Linebacker Darron Lee remembers walking next to coach Urban Meyer for a full minute at a workout for high school players three years ago. He was a nobody, a junior from nearby New Albany High School trying to earn the attention of the man in charge.
“I was the guy in the corner,” Lee said.
Now he’s one of the guys on the podium. Lee ascended the stage after the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day to collect his defensive MVP award. The sophomore had seven tackles, including two sacks, in a 42-35 victory over No. 1 Alabama at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Lee, a freshman who received a medical redshirt last year, ranks third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 16½ tackles for a loss and 7½ sacks. He’s the only Buckeye with two fumble recoveries.
Many Buckeyes have come a long way this season and in their careers. Lee has come farther than most. He knew coaches Luke Fickell, Kerry Coombs and Ed Warinner during the recruiting process, but on that day, when he walked next to Meyer and saw no reaction, he knew where he stood.
“Hey, life story, man,” said Lee on Tuesday during Ohio State’s media day at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “I’ve just got to work for what I want. I don’t bat an eye at that. (Meyer has) openly said to us before it’s not his job to evaluate. It’s his coaches’ job to evaluate. I feel he probably had a good reason to reject me at the time, but it’s good to be here now. Hard work really pays. I’m reaping the benefits of it.”
Lee always had the defensive coordinator Fickell in his corner.
“I just let (the coaches) know I’m better than a lot of guys you’re bringing in, or at least I can compete with them,” Lee said. “That was my motivation. I saw other kids’ tapes. I wanted an offer really bad ever since I was a kid.”
Meyer credits Fickell for bringing Lee to Ohio State. Meyer said Lee came to camps at Ohio State five or six times, and Meyer rejected him four times.
“Shows you how good an evaluator I am,” Meyer said. “The thing that we loved about him is he kept competing. This generation, sometimes kids say, ‘I’m not coming to camp.’ There was a day where everybody went to camp so you could watch them. You watch a little ten-play highlight video, and you have to make a $250,000 decision on a guy to give him a scholarship to Ohio State. Most great players that I’ve been around, they come to camp, they tear it up, you offer them a scholarship, they shake your hand and they go play. That’s what Darron Lee did. That’s why I love that kid.”
An underdog in high school, now Lee finds himself an underdog again. All the Buckeyes are. They were underdogs against Michigan State and against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. They were heavy underdogs against Alabama.
The Bovada online sports book lists the No. 4 Buckeyes (13-1) as a seven-point underdog for the national championship game at 8:30 p.m. Monday against No. 2 Oregon (13-1) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“They keep doubting us,” Lee said. “They probably think we can’t do it. I guess they saw how Ohio State was back in the past. They were so close and came up short. They’re probably reverting back to that. Whatever. It’s a different time, a different age, a different team, a different coach.”
Ohio State vs. Oregon, 8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN, 1410