This fall, he’s playing a largely reworked position that could be the key as the Buckeyes try to fix one of the biggest problems facing the team.
So, how is it that a sophomore just two years removed from playing quarterback at New Albany (Ohio) High School is so important to the Ohio State defense?
Well, there’s a few pieces to the puzzle, but you can start with hard work. That’s what earned Lee a chance to take over the “walkout” linebacker position this spring and allowed him to hold onto it as the Buckeyes near the Aug. 30 opener vs. Navy.
With the Buckeyes putting a renewed emphasis on flying to the football and the team-wide “four-to-six, A-to-B” ethos, Lee jumped to the fore.
And even now, he’s not ready to take credit.
“I would have to give all the credit to our leaders of the defense,” Lee said. “We established a culture and the leaders established a culture in making everyone abide by their culture. If they don’t abide by that culture, they’re not going to play. We have a bad taste in our mouth, and we go out every day in practice and we’re trying to make sure that that taste never comes back.”
While Lee defers credit to the culture established by veterans and likely fellow starters Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, he shouldn’t brush off suggestions that he’s now one of the key cogs in the 4-3 defense put together by new assistant coach Chris Ash.
The man whose coaching videos tout his “Aggressive 4-3” scheme wants to install – you guessed it – and aggressive 4-3, and so Lee’s work as the strongside linebacker could be key.
For the most part, it appears the old days of a base 4-3 look complemented by a nickel defense with the “Star” taking over against spread units – a package so common these days that the nickel had basically been OSU’s base defense for the past few seasons – are gone.
Instead, Lee fits the bill of the versatile defender who is big and strong enough to hold up against the run – he’s added nearly 30 pounds of muscle since arriving to get to 230 pounds – while also being athletic enough to chase down skill position athletes.
"(Backup Christopher) Worley and I are versatile guys,” Lee said. “Worley can cover and he can come down and hit, too, so I think it fits our job description perfectly."
Another key will be having players in that role who can set the edge of the defense against screens and jet sweeps, two types of plays that as the year went on were often big gainers against OSU’s defense. That’s where a combination of size – so that the defender can shed blocks – and athleticism – so that the player can finish the play and make the stop – are crucial.
"Walkout backer, we have to be the leverage of the defense,” Lee said. “If you don't have leverage, it's going to be a bad day. But me and Worley are able to go out and make those types of plays that set the edge so everybody else can come and really to the ball."
"I think we had Vonn Bell (being blocked by) some tight ends (against Clemson). Yeah, uh, I don't think that was going to work. Vonn is like 200 pounds, maybe, but I think they knew we needed to put somebody out there that is physical but also fast and able to cover people. I think Worley and I can do that."
So whereas in the past, when the Buckeyes put what was essentially a fifth defensive back like Jermale Hines or Tyvis Powell in as the “Star,” the goal this year will be to keep some added size on the field in the early downs then move to a more DB-heavy look in obvious passing situations.
"Philosophically, we'll be a base 4-3 team on first and second down," Ash said. "We aren't going to change week to week. We’ll get good at what we do and be able to line up against any personnel grouping with what we do."
And the key to that could be Lee, a player whose relative inexperience on defense has left his head coach shaking his head repeatedly over the offseason.
“It got here quick,” Lee said.