A year after setting dubious school records including most points and yards allowed in a single-season, Ohio State's defense returns much of its core, including linebacker Malik Harrison as the unit looks to reestablish itself as one of the nation's best.
Amid a defensive roster loaded with four and five-star talent – giving up over 403 yards and 25.7 points per game – including 49 points at Purdue and 51 at Maryland, it was a three-star product in Harrison that led the squad in tackles.
Harrison's path to Ohio State might sound familiar as he became a Buckeye only after then-assistant coach Luke Fickell repeatedly urged Urban Meyer to offer the Walnut Ridge product a scholarship despite being just the 58th-ranked athlete prospect in the 2016 class.
Fickell saw a bit of Darron Lee in Harrison – coincidentally another kid from central Ohio that Luke would press Meyer to offer – thinking his talent and versatility would make him a meaningful addition to the 2016 class.
Thanks largely to Fickell's persistence, Harrison eventually became the 25th member of the class and only the second player from Walnut Ridge to earn a scholarship from Ohio State's football program (Eric Smith, '95) after he turned down Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa to stay home.
A reserve his first two years in Columbus, Harrison tallied 36 stops as a sophomore while Jerome Baker and Chris Worley handled outside linebacker duties before seizing the starting weakside linebacker spot last season.
As a junior, Harrison showed versatility defending the pass as well as the run. He wasn't perfect – a statement that could be made about any of Ohio State's defenders in 2018 – but he tied Jordan Fuller for the team lead with 81 tackles, paced the defense with 863 snaps played, ranked fourth with 8.5 tackles for loss and third with three quarterback hurries.
He also logged one interception – a fourth quarter pick of a Shawn Robinson throw – erasing any hope for No. 15 TCU in a 40-28 win and logged a fumble recovery in Ohio State's 52-51 overtime win at Maryland.
Harrison registered double-digit tackles in three games with 10 at Purdue, 13 against Nebraska and 10 versus Northwestern in the Big Ten title game.
His most impactful outing however probably came against Michigan as he recorded seven tackles including two for loss. Harrison set the tone for the afternoon with a sack of Shea Patterson on the second play of the game leading to a 3-and-out and an eventual short field for Ohio State's offense which promptly scored to take a 7-0 lead in the game's opening minutes. Later, he would stop Karan Higdon for a 5-yard loss.
Harrison's efforts earned honorable mention All-B1G honors and a mid-round draft grade but the senior-to-be is back for one final season to both improve his draft stock and help Ohio State's defense get back on track.
Too often, Harrison was lumped in with fellow starters Tuf Borland and Pete Werner as it related to fan frustration with the unit's lack of foot speed, poor pursuit angles, missed tackles and issues in pass coverage.
Again, Harrison wasn't perfect, but his collective book of work was significantly stronger than that of his two starting linebacker mates.
This year, all three are back but it is Harrison that remains a clear starter. Borland finds himself in a fierce competition with Teradja Mitchell at middle linebacker and Werner will have to fend off Baron Browning to retain his starting role.
Based on last year's results and Ryan Day's recent comments asserting he'd love for his linebacker group to have the ability to rotate similar to what we've seen from the defensive line, it's a solid bet Werner and Borland will, at minimum, be forced to rotate with Mitchell and Browning up until two of those four make a case for the bulk of the snaps alongside Harrison.
Considering the skills Harrison flashed a season ago combined with his physical attributes (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) it will be interesting to see what else new linebackers coach Al Washington can extract and polish.
With a strong final campaign, some talent evaluators think Harrison could play himself into a late first round pick in next year's draft. If that does indeed turn out to be the case, not only will Harrison benefit but so will an Ohio State defense that was too often searching for answers a season ago.