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Buckeyes hit the jackpot with Darron Lee

1/5/2015
Darron Lee has seamlessly filled the void left by linebacker Ryan Shazier. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A conversation with Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee about his predecessor can go a number of directions.

The redshirt freshman will call himself a huge fan of Ryan Shazier.

He will call Shazier a big brother after the time they spent in the same meeting rooms a year ago and he will rave about the lessons he learned watching him fly around at linebacker last season from the sideline.

Lee will politely accept any compliments comparing him to the first-round NFL draft pick, as well.

But one thing Lee will not do is call himself the next Ryan Shazier. That is perhaps as much a matter of respect and an acknowledgement of how much better he can get as it might be the fact he's rapidly making his own name and carving out a reputation for the No. 4 Buckeyes.

“Well, I'm not going to sit here and compare myself to him in any way, shape or form,” Lee said. “Ryan Shazier is Ryan Shazier, he's a whole different ballpark, a league of his own, you know. I'm Darron Lee, he's Ryan Shazier.

“You know, if people say I make plays like Ryan Shazier, I'll take that as a compliment, because I have a high amount of respect for him and everything he's done for this program from when he first got here to when he left.”

Shazier's early departure left a void in production -- given all the ways he stuffed the stat sheet and flew around the field for the Buckeyes before ultimately being selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Filling those shoes was going to be a tall task regardless of who Ohio State plugged in at outside linebacker. It might have looked even less likely to happen when a former high school quarterback with only a couple of years of experience on the defensive side of the ball showed up in his place to start spring practice.

While Shazier's final season with Ohio State has some decided edges in a couple of categories like tackles, forced fumbles and tackles for loss, Lee more than held his own in a head-to-head matchup thanks to a couple of interceptions, 7.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, a pair of touchdowns -- and a Defensive MVP trophy in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

“I think I remember [senior linebacker] Curtis Grant saying I didn't have a conscience, and Ryan really didn't have a conscience,” Lee said. “He just went out and played, and it didn't matter how big you were. He was faster and he would hit you.

“That's what I would try to take from him and try to mold it to my game. Hey, you know, just go and don't think. I guess that's kind of led to a lot of made plays this year.”

His athleticism might have always indicated Lee could be a playmaker for the Buckeyes, though it was no certainty where that might happen. If not for some repeated visits to camp during his recruitment, the opportunity to do it anywhere at all might not have presented itself to the product of nearby New Albany, Ohio.

But Lee made an impression on the coaching staff every time he showed up to test himself and show what he could do as a versatile, fast, fearless talent. And like Shazier before him, he's now using those attributes to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

“I mean, who knows exactly what position he was going to be, but he came back to camp three times,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “Why? Because he wanted to be an Ohio State Buckeye. Why? Because he wanted to show us he was a competitor. Those things, to me, you can't just rip open a guy's chest and find out what's really inside that thing. But when you get him there as many times as you can, you know what kind of competitive nature they have, it's usually the best indication of what kind of success they'll have.

“Recruiting is an educated guess. I try to say it's a little bit like going to Vegas. Everybody goes to Vegas and thinks they're going to win, but that's why they continue to build those casinos.”

The Buckeyes bet big on Lee. And just like they did with Shazier, they've hit the jackpot at linebacker once again.