Well before the end of his junior season, Malik Harrison had already made up his mind. Even though an NFL team likely would have selected him in the draft this spring, he planned to return for one more year at Ohio State.
In the final games of the 2018 season, Harrison finally began to scratch his potential. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound specimen, who has enough athleticism to have thrived on the basketball court at Walnut Ridge, had 10 tackles in the Big Ten title game against Northwestern and racked up seven tackles with two tackles for loss and a sack in the 62-39 destruction of Michigan.
This year, he has appeared to take his game to another level. Through three games, Harrison has 14 tackles, including six tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.
“I anticipated this last year when I was making my decision,” Harrison said on Wednesday. “I'm glad to be back.”
Thus far, he doesn’t have any regrets, and if he continues playing this way, he’ll almost certainly end up as a higher NFL draft pick next spring than he would have been had he left college after his junior season.
“I think Malik has a chance to be one of the best in the country, and I'll tell him that. I'm honest.”– Al Washington on Malik Harrison
First-year linebackers coach Al Washington has played a significant role in Harrison’s development. Ever since the preseason, Harrison has cited Washington’s lending him added confidence as one of the reasons for him feeling better this fall than in years past.
“I'm playing faster and just having fun,” Harrison said. “Last year, I felt like I wasn't really confident in my game. But this year coming out, well the last couple games, I started to build up my confidence. These first three games, just building up every day, stacking my chips.”
As he stacks those chips, he’s thinking big.
Harrison said he and Washington have had “numerous conversations” about him developing into one of the best linebackers in the nation. On Tuesday, having seen Harrison play well for three weeks in a row, Washington verbalized that thought to the public.
“I think Malik has a chance to be one of the best in the country, and I'll tell him that,” Washington said. “I'm honest. I think he has the ability, but you've got to exercise that ability every day.”
Washington didn’t say anything Harrison wasn’t already thinking. He remembers vocalizing that idea during Ohio State’s week at the Rose Bowl nearly nine months ago.
Now, he has Washington believing in him the same way he has believed in himself.
“It means a lot,” Harrison said. “I made the comment last year at the Rose Bowl that I felt like I can. Just him bringing in more confidence in me, just saying that he believes in me. Just the work ethic stuff that I do out here to practice. During workouts, he sees it in me, so I've just got to produce now.”
How confident is Harrison in becoming one of the nation’s best linebackers?
“It's going to happen,” he said.
Three games into the season, he’s on the right path.
Individually, his numbers back up the claims. Harrison leads the team in tackles for loss, and he’s second on the team in total tackles and sacks.
He has particularly thrived as a physical linebacker against the run who’s strong enough to take on offensive linemen, fast enough to chase down many running backs and quick enough to slip past blocks. The second-year weakside linebacker’s impact has aided Ohio State’s defensive revival that has led to the team allowing just 31 points and 1.7 rushing yards per game against Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati and Indiana.
“I do know that every game he's in there, he's got to make his play speak for itself,” Washington said. “He has to give that much effort. Really, it just comes down to effort, and he's done that. He's given great effort. And I think if he does that, everything else will take care of itself. He's very talented. I think he's very bright. I think he's very capable of doing a lot of different things. We had him playing backer, we had him playing at the line of scrimmage a couple times. He can do a lot of different things. Real excited about where Malik is trending.”
The trend became evident at the end of the 2018 season, and it has continued in the first month of Ohio State’s 2019 campaign.
If he remains consistent and sustains his steady progress, Harrison just might find more recognition as one of the country’s best linebackers.