit into their plans. But after returning home from Denver, Lee found out that the Raiders were interested again.

Lee signed with the Raiders for the last two replacement games, and remained with them after the strike.

"I knew that my future as a running back the Raiders was limited," said Lee, who played sparingly on special teams last season. "With Marcus (Allen) and Bo (Jackson), I didn't see myself playing."

The Raiders did have plans for Lee. Once the Raiders were out of the playoff picture, Davis decided to try Lee on defense.

"In the back of my mind, I knew that this was my last chance," Lee said. "But I can remember two years ago when Al joked that I looked like Everson Walls (the Cowboys' star cornerback). Maybe he knew back then.

"I have to get better in doing things on instinct. I have to be able to read and react at the same time. The Raiders teach a different technique from most, and I have to learn how to play their way."

When Lee first moved to defense, he was tried as a cornerback.

"I felt awkward out there covering those little receivers," Lee said. "I feel a lot better as a strong safety, covering tight ends. They are bigger, but their movements are not as fast as those little quick receivers."

But Lee still has his share of problems covering tight ends.

"The hardest play for me to make, is when the tight end runs a crossing pattern. On that play, my keys are the same as if he is blocking down, so it is like giving them a five-yard head start."

Covering tight ends is a big change for a Lee, because when he was in college, he always seemed to be next in line to take over the USC tailback spot.

"I just knew that I would be the next great USC tailback from San Francisco after O.J. Simpson," said Lee, who attended San Francisco Lincoln High School.

However, injuries and a changing coaching staff slowed Lee. In his collegiate career, Lee rushed for 644 yards with a 5.9 yards per carry average. Lee still shares the USC record for the longest touchdown run, 94 yards against Utah State in 1984.

"I still think about playing running back," Lee said. "I still feel that I can play the position in the NFL."

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