Darron Lee Is College Football's Most Overlooked Star

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterAugust 12, 2015

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — With a mother who's a local newscaster, and having taken part in his fair share of interview sessions over the past year, Darron Lee has a knack for saying the right thing.

So when the Ohio State linebacker was asked about his snub from this year's preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, it wasn't necessarily surprising that he was able to shed the question like an oncoming blocker.

"I don't care about watch lists," Lee said. "I feel that it would motivate anybody if they were really paying attention to that. I just focus on helping my team win ballgames."

But as polished as the redshirt sophomore linebacker is in front of a camera, he can only hold his true feelings in for so long. Which is why it also wasn't a surprise that when pressed on the subject of being overlooked, the former 3-star prospect inside the now-Sugar Bowl MVP emerged.

"That chip (on my shoulder) will never leave," he said. "As long as I wear this jersey, or any other jersey playing football, I'm always going to give my best."

And yet for Lee, who is projected by several NFL draft analysts to be a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft, the role of underdog somehow still suits him.

Maybe because he's played it for so long.

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 29:  Darron Lee #43 of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates after running back a fumble recovery for a touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium on November 29, 2014 in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Michigan 42-
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Having grown up a mere 20 minutes from Ohio State's campus in New Albany, Ohio, Lee had dreams of being the next Ted Ginn Jr., the Buckeyes star receiver/returner in the mid-2000s. In high school, the quarterback and sometime safety got to live out a part of his fantasy, dazzling on runs and punt returns at New Albany High School.

But in order to spend his college career playing for his hometown team, Lee would have to be the one doing the pursuing. Rather than being chased like the 5-star prospects Urban Meyer typically sets his sights on, Lee—the 36th-ranked prospect in Ohio and No. 630 player in the nation in the 2013 class—would have to prove himself on the summer camp circuit, and more than just once.

"He came to camp, like five or six times, (and) I rejected him probably four times," Meyer said. "Shows you how good an evaluator I am."

Lee, however, had an ally on his side in Buckeyes linebackers coach Luke Fickell, who urged his boss to take a shot on the then-6'2", 205-pounder. Meyer ultimately relented, with Lee accepting his scholarship offer from Ohio State on the same day he received it.

It didn't take long for the Buckeyes staff's gamble to pay off.

After briefly seeing time on special teams as a true freshman in 2013, Lee would take a medical redshirt before emerging as one of Ohio State's breakout performers in the spring leading into the 2014 campaign. Starting in place of first-round pick Ryan Shazier at outside linebacker, Lee—now weighing 228 pounds—would record seven tackles, including three for a loss, and would return a fumble 61 yards for a score in the Buckeyes' season-opening win against Navy.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

But as impressive as his true Ohio State debut was, it was how he closed the year that really turned heads.

While Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones stole the show on the other side of the ball, it was Lee who emerged as the name to know for the Buckeyes on defense last winter. Totaling a combined 22 tackles, three of which came for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in Ohio State's three postseason games, Lee earned Sugar Bowl MVP honors against Alabama before playing a key role in shutting down Oregon's potent offense in the national title game.

Lee's breakout performance in the playoffs turned the heads of scouts at the next level, with ESPN.com's Todd McShay projecting him to be the No. 30 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. It also made him a star in college football and a fan favorite in football-crazed Columbus. 

"When you go out in public, some people know your face and whatnot," Lee said, downplaying his newfound fame.

But while Lee may be a name to know in college football for 2015, that chip on his shoulder remains ever-present.

Because as much as he claims it's not the case, it eats at Lee knowing that he wasn't selected to the 51-member preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, which is presented annually to college football's top linebacker. At least, that was the case in the moments following the watch list's release in July, when Lee let it be known in a since-deleted tweet that he was taking note of his absence.

"Keep adding fuel to my fire," Lee wrote. "You know who you are."

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 12:  Linebacker Darron Lee #43 of the Ohio State Buckeyes looks to tackle running back Thomas Tyner #24 of the Oregon Ducks during the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at AT&T Stadium on January 12, 2015 in Arlin
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It's that type of attitude that has allowed Lee to rise from under-recruited prospect to potential first-round pick. It's also helped set the tone for the rest of the Buckeyes defense, including fellow linebackers Joshua Perry and Raekwon McMillan, even if unlike Lee, they each were selected to the Butkus watch list.

"He's a competitor, on and off the field," McMillan said of Lee. "When you see him make a play, it just makes you want to make a play. ... When something's going wrong, he gets fired up and wants to compete even more. That's the type of guy he is."

With so much going in both his and Ohio State's favor now, it would be easy to wonder whether such moments will even exist in a season where the Buckeyes are favored to repeat as national champions. Lee, however, insists that his mindset will remain the same, as no matter how hard he tries to hide it, his inner underdog shines through.

"We always keep that hunger," Lee said. "We feel we're the best defense, so we're always going to try to go out and prove that.

"The chip always remains the same."

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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