“I wanted to show I belong here,” Lee said after a scrimmage last April, “That I was not just some kid from New Albany."
Back then, Lee was wrapping up his redshirt season in Columbus and preparing for his debut at linebacker after a career as a high school quarterback. One year later, Lee has done more than simply prove he belongs.
The linebacker was named a freshman All-American following a 2014 campaign that saw him record 81 total tackles, good for third among Buckeyes, and 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, both of which were second on the team.
It’s clear that Lee isn’t just a kid from New Albany, but a rising star at Ohio State. So what’s next for the Buckeyes starting outside linebacker?
“Now it’s just perfecting the craft now that we have a defense installed,” Lee said. “Perfecting my technique, getting out here and having fun with the defense. It’s a lot of fun, it’s different from a year ago, but it’s a lot more fun.
“Everybody is holding each other accountable, come out here and get better. If you’re not holding up your end of the bargain coaches will see it and point it out. It’s good to establish that work ethic around spring time, get better technique and all that. It’s more fun, but it’s tougher for sure.”
A member of Ohio State’s top-ranked 2013 recruiting class, Lee was one of just five members of the 24-person class that was not ranked among the 300 best recruits in the nation. He was listed as a safety coming out of high school, but spent his redshirt season gaining weight and learning the linebacker position.
Despite a season that saw him start 15 games and help the team to the national championship, Lee is candid about the multitude of things he needs to improve on as a linebacker.
“I could really say everything,” he said when asked where he needs to get better. “Last year was really my first true year playing linebacker. I think knowledge of the game for sure can always be better. Technique, what we do on certain specific calls, that can definitely be better. A lot of things, you know, just recognition.”
While there is room for Lee to be better, he showed almost immediately last season that he had the natural gifts necessary to play linebacker at Ohio State.
In the season opener against Navy, Lee showed impeccable instincts and athleticism in scooping up a fumble and racing 61 yards to score the season’s first touchdown. More than four months later he showed his development as a linebacker with eight tackles and a pass break up in the Buckeyes 42-20 national championship win over Oregon.
Linebacker coach Luke Fickell won’t pretend that he knew just how good of a linebacker Lee would be when he saw him under center for New Albany, but the coach knew he had the qualities to be successful.
“I thought he would grow into a linebacker. Who knows? Coach (Mickey) Marotti and I saw him run around in camp and tried to decide how much weight he could possible hold, but it’s an educated guess,” Fickell said. “You try to do your best education there are other things you go to, their burning desire to be an Ohio State Buckeye, their passion for the game. To be honest with you, we don’t really know. You get the right ones that have a passion for the game and love this place, good things will happen.
“I don’t think you can underestimate passion for anything. Intelligence and passion. People who are intelligent usually find a way to be successful. People who have a passion for what they’re doing will be successful.”
Lee had a simpler explanation on his rise from high school quarterback to freshman All-American linebacker and on his emphatic statement that he belongs.
“Hard work pays,” He said. “That’s all I can really tell you with that.”