Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison hoping to deliver on potential on and off field

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Zach Harrison showed his five-star potential last year as a freshman. Now the Ohio State defensive end is looking for a bigger role in 2020. [Ohio State Department of Athletics]

Zach Harrison doesn’t have to be the next Chase Young. Or the next Nick or Joey Bosa.

That’s the message Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson delivers regularly to Harrison, who entered last year with the expectations that come with being a five-star prospect.

The Olentangy Orange product did not disappoint. He had five tackles for losses, including 3½ sacks, while playing the second-most snaps of any Buckeyes defensive end. Blessed with rare speed for someone 6 feet 6 and 265 pounds, Harrison showed the ability to chase down ball-carriers as well as rush the quarterback.

Now the Buckeyes hope Harrison is ready to take that next step as a sophomore to become a consistently dominating player, as were the Bosas and Young. A big key to doing so will be to ignore the pressure of following the Bosas and Young, each of whom was among the top three NFL draft picks in their respective classes.

“Those guys who came before me, they're a bunch of great players,” Harrison said Wednesday on a conference call. “There's a lot of expectations for me to do so-and-so numbers. Honestly, I don't really try to think about that. Every day in practice, I go out to get better and work on my technique.”

That’s the approach Johnson wants Harrison to take.

“I tell the players all the time you can't live up to that standard,” Johnson said. “The Bosas are special players. Chase Young is a special player. But you can live up to what you can possibly be.

“I think that's the biggest challenge. He's got to kind of block the doors on the outside that he's going to be the next guy and really continue to concentrate on his development.”

Harrison has done that, even with the obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. After the Woody Hayes Athletic Center was closed in March, Harrison would go to any available field to work on drills that Johnson recommended.

“He's done a great job of maturing as a young player,” Johnson said. “He listens very well. He's very coachable. He has all the attributes of what we look for in a player. You tell him to do something and he does exactly as you asked him to do.”

Harrison will have plenty of help from his fellow defensive ends this year. The Buckeyes are deep at that position with Harrison, Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke Smith, Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste.

Ohio State defensive ends  Javontae Jean-Baptiste (8) and Zach Harrison (9) stretch before a recent practice.

“You’ve got five guys that can be starting anywhere in the country, so I want to treat them that way,” Johnson said. “They’re all five-stars with me right now.”

Harrison might have the most potential of any of them, and already he has shown leadership skills.

“He's a student of the game the way he takes the meetings to the field,” Smith said. “He's just on point all the time, and he keeps everybody else on their toes, too.

“He's always growing, always working hard. And he's one of the leaders on the D-line already. I already know he's going to take over. He’s going to be the one because he's got that mindset and that mentality.”

Harrison’s ambition isn’t confined to the football field. In June, he was chosen to be one of Ohio State’s eight representatives on the Big Ten’s Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition.

“It’s something that’s really important to me, being more than a football player,” Harrison said. “I want to make a change and I want to do something with this platform, and that gave me an opportunity to do so.”

Johnson described Harrison as a “deep thinker.”

“He says some things in my office where you go, ‘Wow, Zach, that's really awesome,’ ” Johnson said. "He cares about people and he's involved. He cares about equality, about how people feel.

“Zach is not only an outstanding football player, but he's a great person. And I think that goes back to mom and dad and a sense of how they raised him.”