INDIANAPOLIS — Zach Harrison knew when he picked Ohio State last December that the chance to develop his skills under the watchful eye of Larry Johnson would change him as a football player.
He just didn’t know it could happen so quickly.
The freshman defensive end never imagined he’d be playing meaningful minutes in big games like Penn State, Michigan or the Big Ten Championship this early in his Ohio State career.
“Right now it’s kind of surreal,” Harrison said in the Buckeyes locker room following their Big Ten championship win over Wisconsin. “I was watching this on TV last year. It’s a blessing.”
Harrison arrived at Ohio State with the lofty expectations that follow five-star high school prospects. But it wouldn’t take much time watching his high school film to see that he had a lot of work to do if he wanted to meet those expectations.
His skills were obvious, but playing football is about much more than physical gifts. From the moment that the highly-touted freshman stepped onto campus in January for the Buckeyes, he worked. It was that approach, that humility, which endeared him to his teammates from the start, helped him shed the five-star label and actually earn a spot in the Buckeyes brotherhood.
“The brotherhood is important for every young guy, honestly,” fellow Ohio State defensive end Jonathon Cooper told Lettermen Row. “You have got to be in a room where everyone respects each other.
“It didn’t take Zach long at all to do that. Once we saw that he was a good kid, that we could trust him and that he works hard, we were good. We had a workout together, and after I put him through some stuff, I saw that he wasn’t afraid of the work.”
Part of Harrison’s success and one of the reasons he picked Ohio State comes from trust.
He trusted that Larry Johnson could get the most out of him, and he trusted that because of the Buckeyes depth and talent, he’d be able to develop at a pace that was comfortable for him. It gave Harrison a chance to watch guys like Cooper and Chase Young, former 5-star defensive end prospects themselves — and to learn without being counted on for a big impact this season.
“One of the biggest things is just trusting the technique,” Harrison said of Young, who has worked himself into being a Heisman finalist and a potential No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. “That’s what he does. He trusts Coach J’s technique. That’s proven: What he does, it works. And that means it can work for everybody and can work for me.”
And it is working for Harrison. The impact he’s making has just been gravy for the Buckeyes, but it’s a byproduct of who he is. He’s always been calm, introspective and yearning for guidance, looking for someone to coach him to what his unique physical characteristics suggest he could be. Now it’s on Harrison to take the next step in his development.
If the way others have grown under Larry Johnson is any indicator, it’s expected Harrison will do just that. It’s what he’s done for the last year, and there’s no reason to think that will change.
“Zach Harrison is a great kid, he works hard and he listens,” Cooper said. “When you put those things together, you can develop really fast here. His approach is what I would expect from any recruit trying to play here. Listen and go hard.”
Being a 6-foot-6, 250-pound high school star who runs a sub 4.6-second 40-yard dash means people have always noticed him. Harrison, who went out of his way to avoid the spotlight that was regularly shining on him because of his athletic talents, still looks like the same unassuming 18-year-old he was when he left Olentangy Orange High School a year ago.
But he’s not the same. His growing confidence has him thinking about big things, and it’s reflected on the defensive end’s face as he talks about how he can get better from here.
“I am way better than I thought I was going to be last year at this point in time, to be honest with you,” Harrison said. “The crazy part is that I’ve still got so much to grow. That’s exciting for me. Everything can improve. Everything.”
That’s exciting for Zach Harrison and Ohio State. But it could be bad news for the Big Ten for the next two seasons.