Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison aims to take a big leap in 2021

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison (9) was third on the team with two sacks last season, but he will be looking to apply more consistent pressure on quarterbacks in 2021.

When defensive end Zach Harrison relives his sophomore season at Ohio State, he feels some disappointment.

“I didn’t have quite the year that I wanted to,” Harrison said. “That’s why I changed my mindset.”

Entering the start of spring practice on Friday, the OSU coaching staff praised Harrison for his work ethic through the previous weeks’ strength and conditioning workouts.

Coach Ryan Day acknowledged “a different look in his eye.” Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs noticed a change in his overall physique, as well as leadership among inexperienced underclassmen.

The determination comes out of last season. While voted to the all-Big Ten team by the league’s coaches and an integral part of the Buckeyes’ pass rush, Harrison left unsatisfied and sought to channel the feeling this offseason.

“Hopefully this fall, you’re going to see the result of this hard work,” he said.

There’s a reason for high expectations.

Coming out of Olentangy Orange High School, Harrison was the crown jewel of the Buckeyes’ 2019 recruiting class, considered one of the best overall prospects in the country.

His commitment in December 2018 garnered significant fanfare. Harrison was seen as the heir apparent in a long line of prolific Ohio State pass rushers, following the likes of Chase Young and Joey and Nick Bosa.

Harrison doesn’t feel burdened by the comparisons, pointing out they’re most often made by outside observers rather than by his coaches or teammates. It’s not an ever-present thought.

“We don’t really talk about that in-house,” Harrison said. “That comes from the outside, so I don’t really think about it often; I’m not trying to follow anyone’s footsteps. I guess I’m trying to be myself and trying to build my own name, build my own image here at Ohio State and leave my own legacy.”

In some ways, Harrison has benefited from following Young. As a freshman in 2019, he watched the All-American pass rusher up close and left impressed by his practice habits.

“Chase made plays in practice that y’all never saw and that correlates to games,” Harrison said. “That’s one thing that I took to heart. You got to show up in practice because you’re not going to just show up on Saturdays.”

Already determined in the aftermath of last fall, he has tried to emulate the dogged approach. Had reporters been permitted to watch the Buckeyes’ first spring practice, Harrison said they would have noticed his effort.

Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison spent much of the offseason ahead of his junior season working on improving his speed and agility.

“I’m just trying to play fast all the time,” he said, “just trying to play fast every play and make more plays in practice.”

There are other reasons besides drive he might be faster this season. During the winter workout program, the junior focused more on improving his flexibility. He already has good size at 6 feet 6, 265 pounds, but he wanted to be nimble.

“I've been stretching more in the training room and trying to get my hips and everything where I can bend the edge and feel more fluid in my movements,” Harrison said.

Harrison still managed to disrupt quarterbacks last fall, finishing with 22 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus data, and twice getting sacks.

In the pandemic-shortened season that began in late October, the two sacks were tied for the third-most on the team as he rotated at defensive end with Jonathon Cooper, Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyreke Smith.

Over the following months, Harrison hopes the backfield pressure will become more routine as he becomes a more consistent pass rusher.

“I still have flashes of my potential,” he said, “and I got to try to get to where I can get that every single play on a consistent basis. In and out. Every down. Every game. Where there’s no falloff.”