Third on the team with 73 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, two interceptions, two pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries (both returned for touchdowns) and a forced fumble – all out of a redshirt freshman. The man is everywhere.
Turn on the film and it’s even more obvious.
“When we came out of our game with Ohio State, though, our offensive staff felt that the Buckeyes’ most physically talented player was Darron Lee, the freshman linebacker,” an anonymous coach who faced OSU this year told Sports Illustrated for its Dec. 29 issue. “He’s big (6-2, 228 pounds) and fast, and when he drops into coverage, he’s like a cornerback in his movements.”
“Their field linebacker can really run,” Kiffin said before the game. “And they leave him in there against three wides a lot and because they have the confidence that he can cover.”
Wrap up the picture and you can see Lee is a difference maker, a play maker, someone who the Buckeyes can turn to in any situation.
Which is funny, because all people have seen out of Darron Lee for much of his life is what he wasn’t.
Silence The Doubters
When Lee was finishing up his junior year of high school, he had offers. The son of a local newscaster, a rambunctious kid who couldn’t play soccer as a child because he wanted to pick up the ball and run with it, Lee had such schools as Boston College, Bowling Green, Kent State and Toledo interested in him after a standout junior year at New Albany High School northeast of Columbus.
But catching the attention of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer proved more difficult.
“Junior Day we had here, I was the guy in the corner,” Lee said. “At the time, I knew (cornerbacks coach Kerry) Coombs and (offensive line coach Ed) Warinner so it was good to see them, but other than that Coach Meyer didn’t even look at me. I was walking beside him for like a good minute and he didn’t even look at me. He was talking to Cam Burrows at the time and I think Rob Foster, so he didn’t even look at me.”
He picked up offers from Purdue and Illinois before the summer, but Lee still wanted more. He wanted Ohio State, so he made the short trip to the OSU campus for the team’s first advanced camp in the summer of 2012. He still didn’t catch Meyer’s eye and left without a scholarship offer.
What would soon be so obvious to so many still wasn’t there in the head coach’s mind.
“Shows you how good an evaluator I am,” Meyer jokes now.
But Lee didn’t stop, returning to the second advanced camp at Ohio State that summer. When he left that one after working out as a linebacker, the high school quarterback and safety finally had the offer. He pledged a few days later.
“I rejected him probably four times,” Meyer said. “He was a quarterback from New Albany. And the thing that we loved about him, he kept competing. This generation, sometimes kids say, I'm not coming to camp. There was a day where everybody went to camp so you could watch them. (Now, you) watch a little 10-play highlight video and you have to make a $250,000 decision on a guy to give him a scholarship to Ohio State.
“Most great players that I've been around, they come to camp, they tear it up, you offer them a scholarship, they shake your hand and go play. And that's what Darron Lee, why I love that kid, a competitor. (Luke) Fickell made the right decision. He worked with him. They have a great relationship and that's the best way to go about this business; to go compete and work with a guy that might be your coach some day. That's a great story.”
Ohio State pledge in hand, Lee didn’t rest on his laurels. As a senior at New Albany, he was a first-team all-state pick as a defensive back while also playing quarterback, leading the Eagles to the state semifinals. He put up 21 offensive touchdowns, nabbed five interceptions and returned three punts for scores. In a third-round playoff win vs. Columbus power Marion-Franklin, Lee threw for two touchdowns, ran for another, returned a punt for a score and made a game-saving interception.
By the end of the year, he moved up to a four-star prospect in Scout’s rankings, but not everyone was yet fully on board with his game-changing abilities.
Still More To Come
Lee was listed at 6-1, 219 pounds a year ago on Ohio State’s roster, but the consensus if you talk to people around the program is that he wasn’t that big, that strong, that ready to play.
His energy earned him a spot on some backup special teams units, but he was injured after seeing a handful of plays, his season over.
After the year, the Buckeyes lost Ryan Shazier to the first round of the NFL draft. There would be an opening at linebacker, with veterans and freshmen alike ready to throw their hat into the ring. Over the quintessential college dinner, Lee told roommate Joey Bosa he’d earn that spot. He was met with sarcasm.
“I’ll never forget the day,” Lee said. “I was sitting there eating Ramen noodles and I said to him, ‘I’m gonna be making plays in place of Ryan.’ The look on his face was, ‘OK.’ I was just like, ‘All right man, you’ll see.’ ”
“I was like, ‘Sure buddy, you are,’ ” Bosa remembers. “He’s changed positions three times, he was on the scout team, he didn’t play one snap, and all of a sudden he comes out in spring and he’s killing people.”
That motor that did it all to beat Marion-Franklin, the motor that earned him a scholarship offer to OSU, the one that wouldn’t let him get through a youth soccer game – it came in handy as the Buckeyes revamped the defense last year. The new scheme – heck, the new attitude at Ohio State – would be four-to-six seconds of relentless effort, getting from point A to point B as fast as one can. That, in a nutshell, is Darron Lee.
“He’s one of those guys that has no conscience,” senior linebacker Curtis Grant said. “He goes out there and he does whatever he can. He has a great, strong heart, and he has a lot of passion for the game. He brings it every Saturday.”
Lee’s intangibles made him the No. 1 walkout linebacker in spring, but his skills – especially at a chiseled 6-2, 230 – have made him a star in the making. He’s strong enough to take on blockers and make plays in the run and screen games, aggressive enough to be the team’s best blitzer on third down, and athletic enough to cover receivers if the need arises.
That was enough to make him a freshman All-American, and Lee has filled in admirably for Shazier, making seven stops, three TFL and two sacks in the Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama to short-circuit multiple Crimson Tide drives. His ability to play in space and in crowded confines should help against Oregon’s spread option offense.
Lee said he expects more next year after another year in the film room, another year working with Fickell on techniques, another year honing his skills getting to the quarterback.
“I am confident in my abilities,” he said. “I just had to get my brothers and my teammates to believe I could make those plays on a consistent basis. I always believed in myself, but making them believers was really a huge chip on my shoulder – especially the coaches too.”
They’re believers now, and they should be. Just put on the tape.