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Ohio State Linebacker Darron Lee Is College Football's Best-Kept Secret

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterJanuary 5, 2015

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the moments following Ohio State's 42-35 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Urban Meyer found himself flanked by the game's pair of MVPs on the postgame podium.

To Meyer's right was running back Ezekiel Elliott, who had just rushed for 230 yards and two touchdowns against the vaunted Crimson Tide defense. A former 4-star prospect, this was the type of effort that the Buckeyes staff expected from Elliott when it fought tooth and nail to pry him from his home state of Missouri two years ago.

That also happened to be the year that Meyer "recruited" the Sugar Bowl's defensive MVP on his other side, a high school quarterback from nearby New Albany, Ohio. And while Lee's path to Ohio State couldn't have been any more dissimilar from Elliott's, he's proven to be equally important to a fourth-seeded Buckeyes team that will take on No. 2 Oregon in next Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

"I still believe that this is all about the checkers," Meyer said. "Checkers are valuable things, man. And I got two very talented checkers right next to me."

Only Lee wasn't supposed to be this valuable of a piece for Meyer to play with—at least not yet. And yet here he was, the Sugar Bowl defensive MVP, having racked up seven tackles, three tackles for a loss and two sacks against the nation's top-ranked team.

That's hardly the type of production that the Buckeyes expected from Lee in the summer of 2012, when they made the 3-star prospect earn his scholarship offer with not one, but two appearances on the summer-camp circuit. Lee grew up ingrained in Ohio State culture—his mother was a television anchor at the Columbus NBC affiliate—so it didn't take long for him accept an invite to play for the Buckeyes, giving his verbal pledge to Meyer on June 26, 2012.

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"I love being a Buckeye," Lee said.

At that point, Lee's acceptance at Ohio State could have been considered a victory in and of itself, the local kid earning his way onto the roster of his hometown team. But in a star-studded recruiting class, the 630th-ranked prospect in 2013 was an obvious afterthought, with the likes of Joey Bosa, Vonn Bell and Dontre Wilson standing at the forefront.

That manifested itself in the form of a redshirt season in 2013 for Lee, who made the move to outside linebacker upon arriving at Ohio State despite weighing just 205 pounds coming out of high school. That didn't stop the New Albany native from setting sky-high goals for himself, claiming that he'd be the player who would one day replace All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier.

“I was like, ‘Sure, buddy, you are,’” Bosa, Lee's freshman roommate, recalled to reporters at Sugar Bowl media day. “He came in here as a safety or something and he played scout team linebacker and I just didn’t believe him.

"He was maybe 195 [pounds]."

"I was actually 215 at the time," Lee insisted.

It didn't take long for Lee to prove the doubters—Bosa included—wrong, as on the first day of spring practice in 2014, he found himself starting in the weak-side linebacker spot formerly occupied by Shazier. "All of a sudden he’s in spring and he’s killing people," Bosa said. "He got huge."

A strong spring carried over into a starting role in the fall, where Lee—now weighing 228 pounds—made an instant impact. With the Buckeyes trailing Navy in the second half of their season opener, Lee drew from his days as a playmaking quarterback, returning a Bosa forced fumble 61 yards for a touchdown in what would be a 34-17 OSU victory.

Darron Lee celebrates his touchdown return against Michigan.
Darron Lee celebrates his touchdown return against Michigan.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

That proved to be the first of many big plays for the redshirt freshman in his debut season, which has thus far included 50 tackles, 16.5 of which have come for a loss, 7.5 sacks, two interceptions and two touchdown returns. Those aren't Shazier-like numbers quite yet, but it's been enough for Meyer to single out Lee as one of the reasons why a young Buckeyes team finds itself unexpectedly playing for college football's national title.

"Did I think Darron Lee would perform like an All-Big Ten linebacker?" Meyer asked rhetorically after it was announced that Ohio State had made college football's first-ever playoff. "He's not there yet, but he's darn close."

And while Lee was in fact snubbed from any of the Big Ten's all-conference teams—honorable mentions included—that hasn't prevented the 20-year-old from carrying himself with the confidence of an established veteran, something that hasn't gone unnoticed by his older Buckeyes teammates.

"D-Lee, you are cocky," Lee recalled senior captain linebacker Curtis Grant telling him.

"Would you rather it be the other way around?" Lee responded. "Would you rather me be scared?"

Grant's answer, obviously, was no, which served Ohio State well in its upset of the Crimson Tide. Whether it was pressuring quarterback Blake Sims or containing running backs Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon, it was impossible not to notice Lee in the Sugar Bowl, as he did his best to debunk the myth of "SEC speed."

Darron Lee celebrates with the Sugar Bowl's defensive MVP trophy.
Darron Lee celebrates with the Sugar Bowl's defensive MVP trophy.USA TODAY Sports

“Somebody’s got to do their homework,” Lee hummed in the locker room after the game. "I was telling [OSU linebacker Joshua Perry] today, 'I don't think they've been doing their homework enough.' Everybody has that SEC bias crap or whatever. Honestly, just do your homework."

With Alabama and the SEC now in the Buckeyes' rearview mirror, Lee's attention now turns toward Oregon, against which he'll undoubtedly again play a key role. Whether it's spying Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota in the same way Arizona's Scooby Wright found success against the Ducks in their lone loss of the season or containing Oregon's explosive perimeter run game, it's hard to imagine Ohio State capturing its eighth national title in program history without a big day from college football's most underappreciated player.

"Just another day at work," Lee said, rolling his eyes when told that the Ducks are favored by seven points over the Buckeyes.

For Lee, the role of underdog is nothing new.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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