Defensive players who can and do play multiple positions over the course of a game aren't exactly a brand new phenomenon. The more innovative programs in the country have, like basketball, done away with trying to fit an especially versatile player into a position, and have instead leaned towards fitting a position to a player.
At Florida State it's the "Star" position that is handed to the most versatile member of the Seminoles' defense. As explained by head coach Jimbo Fisher, "This game has turned into a matchup game...it's turned into basketball. I got you, you got me, and how you play." Having a player that can confidently match up with almost anyone the offense puts across from him allows the defense to have a much easier time matching personnel with different offensive packages, while also creating problems for the opposing offense with the assumption that this versatile defender is a stud.
That assumption proves to be correct for current Seminole "Star" Jalen Ramsey. At 6'1" 202 lbs, Ramsey is a monster who can lock up pretty much anyone ACC opposition puts in front of him. Why confine Ramsey to just playing corner or safety when he can seamlessly flip responsibilities on a play by play basis? A first team USA Today All-American at "defensive back", Ramsey makes his living as the best player on a loaded Florida State defense, and in his mind as the best player in college football, all the while without fitting into what the rest of football deems to be a "normal" position.
Now having a solution for a player who can cover just about anybody is great and all, but what do you do with a player who is equally adept at covering receivers and rushing the passer, while being borderline unblockable in space? Enter Darron "Manimal" Lee.
Much has been made about Lee's path to becoming half man and half animal at Ohio State. A three-star quarterback in high school who earned a scholarship offer from Ohio State only after proving himself at multiple Buckeyes camps, Lee was not the most heralded recruit that Urban Meyer has brought along in his time at Ohio State. But thanks to Lee: 1. Being a cocky beast, 2. Having 4.5 speed. And 3. Combining both of these into a 6'2" 235 lb frame, Lee has blossomed into a walking talking "spread beater", making life miserable for opposing offenses in a very wide variety of ways.
With a player as multi-talented as Lee, defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash have done their best to utilize and unleash their Sam (strong side) linebacker. While they have yet to create a sweet position name for Lee (may I suggest "Viper"?) in order to get the most out of him, Fickell and Ash have moved Lee all over the formation in an attempt to match their spread beater against whatever it is the offense is trying to do.
Darron Lee, the linebacker
Probably the most normal "linebacker" way in which Ohio State likes to use Lee is as their edge setter against the running game. But, as we've learned, Lee doesn't tend to do anything the normal way.
Oregon was struggling. Facing an eight point deficit in the 4th quarter of the national championship, Oregon's run offense had been rendered virtually non-existent by the Buckeyes defense at this point in the game, but there was still enough time on the clock for the Ducks to potentially mount a comeback.
Not on Darron Lee's watch. Lined up to the field, Lee splits the difference between the slot receiver (Oregon tight end Evan Bayless) and the Oregon left tackle. Lined up five yards deep, Lee's job here is to not allow anyone to get outside, as middle linebacker Curtis Grant is the "fill" guy who will theoretically be at the point of attack once Lee forces the ball back inside.
As a linebacker you are taught to gain separation when taking on a blocker by essentially bench pressing your blocker in order to get your arms extended, and thus assuming control over the blocker. When done correctly, the linebacker can control the blocker with his hands, and shed the blocker accordingly once the runner makes a cut.
With a tight end looming, Lee completely obliterates Bayless on his way to making a one yard tackle for a loss. This would be one thing if it was a scrawny Oregon slot receiver, but shit, this is a 6'6, 260 lb tight end we are talking about here. Lee playing out in space is undoubtedly an issue for smaller receivers to block, but in this scenario Bayless was expected to be able to handle this responsibility with no help. Just another instance of Lee proving coaches wrong.
Darron Lee, the Nickelback
- Darron Lee after Ohio State's 42-35 win over Alabama
The above quote really doesn't have anything to do with the play I'm about to breakdown, but it's too awesome to not bring back up every once in a while. Enjoy.
While our previous example showcased Lee's ability to be physical in stopping the run, his athleticism and relentlessness as a nickelback is on display here against Alabama.
At their very base, spread offenses simply attempt to exploit number advantages against a defense. If an offense has six blockers to block six defenders in the box, the spread offense will run (since they have an available blocker for each defensive threat). But, once defenses begin to load the box, a new number advantage typically opens up for the offense in the form of the outside screen game. Three wide receivers out wide with only two defensive backs will result in a screen situation in most spread offenses. Two right blocks and the receiver will be off to the races.
That is, of course, assuming that one of the defensive backs isn't named Darron Lee. Facing an Alabama offense that was looking for answers thanks to Ohio State double teaming Amari Cooper on essentially every play, a 2nd and 4 late in the 2nd quarter led to what appears to be a positive number advantage for Alabama on the outside.
Alabama's play call here was a run/pass option. Basically, Alabama quarterback Blake Sims will assess the defense, and if he has a numbers advantage in the box, he will run (the offensive line and running back are doing their own running play the whole time), but if Sims sees Alabama has a numbers advantage on the outside, he will pull the ball and throw a screen outside.
Sims made the correct read on this play when choosing to throw the screen, as Alabama has three receivers to only two Ohio State defenders. Against a normal team, Ohio State would not just concede a numbers advantage like this, but safety Vonn Bell is covering deep over the top of Amari Cooper (the #3 receiver) instead of worrying about the slots.
As Sims immediately throws a screen, Lee has his legs cut out from underneath him by slot receiver and returner Christian Jones. This is actually an excellent block by Jones, and all you could have reasonably asked him to do as a wide receiver attempting to block whatever the hell Darron Lee is. If you showed only the above picture to Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and asked him if he would be okay with the rest of this play playing out, he would agree 10 times out of 10.
Instead, Lee essentially crawls and dives his way into somehow covering more ground than Alabama receiver DeAndrew White, which is funny considering Lee was parallel to the ground a minute ago while White was standing straight up ready to run. This just demonstrates how difficult Lee is to block in space, as even when everything appears to go right for the offense, Lee still finds ways to blow things up.
Darron Lee, the pass rusher
"I think he's a very twitchy young man ... I think he's got some really athletic skills. The thing that he did voluntarily was learn how to pass rush. He came down and spent time with Vince, our grad assistant, and myself to work on his pass rush skills. Those are things that are starting to show up. He can play much faster with his hands, and that's a gift to be able to do that."
For as simple as Ohio State's defense can be at times (sometimes sitting in cover four and simply letting one of the best defensive lines in the country do their thing isn't such a bad idea) once third down hits, things get a bit more hectic. When your defense has a player like Joey Bosa who essentially demands to be double teamed at all times, things tend to open up for your other players when you add a bit of creativity.
Here Ohio State lines up in a nifty five man front that has normal defensive end Joey Bosa playing a "0" technique (the defensive player is lined up directly over the center), with fellow Buckeyes defensive linemen Steve Miller and Adolphus Washington lined up in three techniques (the defensive player is lined up on the guard's outside shoulder). Linebackers Darron Lee and Curtis Grant have become stand-up rush ends, with Joshua Perry patrolling the middle.
At the snap Bosa takes on his double team while everyone else takes on their single blocker...except Lee who is inexplicably left unblocked. Now, the running back is currently carrying out his play fake and would have undoubtedly accounted for Lee, but we will never know if he could have handled Lee on an outside rush, as Lee carried out his responsibility on the play by taking a few hard steps up field before twisting back inside (Grant is doing the same thing, just with an offensive tackle in front of him). It really is impressive that Lee did not take this free path to the quarterback, as while this sometimes works out (see: Bosa, Penn State 2014) trusting his teammates and the play design will be more beneficial nine times out of ten.
The Oregon running back doesn't even give Lee a second glance, and after Washington forces quarterback Marcus Mariota to step up into the pocket, there is no one there except for Mr. Lee who I'm sure was salivating on the field at this point. This creative usage of Lee, combined with help from Washington, caused Mariota to be brought down for a drive ending sack. Just like Fickell and Ash drew it up.
Darron Lee the playmaker
"Lee's instincts and coverage ability are both elite traits or close enough. It would be a surprise if Lee exhausts his collegiate eligibility."
- SB Nation's Dan Kadar
Watching a player's first few steps during a play can really tell you a lot about their recognition skills and explosiveness. While some players need multiple read steps before pursuing the play, others appear to be moving at full speed at the snap of the ball. It's safe to say after watching this play that Lee falls into the latter group.
Eli Apple was particularly impressed by this play, and had this to say after the game. "He even called it before the play even started, on the sideline. He was saying, 'If they do that play one more time, I'm going to jump it and pick it off and run it back.' I'm glad he did that." I'm glad too Eli, I'm glad too.
When it comes down to it, it really doesn't matter what you want to call Lee. At the end of the day Lee can be a linebacker, a nickelback, a defensive end, whatever. Just know that regardless of where he lines up, Darron Lee is ready to prove over and over again why he is one of the top playmakers in the country, and please test him at your own risk.