Respecting his roots

Senior linebacker Malik Harrison, whose versatility has made him a valuable defender, never forgets the Far East Side neighborhood he came from

Joey Kaufman
Malik Harrison [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Malik Harrison has a weekly routine.

On the Friday before each Ohio State home game, he returns to the Far East Side.

The trip begins in the morning at Walnut Ridge High School, his alma mater. He visits with football coach Byron Mattox. As Mattox assembles a play-call sheet for the evening’s game, he talks with his former player about his latest performance with the Buckeyes.

Harrison catches up with other teachers, too, before a final stop at Resch’s Bakery. He munches on three bow-tie doughnuts and grabs three more glazed ones for teammates.

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He views the trips as a way to show his appreciation. Many of the people there helped him on his road to Ohio State, where the rangy linebacker is at the heart of a rebuilt defense, the leading tackler through the first month of the season.

But he also stands as an inspirational figure.

The players who followed him at Walnut Ridge see him as a success story, a one-time overlooked “positionless” prospect who waited until the 11th hour of his recruitment before ending up at his hometown school, one of the premier programs in college football.

“He’s kind of like a hero to everybody,” said Qian Magwood, a receiver for the Scots.

In 2015, Harrison was a three-star recruit who played a variety of positions on the field. He was the starting quarterback and lined up at safety. At times, he slid over to receiver.

“He was so versatile and doing so many things,” Mattox said. “We didn't want to limit him.”

Most college coaches held different visions for his future. Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, then Indiana’s coach, viewed him as a tight end. Michigan State defensive coordinator Mike Tressel saw an outside linebacker or safety.

No consensus emerged.

The Buckeyes were long interested in Harrison, largely as a defensive prospect. Luke Fickell, who was previously the defensive co-coordinator before becoming Cincinnati’s coach, envisioned him in the mold of former linebacker Darron Lee, who also played multiple positions, including quarterback, in high school at New Albany.

Fickell was serious about pursuing Harrison.

While he was a junior, Harrison thought his recruitment had become so overwhelming, with too many coaches contacting him with a range of ideas, that he stopped replying to their text messages. After a couple of days, Fickell showed up at Walnut Ridge.

Harrison trusted Fickell. He was sincere. Just as important, Fickell believed in him. The then-assistant had first recruited him as a sophomore.

“He finds some diamonds in the rough,” Harrison said.

Fickell liked Harrison’s athleticism. Harrison was also a star basketball player, leading Walnut Ridge to the state tournament as a junior for the first time in more than four decades, and ran track in the springtime. But in particular, it was his aggressiveness on the football field that stood out and harbored potential.

“His ability to put a face on people and not shy away by any means,” Fickell recalled this week.

Harrison loved hitting, even as the quarterback. At one point, he proposed a play-call to Mattox that involved him pitching the football to the running back on a sweep, then running downfield to give himself up as a lead blocker.

But it wasn’t until after his senior season, in December 2015, before a scholarship offer materialized. Fickell needed to persuade then-coach Urban Meyer, and the staff needed to manage other commitments. Harrison committed to Ohio State two months later.

When Harrison meets younger players at Walnut Ridge or other high schools in the city, he relays his experiences. He reminds them to remain patient or sharpen their work ethic while waiting on scholarship offers from their preferred schools to arrive.

“It’s kind of like an underdog story,” Magwood said, “and everybody loves an underdog. He was patient. He understood that, with time, it'll come.”

The tale especially resonates with Magwood, a three-star recruit like Harrison. Most of his scholarship offers have come from Mid-American Conference schools rather than those in Power Five conferences.

Harrison holds an appreciation for his path, raised some 15 miles from Ohio Stadium.

Last year, he got a tattoo on the outside of his lower leg featuring the Block O and Brutus. He revels playing in front of family, who attend most games, including his father, Charles, who runs a floor cleaning business that often requires him to work weekends.

He knows ending up at Ohio State was no guarantee.

Under Meyer, the program expanded its recruiting reach across the country and relied less on local talent. Only 11 of the Buckeyes’ recruited 85 scholarship players are from central Ohio. Harrison believes it’s an even tougher road for players from inner city schools, noting that too often they’re overlooked by colleges, but it can also harden their resolve.

“I wish it was never like that,” Harrison said, “but it actually fueled me up to just go harder.”

Although Harrison never specialized as a high school player or emerged as a blue-chip prospect, the framework furthered him in his role for the Buckeyes as a senior.

Defensive co-coordinator Jeff Hafley is reminded of Harrison’s multifaceted background when he watches game film. It’s often in pass defense. Harrison is sitting in a zone coverage. A quarterback might spot an opening, then it’s closed by Harrison, who quickly backpedals or charges forward.

“His instinct is probably from playing a lot of sports growing up, just seeing the ball,” said Hafley, who joined the staff of first-year coach Ryan Day this season.

Harrison can close gaps with speed and athleticism despite a 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame.

It’s like when he starred as a safety at Walnut Ridge.

Harrison still studies other positions. When he downloads footage from practices on his iPad, he makes sure to watch drills that involve the secondary or the defensive line. He likes to follow the footwork of the defensive backs or the hand placement used by pass-rusher Chase Young.

The blend of talents helped make him a starting linebacker at his hometown university.

He has relished his journey.


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