COLUMBUS, Ohio — Four years ago, Darron Lee showed up for the start of Ohio State's summer camp with something to prove.
And then he had to show up again.
"He came to camp, like five or six times," Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer recalled of Lee's recruitment last year.
A product of nearby New Albany High School, Lee was seeking a scholarship offer from his hometown school, despite not knowing what position he'd be playing at the college level or possessing an offer list of blue-blood backup plans as Ohio State's targets often do.
But as the summer of 2012 in Columbus hit its stride, Meyer and his staff found themselves with no choice but to offer the 6'3", 205-pound dual-threat quarterback who worked out with their receivers, cornerbacks and safeties a scholarship.
"I rejected him probably four times," Meyer said. "Shows you how good an evaluator I am.
"The thing that we loved about him, he kept competing."
So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the next time Lee found himself working out in a shirt and shorts with something on the line, the now 232-pounder wowed once again.
After three seasons—including a redshirt campaign—in Columbus, where he found a home at outside linebacker, Lee walked away from this past week's NFL Scouting Combine as one of the upcoming draft's breakout players with a performance highlighted by a 4.47 40-yard dash—the fastest of any linebacker in attendance.
"I don't think I could have really pictured all of this happening the way it did," Lee said at his combine press conference (via NBC 4 in Columbus). "I can't really say I pictured everything happening at Ohio State the way it did."
If you were unaware of Lee's strong showing in Indianapolis, which also included a 11'1" broad jump, you likely haven't been following the Ohio State staff on social media. Since declaring for the NFL draft in January, the second-team All-Big Ten linebacker has become one of the Buckeyes' favorite promotional tools, as his constant presence in the spotlight has allowed OSU to obtain the same.
Urban Meyer @OSUCoachMeyer
https://t.co/Rb8th1wfQt2/29/2016, 1:24:09 AM
Luke Fickell @CoachFick
Train with the best to be the BEST #Buckeyes #DarrenLee 11' 1 https://t.co/D30Or9qcCG2/28/2016, 8:28:09 PM
Mark Pantoni @markpantoni
Only 6 WRs ran faster than @DLeeMG8 😳2/28/2016, 7:47:55 PM
Whether it's been Meyer posting his results, his former position coach and defensive coordinator, Luke Fickell, sharing his highlights or any member of the Buckeyes staff retweeting the plethora of praise that's come Lee's way in the last week, the Ohio State coaches haven't been shy to remind their hundreds of thousands of followers where the fast-rising linebacker hails from.
And rather than hide from the fact Lee nearly never became a Buckeye, the Ohio State staff has seemingly embraced his unique recruitment, as evidenced by director of player personnel—and de facto head of recruiting—Mark Pantoni's consistent reminders of where the former 3-star prospect stood just four years ago.
Mark Pantoni @markpantoni
Nice day @DLeeMG8 😈 https://t.co/oNPcvhafR02/28/2016, 7:57:33 PM
While Lee appears to have fallen through the cracks of the recruiting rankings system—the type of player whose trajectory after his high school career was impossible to predict—his ascendance up NFL draft boards also speaks to the Buckeyes' player development program under Meyer and strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti.
With the Buckeyes touting a nation-high 14 players who were invited to this combine this year, it was the under-recruited former positionless 3-star athlete who stole the show after just two years of on-field experience at Ohio State.
In turn, the recruiting pitch writes itself: If this is what Meyer and his staff can do with their 3-stars, imagine what they're capable of with the 4- and 5-star prospects they target on a more regular basis?
The Buckeyes don't come out and say it—at least not publicly—as it'd demean Lee's obvious natural talent. But in speaking about the mass exodus of NFL talent from the OSU roster, some humble brags about just how quickly Lee turned from near afterthought to standing at the forefront of this spring's NFL draft may have slipped.
"Someone posted a picture of a skinny-neck quarterback from New Albany," Meyer said, referring to Lee and a tweet posted by Pantoni. "Now [he's] going to the NFL."
Indeed he is, and if this past week was any indication, he'll be hearing his name called sooner rather than later this spring. Already a borderline first-rounder heading into the combine, Lee seemed to solidify his first-round status with his standout showing in the Circle City, making good on the favorable comparisons he's already drawn to former Buckeyes linebacker and current Pittsburgh Steelers star Ryan Shazier.
"Linebackers are changing," Lee said at the combine. "A lot smaller, they're not really much bigger guys. But the game's getting faster and you're going to need guys to cover."
That's been reflected in Ohio State's approach on the recruiting trail, where 198-pound linebacker Keandre Jones was a coveted piece in the Buckeyes' 2016 class. It's probably a safe bet that the success of Shazier—and now Lee—was a big part of Meyer and his staff's pitch to the 4-star prospect, as Ohio State's track record with developing new-age linebackers now speaks for itself.
"That's a big part of recruiting now," Meyer has said of parlaying NFL development into attracting talent.
From Lee's standpoint, perhaps what's most promising for him—and scary for future opponents—is that he's still learning how to play linebacker, having spent less than three full years playing the position where he won Sugar Bowl MVP honors during Ohio State's run to a national championship a season ago. While his raw ability has already been apparent, Lee has plenty of opportunities to continue to prove himself in the weeks left leading up to the draft, with his pro day and individual team workouts still ahead.
Based on the success he's found in such settings, Lee's draft stock will likely only continue to rise.
And it's just as safe of a bet that if it does, you'll be hearing about it from the hometown school he was trying to earn a scholarship offer from in a similar format just four years ago.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
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