Under Urban Meyer, Ohio State has had a tendency to convert high school quarterbacks to successful players at other positions. Evan Spencer and Jalin Marshall immediately spring to mind as far as wide receivers go, and Torrance Gibson appears to be next in line to continue this tradition. The lesser known quarterback conversion from Meyer has been revolved around turning high school quarterbacks into elite defenders.
First it was current Browns defender Paul Kruger. Recruited by Meyer while he was still the head coach at Utah, Kruger converted into a stud rush linebacker who has piled up 33.5 sacks in his seven year NFL career. Also on the Browns is high school quarterback convert Joe Haden. Now one of the NFL's premier corners, Haden was convinced to try out cornerback in his attempt to see the field early under Meyer at Florida.
High school quarterbacks come in all shapes and sizes, and the most important thing to remember is that a high school's quarterback is often that team's best player. Then, the high school quarterback turns out to be an unblockable beast named Darron Lee.
A three-star recruit out of New Albany, Ohio, Lee was a skinny 6'1, 205 lb athlete just looking for a chance. "Looking for a chance" consisted of Lee attending Ohio State football camps "five or six times" according to Meyer, and finally, with defensive coordinator Luke Fickell's urging, Lee became an Ohio State Buckeye.
After a freshman year redshirt, the lanky Lee turned into a beast. Similar to Joshua Perry's development, under Meyer Ohio State has attempted to find athletes with running back ability to play linebacker. With a strength program like Ohio State's, adding 20 lbs of muscle is an afterthought for most players, and Lee is just the latest example.
Upon earning the starting SAM (strong side) linebacker role entering the 2014-2015 season, it didn't take long for Buckeyes fans to learn who number 43 was.
Lee had actually scored a long touchdown off of a fumble recovery before decleating the NCAA's all-time touchdown leader Keenan Reynolds, but this play was the first time that Lee's absurd acceleration was clearly on display.
Then as we all know, Ohio State came crashing back to earth, losing at home to Virginia Tech. More substandard defensive performances followed against the likes of Cincinnati and Maryland, and it was clear the Silver Bullets had to change something. That something turned out to be Darron Lee.
Against Penn State the world was treated to a new version of Darron Lee: the pass-rusher. With a player as relentless and aggressive as Lee, why not turn him loose with the only goal on his mind being to take down the statue in the pocket that was Christian Hackenberg?
With Lee functioning as Ohio State's spread beater, a player equally adept at setting the run in the ground game as he is covering wide receivers and rushing quarterbacks, the Silver Bullets began functioning at a level not seen in the Meyer era. The pinnacle for Lee came in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, as with 7 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 2 sacks, Lee was named the game's most valuable defensive player.
Another dominant performance for Lee followed in the national championship, and just like that, Lee had gone from a high school quarterback doing everything he could to simply catch the interest of Ohio State, to being an irreplaceable cog in one of the best defenses in the country.
What followed in 2015 was more of the same for Lee. Another trip to Club Endzone, more relentless pressure off the edge, the only difference in 2015 was that everyone knew who the playmaking linebacker was this time around. And how could anyone not know about Lee after taking one look at his stat sheet
After a NFL combine that saw Lee run a blistering 4.47 40 yard dash (fastest among all linebackers, and tied for seventh fastest among all wide receivers), it's safe to say Lee is squarely on every NFL scouts radar. But why exactly is Lee poised to be such a great pro? Let's find out.
Strengths: Speed, ability to play in space
I've written previously about the problems Lee causes for a spread offense, but basically: Lee is too fast and physical for anyone on the field to block him. Slow footed offensive linemen don't stand a chance against Lee's fast twitch pass rush abilities, and Lee is too powerful to be blocked in space by receivers or running backs. The advantages this causes for a defensive coordinator are endless, especially when defending the spread.
Spread offenses are more or less a way to exploit number advantages anywhere on the field. A quarterback will usually have an option to either run or pass the ball, and the defense's alignment usually makes this a fairly simply choice. Against Ohio State, Alabama faced a defense that saw the Buckeyes covering three Crimson Tide wide receivers with only two players. Safety Vonn Bell (not in the frame) was providing help over the top, but to Alabama, a screen appears to be the best choice since Ohio State simply doesn't have enough men to defend the play if blocked properly.
Never one to shy away from contact, Lee basically disregards the Alabama slot receivers attempt at blocking him. While flying over blockers isn't a block shedding technique that is commonly taught, not many linebackers could be mistaken for Clark Kent the way Lee can.
The result of the play is a minuscule gain for Alabama, and a befuddled Lane Kiffin (who Lee isn't a massive fan of it turns out). While most teams would love to leave their starters on the field as much as Ohio State has over the past two years, often times offensive packages dictate a need for substitutes on the defense to match up properly. By Lee having the ability to morph himself into basically any conceivable defensive position, the defense can choose to dictate what they want the offense to do, not the other way around.
Weaknesses: Out of control at times, size
One of the downsides of having the aggressive nature that Lee regularly brings to the table is missing tackles. As was on display in the first half against Michigan in 2015, Lee will at times not drive his feet through contact during a tackle, allowing players to slip away. Part of this is due to his still developing size, as although at 6'1, 235 lbs Lee is solid, playing in the box is typically an area reserved for players with 10-15 more lbs of meat. Still, with passing offenses becoming a bigger and bigger part of the NFL offense, Lee's athleticism and coverage ability are much more coveted traits than his tackling ability and size, which can be improved by the right NFL team.
Best Case NFL Comparison: Ryan Shazier
The previous SAM linebacker at Ohio State before Lee, Ryan Shazier's athleticism and relentlessness is very well known to all in Columbus and Pittsburgh alike. A three-down linebacker with the ability to both put a running back on his back and cover a tight end down the field, Shazier's speed makes him a prototypical NFL linebacker. Shazier, like Lee, had to add to his lean frame to deal with the burden that is playing in the middle of a NFL defense, but Shazier has kept the speed and playmaking ability that made him so special at Ohio State. Look for Lee to continue in Shazier's footsteps if he can consistently defend the run and continue to make plays at the next level.
Worst Case NFL Comparison: Alec Ogletree
While it's certainly feasible that Lee could turn into a worse player than the solid Ogletree, at Lee's worst he's going to be a coverage linebacker who teams must account for, he's simply too athletic. Alec Ogletree, current Rams linebacker, formerly from Georgia, is a safety turned linebacker who possesses the same time of playmaking as Lee. Ogletree has struggled with injuries and inconsistent tackling in his time in St. Louis (RIP), but remains a player capable of making plays whenever he's on the field. If Lee fails to gain more consistency with his tackling and struggles against the inside run game of the NFL, he could turn into a glorified cover linebacker instead of the three-down monster that is Lee's ceiling.
NFL Draft Projection: Mid-first round
I would honestly be shocked if Lee makes it out of the first 20 picks, as Lee is basically a less polished version of UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, who will most likely be a top five pick later this month. While draft experts have pegged Lee as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme and an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, expect his NFL coaches to have as much fun moving Lee around the entire field as Fickell did.
Most "Darron Lee" Play: Thanks for trying, Oregon
With Darron Lee on the field, coaches must respect his blend of physicality and speed. During the 2015 National Championship, Oregon did just this, assigning a tight end to block Lee as part of an outside sweep. The problem for Oregon, is that even when everything appears to be just right, Darron Lee can come right in and blow everything up. Nice try Oregon, best of luck to Darron at the NFL Draft.