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After time behind Darron Lee, Chris Worley steps up for Ohio State

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Two years ago a versatile athlete was moved to linebacker, earned Ohio State’s first rep in spring practice, never gave the job back and established himself as a surefire first-round draft pick.

Another multipurpose defender was shifted to the position from safety, evaluated as just narrowly behind his teammate after winter conditioning, and eventually locked out of the starting lineup for the next two seasons, forced to find other ways to contribute.

Could the roles have been reversed between Darron Lee and Chris Worley? Maybe not given the way Lee exploded on the scene.

But after a couple seasons spent in the shadows, Worley finally has his shot. This spring it’s his turn to establish himself as the potential breakout performer in camp as he steps into Lee’s shoes.

“Yeah, about time,” Worley said Thursday. “Long wait. I mean, that’s what happens when you go to a great university like this. You get a lot of good players, great players that might come in at the same time and play the same position.

“You know, I never batted an eye about it. I was proud of him just like if I was playing.”

Lee certainly gave the Buckeyes plenty to feel good about, and Worley had an up-close view. All along, though, Ohio State maintained that the margin between him and Worley wasn’t all that large.

In a limited sample size a year ago, Worley validated that with 17 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble as a redshirt sophomore.

“Obviously Darron is unique in his own right, and Chris will have his strengths and they won’t be the same,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “The reality for Chris is that he has to focus on being the best version of himself and focus on his strengths. Too often when you’re playing with a great player ... they can’t covet what their neighbor has, because then they forget to be grateful for all the gifts they’ve got.

“Sometimes you lose those great players, and that gives those other guys an opportunity to shine and make them realize that they have a lot of gifts, too.”

Worley’s work ethic is frequently mentioned by teammates and coaces, and that is certainly useful as Ohio State now hands him all the reps that used to go to Lee.

But perhaps more valuable is Worley’s age, entering his fourth year in the program. Not only has he experienced the day-to-day grind of competing for playing time against one of the country’s best linebackers, but Worley also knows the system and is in position to take over a leadership role on a young team.

“Now this year, it’s me and Jerome [Baker's] turn, and we’ve got the same kind of relationship that me and Darron had, and we’re just going to try to go out there and try to make plays to help the team,” Worley said. “I never really thought about [if things had been different two years ago]. The only thing I could do was go out there and control my part of things. I went out there and competed. I helped the team in some ways, special teams, but not the reason I came here to play on defense.

“Everyone has different paths, and everyone can’t stay on the same path.”

The one in front of Worley is clear now. And after two years behind Lee, it’s his turn to blaze ahead for the Buckeyes.