Realistically, had Malik Harrison wanted to leave Ohio State for the NFL after one year as a starting linebacker, he would have been drafted.
Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 240 pounds, he has the size of a professional linebacker, and he pairs that with standout athletic gifts that have aided him since he played basketball for Walnut Ridge High School, which is just a 13-mile drive from Ohio Stadium. This offseason, he says he was clocked around 4.02 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle, which is a faster time than any linebacker at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine.
Harrison also played well enough to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2018.
Despite looking the part and standing out as one of the lone bright spots in a linebacker corps that struggled for much of the season, Harrison never truly considered leaving after his junior season. In his mind, he didn’t play up to his potential.
Sure, he shined in a seven-tackle, one-sack game against Michigan, and he racked up 10 tackles versus Northwestern in the Big Ten title game. But the consistency he desires hasn't materialized yet.
“I just didn't feel like I had the season that I could've shown,” Harrison said on Friday. “Them last four games, I showed that I had it, but I wish I would've had that in the beginning of the year throughout the whole year. So I just wanted to come back and have that year.”
He picked up 29 of his team-leading 81 tackles, four of his 8.5 tackles for loss and one of his 2.5 sacks in the final four games of the season, which were wins against Maryland, Michigan, Northwestern and Washington.
Particularly in the dominant showing against the Wolverines, Harrison flashed on the screen as an impact player at the second level of the defense, which the Buckeyes needed. He has a simple explanation for what led to his in-season improvement.
“I felt like I was just having fun out there,” Harrison said. “Early on in the year, being the first year starting, I just had a lot of things in my head and not really focusing on just having fun out there and playing.”
Harrison hopes to carry that momentum into this fall, when he’ll line up once again as the starting weakside linebacker.
“The thing that excites me is it allows us to just play. There's not too many complication things going on. You just see ball, get ball. More simple.”– Malik Harrison on Ohio State's new Defensive scheme
He’ll have a chance to maintain that level of play with Al Washington instead of Billy Davis as his position coach. Though he now calls Washington a “great coach,” he made the decision to return for his senior year without knowing who would coach him. With Urban Meyer retiring and Day replacing him, Harrison understood he would likely have a different position coach than Davis, who served as linebackers coach the past two seasons.
The unknown didn’t alter Harrison’s plans to play his senior season, though.
“I made it not even knowing,” Harrison said. “If coach Day was back, I was still going to be here.”
Harrison, now under his third position coach at Ohio State, harkens back to his first linebackers coach when asked to describe Washington.
“He reminds me a lot of coach (Luke) Fickell,” Harrison said. “He gives off that vibe that I had when I first came here with coach Fickell.”
In that comparison, Harrison is referring to the energy given by a young coach who has spent his entire coaching career in the college ranks. But it also works because the Buckeyes want their linebackers to return to the level of play overseen by Fickell, who spent more than a decade coaching the position at Ohio State before leaving to become Cincinnati’s head coach.
The linebackers received the brunt of criticism from the fan base as Ohio State's defense struggled last season. Arguably nobody on the team heard more from the fan base about their play than Tuf Borland and Pete Werner.
And while the linebackers don’t often talk about what they heard or how they played last year, Harrison said, they don’t really need to make that a constant topic of discussion. Everybody in that position room both heard and saw what was said and written about them.
“We definitely do have something to prove,” Harrison said. “It's was a lot of talk, a lot of things that was going just on us. We just come every day just to work so that we don't have that same problem this season coming up.”
With a new position coach and two new defensive coordinators, Harrison and the linebackers will attempt to silence their doubters in a new scheme, which could allow them to play faster.
Seemingly every linebacker that has talked about the new defense has referenced a simplification with fewer reads, and Harrison confirmed that, once again.
“The thing that excites me is it allows us to just play,” Harrison said. “There's not too many complication things going on. You just see ball, get ball. More simple.”
The goal this year, Harrison said, is to be the top defense in the country.
As the sole senior starter at the second level and the linebacker who played the best in 2018, it’s up to Harrison to guide the group back to prominence. To do that, he needs to find the consistency he had in the final four games of last season and drag that across his entire 2019 campaign.
“He’s worked his tail off,” Washington said in the spring. “He’s been a leader.”