LEWIS CENTER, Ohio — Zach Harrison is the first consensus five-star high school football prospect in central Ohio since linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer of Westerville South won Mr. Football and was selected USA Today defensive player of the year in 1995.
Harrison, a senior defensive end at Olentangy Orange, has a similar pedigree. He is rated as the No. 4 senior recruit in the country by 247sports.com, is No. 10 in the ESPN 300 and No. 17 by Rivals.com. Some believe he fits the prototype of nine-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers of the Carolina Panthers.
But the 6-foot-5, 242-pound Harrison — who clocked 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash and has a vertical leap of 35.9 inches — seems genuinely uninterested in the hype surrounding him.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/columbusdispatch and connect with us on Twitter @DispatchAlerts
Told that 247sports.com has a crystal ball forecasting where he might play in college, Harrison rolled his eyes. He has narrowed his choices to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.
"That’s just crazy," Harrison said. "For the most part, I just block out all the noise. I’ve kind of become used to it. Sometimes, I get on Twitter just for laughs. It’s just so hard for me to conceive that grown men care so much about where I might go to college. At first, it was kind of cool to see that I was rated No. 1 (by 247sports), but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter much. Neither do the star ratings."
Orange coach Zebb Schroeder is soaking up the opportunity not only to coach a once-in-a-lifetime talent but also to cash in the perks that go with it.
"Zach is very humbled by all of this," Schroeder said. "He’s not a big fan of the recruiting process. At times, it has been a little too much for him. It’s really worn on him. He was very hesitant about college coaches wanting to come watch him practice and lift weights. I’ve tried to explain to him that his recruitment will have a lasting impact on our program because it allows those coaches to establish a rapport with our staff and, potentially, it can help some of his teammates get looks."
Harrison wasn’t always a "can’t miss" talent.
"When I was younger, Mom signed me up for a bunch of stuff," he said. "I played soccer, baseball, basketball, football and ran track. About the eighth grade, I started to like football. I was really clumsy and awkward, but by the time I got to my sophomore year, I began to realize I had some talent. Because of my size, other people started to notice me."
Schroeder recalled his first encounter with Harrison.
"My first year here (in 2014) I went to middle school summer conditioning and noticed this tall, skinny kid running from sideline to sideline, and when the time came to do a lunge drill for core balance, he couldn’t do it," Schroeder said. "I tried to show him how to get down but it was still very difficult for him. We finally figured out that his feet were so big, he didn’t have the ankle flexibility to do it."
By the spring of Harrison's freshman year, recruiters already had recognized his potential, and his speed and agility were enhanced by competing for the track team. During his sophomore season, Harrison turned in eye-popping times — and did so without the benefit of spikes because no shoe companies made a size 17 to accommodate him. He turned in respective times of 10.82 and 21.55 seconds in the 100 and 200 during a dual meet in the rain in May, but he was slowed by hamstring problems late in the season.
A two-time first-team all-Ohio selection, Harrison recorded 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 2017 for the Pioneers, who went 9-2 and reached the Division I playoffs. He went from raw to dominant between his sophomore and junior season.
"I’ve still got a lot to improve on," said Harrison, who has received offers from virtually every national power.
He is not tipping his hand on his college decision. Schroeder said Harrison has carefully weighed the pros and cons of all three finalists and seems conflicted because of the relationships he has formed with all three programs.
"He wants to make sure that his selection is the best fit for him," Schroeder said. "If he knew, this decision already would have been made. He’s a very thoughtful, intelligent young man and is such a positive person to be around. Everybody in our locker room loves him. I really think he can be the face of a program because of the type of leader he is behind closed doors. He’s a special kid, that’s for sure."