Buddies from Walnut Ridge to square off

Steve Blackledge

Cincinnati junior safety Darrick Forrest said he planned to text his good friend and former Walnut Ridge teammate Malik Harrison this week, but trash-talking wouldn’t be part of the buildup to Saturday’s Cincinnati-Ohio State meeting in Ohio Stadium.

"We’ll link up, exchange some texts and maybe hang, but there won’t be any smack," said Forrest, a mainstay in the Bearcats defense the past two seasons. "It is pretty cool seeing someone from your high school on the other side of the field … not to mention to play in your hometown."

Harrison also took the high road, saying: "You know, we haven't really even exchanged words. Here and there, we've exchanged words. I wish the best for him, he wishes the best for me."

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Forrest, 6 feet and 200 pounds, had a career-high nine tackles last Thursday in the Bearcats’ 24-14 win over UCLA.

Projected as one of the top linebackers in the 2020 NFL draft, Harrison, 6-3 and 240 pounds, led Ohio State with 81 tackles, including 8 1/2 for loss, in 2018. The senior had five tackles, two for loss that included a sack, in the Buckeyes’ 45-21 opening win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday.

Harrison and Forrest were more than just high school teammates.

"They played football and basketball and ran track together, and they always worked out together at Hope Fitness Academy," Walnut Ridge coach Byron Mattox said. "It’s safe to say they built a nice chemistry together."

Much of it was built on the offensive side of the ball. In addition to being a hard-hitting strong safety, Harrison was a dual-threat, three-year starting quarterback, and Forrest was one of his chief weapons as a receiver/running back.

But in 2015, Harrison’s all-Ohio senior season, Forrest fought through injuries that hampered his play and, subsequently, his recruitment.

In 2016, Forrest bounced back to make 25 receptions for 514 yards, rushed for 282 yards and scored eight TDs. He also had 74 tackles, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

"When I came out, I only had nine offers," Forrest said. "My sophomore and junior years, I tried to play through two injuries and there just wasn’t much film of me. Coach Mattox was in my corner all the way, and my relationship with the coaching staff was great, especially coach (Luke) Fickell."

Fickell, a former Ohio State defensive coordinator, took the Cincinnati job in December 2016 and made Forrest — and central Ohio — a priority. Thirteen area players dot the Bearcats’ roster, seven of them freshmen.

As a freshman at Cincinnati, Forrest was a reserve defensive back and played on special teams. He began to thrive last season, when he recorded 49 tackles (29 solo), three pass breakups, an interception and a fumble recovery as the Bearcats went 11-2, capped by a win over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl.

When he was interviewed last week, Forrest was focused on the opener against UCLA but said he was looking forward to playing Ohio State and reuniting with Harrison.

"It hasn’t been on my mind too heavily, but seeing that game on the schedule is exciting, for sure," he said. "I guess you could say I was an Ohio State fan when I was a kid, but during the recruitment process I sort of lost track of that. My dad was always a huge Buckeye fan. I’m pretty sure he’ll be rooting for UC when we come to town."

Mattox plans to attend the game, but chuckled and took the high road when asked what colors he would be wearing. Incidentally, Walnut Ridge wears red and gray.

"I’ll be cheering for both of my guys," Mattox said. "Ohio State got me my tickets, but as far as allegiances go, I always root for the guys who come to our school and recruit our guys. Luke Fickell recruited Malik to Ohio State and Darrick to Cincinnati, so we’ll leave it like that.

"It’s going to be a fun and proud day for me."


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