When is a high school quarterback a phenomenal college linebacker? When his name is Darron Lee.
Lee, starting in his first full campaign at Ohio State following a medical redshirt in 2013, has made the most of his extra year, becoming the third-leading tackler on the OSU defense and a pass-rushing terror. Though an afterthought (to everyone but defensive coordinator Luke Fickell) in a 2013 recruiting class that included two ESPNU 150 linebackers, the athlete from New Albany, OH has staked his claim to the starting outside linebacker position for the Buckeyes, and in the process, has become one of the most impactful playmakers on a defense that includes the likes of Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett.
But who is this largely unknown scarlet and silver streak of a pass rusher, and what makes him so explosive? Let's take a close look...
Who in the Heck is Darron Lee?
Lee (whose first name rhymes with "scarin'") never figured to be a lynchpin in the Buckeye defensive attack, despite a lifelong love of OSU football. Though Lee (who wears number 43) is a native Tennessean, he moved to New Albany in his eighth grade year and was a devoted follower of the Buckeyes throughout his early years.
The 6'2", 240 pound outside linebacker came to OSU through the most unlikely of channels: as a sub-200 pound former high school quarterback and safety prospect recruited by Fickell. While few would have forecast the lanky athlete to have been a dynamic playmaker at linebacker, according to head coach Urban Meyer, Fickell saw the potential for Lee to perfectly fill the morphing role of outside linebacker at OSU.
"You take a kid like Darron Lee - and that's where Luke did such a great job recruiting him - because I didn't see it. But Luke saw it, and it's his job to see it."
Fickell knew Lee, a former four-star safety recruit, had the perfect combination of speed (sub-4.5 in the 40), size and aggressiveness to become the prototype for the Buckeye ‘backer of the future: the "walkabout" linebacker. The renovated position requires an athletic player with great speed to rush off the end who can also contribute in coverage and be relied upon as a solid open-field tackler. Lee fit the bill to the letter.
Though Lee suffered an injury only two games into his true freshman campaign, he remained undaunted. He reportedly immersed himself in film study and the weight room, putting on a whopping 40 pounds since arriving on the campus in Columbus. His improvement was immediately apparent in spring drills, as Lee was able to solidify a role as starter at outside linebacker.
In his first start of 2014 against pesky Navy, Lee proved his coaches wise in selecting him as the starter. He had seven tackles, and helped break the game open for the Buckeyes with a 61 yard scoop-and-score fumble recovery for a touchdown. He has followed suit through the remainder of the 2014 campaign to date, becoming the Buckeyes' third-leading tackler (66 tackles, 43 solo). His impact as a playmaker cannot be underestimated, as he is in the top three among defenders in tackles-for-loss with 13.5, and is third in sacks (5.5) to only defensive linemen (and future NFL draftees) Bosa and Bennett. Tack onto those impressive stats two interceptions, two passes broken up, four passes defended, three quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble, and one can see why the Buckeye staff is so high on the freshman phenom. Urban Meyer certainly is.
"He's an athlete. He's a sub-4.5 guy. He plays with energy, emotion. You talk about a future...it is ridiculous what that kid's gonna be if he continues to get better. He's gonna be an NFL player someday if he keeps going."
Not only does Lee make his impact known between the sidelines, but despite his youth, he has emerged as a team leader due to his vocal style and high energy level. Fellow linebacker Joshua Perry said that energy is contagious on the sidelines.
"He probably has one of the most fiery personalities on the team. He's really upbeat. He's bouncing around all the time. He's loud...he's got a lot of juice and energy. He's one of the guys that keeps me up...he loves picking guys up and being a catalyst."
What to expect from Daron Lee versus Alabama
If Lee is energetic and fired up to play Navy, expect him to be a proton torpedo when the Buckeyes meet the Tide in the Sugar Bowl.
On the largest college football stage, one would think that youth may falter, especially against seasoned championship competitors like the unit the Crimson Tide will put on the field for its third championship attempt in four years. Though the Buckeyes are explosive defensively, they are ripe with youth, and one must wonder how that will translate into performance when the spotlights are on them.
Make no mistake, however, Lee is the type of player who a defense can only hope to contain, and his strengths play into Alabama's weaknesses offensively. With Lee's speed and coverage skills, he will not be the liability in coverage that Alabama has exploited throughout the season against larger, lumbering linebackers in the SEC. With his skill set, Lee can negate some of the mismatch advantages upon which offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin relies, as Lee can cover a player like Jalston Fowler or O.J. Howard on receiving routes.
Lee is similar to the type of hybrid sideline-to-sideline ‘backer that Alabama had in C.J. Mosley and has now in Reggie Ragland. His speed is freakish for the position, and with his added bulk, he can successfully take on the likes of Derrick Henry when the Tide chooses to run the hefty back laterally towards the hole to gain momentum.
The Buckeyes also like to use Lee the way Alabama has used Rashaan Evans at times this year, as a speed rusher off of the edge who can nimbly slide off of blocks and use his tremendous speed to track down quarterbacks and running backs behind the line of scrimmage. That is probably what Lee does best, as evidenced by his high tfl numbers for a linebacker. Rarely does one see a linebacker nearly lead his team in tfls, especially when his team also fields two first round draft picks along the defensive line. This speaks to Lee's ability to penetrate blocking schemes and pursue his quarry with acumen.
This should be at least somewhat troubling for Alabama fans, as the Alabama offensive line has, at times, struggled with elite, smallish pass rushers with a quick first step. Exhibit A: the 2013 Sugar Bowl. Granted, the personnel is different at left tackle, and a healthy Cam Robinson would win many of those battles (though Robinson will likely face his share of Bosa as well). However, with the overload of talent on the defensive line, the Alabama offensive line may not be able to plug every hole in the dike, and Lee has the ability to make life difficult for the Bama offense through both run-stopping and the pass rush.
Though Ohio State is not an SEC team, the Buckeyes are built by the SEC template. Defensively, they join aggressive, talented pass rushers with elite secondary talent, and knit those units together with heavy-hitting sideline-to-sideline linebackers. In Ohio State, Alabama will see one of the most talented and explosive defenses it has played this season, and Lee will be a big part of any success the Buckeyes have moving forward.