COLUMBUS — Zach Harrison knew he had to wait his turn at Ohio State.
A celebrated five-star prospect from Olentangy Orange High School, the defensive end knew when he signed with the Buckeyes last December it meant no immediate reservation for a starting job his freshman year. The Buckeyes had what most have proclaimed to be the best defensive player in the country, Chase Young, at one end. Journeyman, but ever improving, Jonathan Cooper was at the other. They were five-star, can’t-miss prospects themselves a few years ago, and they already were backed up by Tyreke Smith, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Tyler Friday and Alex Williams.
So simple pomp wasn’t going to do it for Harrison to gain a start as a freshman. It was going to take hard work, which he exhibited he was willing to put in from the moment he stepped on campus as an early enrollee in January — and it required the right circumstance. Those lines converged in the 73-14 win over Maryland on Saturday.
Young was unavailable, held out of action by Ohio State as it investigates a loan from a “family friend” late year that he admitted taking – and paying back. Cooper has seen his senior season blunted from the start by a high-ankle sprain that’s seen him play in just three games, and he was out yet again.
Smith and Jean-Baptiste had been the usual first off the bench for the two defensive end spots. But against Maryland, Smith and Harrison were given the tap for starting in those roles. Really, it wasn’t much more than a nod by defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who as Harrison said, considered him, Smith, Friday and Jean-Baptiste all capable of starting.
“I didn’t know it officially until Coach J said for me and Tyreke to go on the field,” Harrison said. “But I had an idea because the past couple of days in practice I had been getting reps with the ones.”
Again, so much for the pomp. But it still was a big deal for the swift, 6-foot-6, 260-pound Harrison. A first collegiate start is always reason to celebrate, despite the circumstance.
“It’s a dream come true,” Harrison said. “I’ve grown up a Buckeye fan, and … being able to start for The Ohio State University was just a dream come true.
“To be perfectly honest with you, coming in I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to start this year, but God works in mysterious ways.”
Inspired to pay honor to Young but also show that life can go on without him, the defense racked up a season-high seven sacks. Defensive tackle Davon Hamilton and Smith led the charge with two each, but Harrison was among those grabbing one.
He also learned that holding his arms up and flexing his biceps in celebration in proximity of the quarterback is considered unsportsmanlike conduct. The penalty gave new life to the first of only two touchdown drives by the Terps.
“What the ref explained to me is it looked like from the outside that I stood over [the quarterback] and flexed on him,” Harrison said. “But that was not my intention, and I explained to him. It was just a misunderstanding, and I learned from it, so I know moving on.”
Learning is what it has been about for Harrison this year anyway, as he’s seen his playing time increase each week.
“I learn a bunch every time I step on the field,” Harrison said. “Practice is one thing, but getting game reps against an opponent takes your development through the roof.”
Whether a second start will come for Harrison at Rutgers on Saturday when the Buckeyes take on the outmanned Scarlet Knights remains to be seen. It depends, of course, on the status of Young and Cooper, then ultimately, on the whims of Johnson. Besides, Harrison is the first to admit he’s yet to fully arrive.
“I’ve still got a ton of work to do and improvement to make,” Harrison said. “But I feel like I’m just getting better and better.”
Few things top that first start, though, and as Harrison spoke of it, video cameras of all sorts recorded it, his efforts deemed worthy of an appearance in the post-game interview room.
“The cameras? Yeah, this is different,” Harrison said. “I haven’t had this since, like, I was in high school.”
Then again, that was just a year ago. Think about it.
“It’s, uh, it’s different.”
Zach Harrison can make a difference for the Buckeyes, too.