A year ago, Zach Harrison was the big signing day catch for Ohio State.

The Olentangy Orange five-star defensive end played recruiting close to the vest. Until nearly the end, he was thought to be leaning toward Michigan. Keeping him in town was a major coup for Ryan Day, who'd been hired as Urban Meyer's successor only two weeks earlier.

>>Read more: We followed Zach Harrison through his recruiting journey. Read the story here.

“I don't even know if I was committed at this time last year,” Harrison said on Monday. “Really, I didn't decide where I was going until the Saturday before signing day.”

Harrison was a must-have recruit more on potential than production. He was raw, but anyone 6 feet 6 and 255 pounds who could run a 4.47-second 40-yard dash and was clearly intelligent would make a coach salivate. That's especially true for a defensive line coach like Larry Johnson, who excels at teaching technique.

But Harrison has already proven he can be an impact player sooner than later. He is a part of the defensive end rotation and has had five tackles for loss, including 3½ sacks.

“I think I've had a pretty solid freshman year so far,” Harrison said. “I came in early, and spring ball helped me through camp. I didn't know what the season was going to hold.

“I started off kind of slow. Once the games started slowing down a little bit, I started making more plays, and think I've been doing pretty good.”

It's more than the statistics that tantalize those hoping Harrison can emerge as the next dominant Ohio State defensive end. Harrison's speed and relentless effort has enabled him to make plays far from the line of scrimmage or a quarterback in the pocket.

“Some of those plays, he's chasing a guy 20 yards, 30 yards down the field,” said sophomore Tyreke Smith, another defensive end with immense potential. “We're like, 'Dang, that dude is really fast.' It's stuff like that that you see and you're like, 'Aww man, this dude's going to be special.' ”

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Harrison's potential is his understanding of how much work will be required to reach it.

“I still have a bunch of stuff to learn,” he said. “I have a lot of steps to take before I'm a finished product. That's the exciting part for me.

“Next year I have to do better. I can't have the same year next year that I had this season. I've got to keep improving and make more plays next year.”

With Heisman Trophy finalist Chase Young a lock to enter the NFL draft, more playing time will be available next year. But Harrison will have to earn it. Senior Jonathon Cooper will return after his injury-induced redshirt this year. Smith, Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste also will be in the rotation.

But Harrison isn't thinking about next year. Ohio State plays Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 28. For the first time all season, the Buckeyes won't be the favorite. Clemson, the defending national champion, is riding a 28-game winning streak.

“Their O-line is big, so that will be a challenge,” Harrison said. “They have a good (running) back (Travis Etienne) and obviously a good quarterback (Trevor Lawrence) and good skill players on the outside. So it's going to be a challenge. It's going to be a fun one to play.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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