Larry Johnson Shielding Zach Harrison From Expectations While Acknowledging “Very High” Ceiling of Ohio State's Defensive End

By Colin Hass-Hill on October 7, 2020 at 5:16 pm
Zach Harrison
Credit: Ohio State Dept. of Athletics

Through this extended, seemingly never-ending offseason, junior Tyler Friday keeps hearing the same message from legendary defensive line coach Larry Johnson. He continues telling Friday and the rest of Ohio State’s defensive ends that, as of this point, they’re a “bunch of no-names.”

“We don't have a Bosa,” Friday said on Wednesday. “We don't have a Chase Young right now.”

Friday calls the anonymity “exciting,” saying that coming from the shadows is “just how we like it.” But it might not stay that way for long.

If Zach Harrison progresses the way everybody within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center hopes, the spotlight could quickly find its way back to the defensive ends.

Harrison, a rising sophomore, has been touted as possibly the next in line to become a superstar Buckeyes defensive end dating back to his earliest days at Olentangy Orange High School. Striking athleticism from his 6-foot-6 frame helped him ascend up the recruiting rankings while national powerhouses chased the country’s 12th-best overall player. Ohio State eventually topped Michigan and Penn State for his commitment, putting him into Johnson’s defensive line workshop.

A year into his time as a Buckeye, the comparisons of his ceiling to that of the Bosa brothers and Young haven’t left Harrison. In fact, go ask his position coach.

“He certainly has the potential to be that,” Johnson said.

And you don’t need to explain what it means to put somebody’s name beside Nick Bosa, Joey Bosa or Young. He coached them all.

“Going into his sophomore year, every sophomore, every great player I ever coached, the Bosas, Chase, there's an up-and-down in the sophomore year, trying to fill that role and, ‘I have to do this. I have to be this,’” Johnson said. “What happens when you do that is you put too much pressure on yourself and all of a sudden, now you start chasing things you shouldn't chase. So really just trying to keep Zach balanced. We do a great deal of talking about what is expected of him so he doesn't make the expectation bigger than he can handle.”

Together, they do what Johnson described as a “great deal” of talking about how best to handle expectations so they don’t wear down the second-year defensive end. Johnson tells him to “block the noise from the outside” so he doesn't hear constant comparisons between him and stars of the past. In fact, they’ve had those conversations so often that the first words to come out of Harrison’s mouth on Wednesday were essentially a replica of what Johnson had described as his message to him about an hour beforehand.

Just listen.

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

Funny how that works.

So far, their approach has worked out about as well as anybody could have hoped. Harrison became the rare freshman to crack Johnson’s regular rotation at defensive end, even starting in the Fiesta Bowl against Clemson.

He didn’t put together the beginning-to-end season of supremacy that Ohio State’s coaching staff hopes it’ll see from him in 2020 and 2021 before he inevitably goes off to the NFL, but those keyed in on him saw the flashes of greatness and athletic feats that have had those in the Columbus area buzzing about him for years. Harrison tallied 3.5 sacks to go along with 24 tackles and five tackles for loss. 

“I did a lot of good things my freshman year,” Harrison said. “I started a few games, had a few sacks, a few tackles. But there's always room to improve and that's something looking back on the tape from last year, it's like there's so many things I could have done better. And that's what I'm focusing on most of this year is to really improve on the things that last year were not as strong in my game.”

The next step, Harrison said, is consistency. He sees consistency as a pass rusher, in particular, as important.

“Not having ups and downs,” Harrison said. “Just constantly playing at a high level.”

To again bring up what Johnson might as well call the Defensive Ends Who Must Not Be Named, the Bosa brothers and Young each became more dominant on a play-to-play basis in their second years.

Young jumped from a 3.5-sack freshman season to 10.5 sacks as a sophomore. Nick Bosa more than doubled his tackles for loss between his first and second years – seven in 2016, then 16 in 2017 – while recording 8.5 sacks during his sophomore campaign. Joey Bosa’s sophomore breakout featured a leap from 7.5 sacks his first season to 13.5 sacks his second.

What can Harrison accomplish as a sophomore? Perhaps double-digit sacks? 

Strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti described Harrison’s potential as a 12-foot basement ceiling earlier this year, which feels apt. No one knows exactly what to expect from him this year, but anything’s possible for the 265-pound edge rusher.

Even a Bosa-esque or Young-esque ascent.

“He's one of the leaders on the D-line already,” defensive end Tyreke Smith said. “You can already see the tendencies and you already know he's going to take over. He's going to be the one because he's got that mindset and that mentality. Zach's been great for everybody.”

Johnson noted Harrison’s maturity as the biggest difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of him. 

“He listens very well,” Johnson said. “He's very coachable. He has all the attributes of what we look for in a player. Zach is a guy that you tell him to do something and he does it exactly as you asked him to do. And that's what you want your players to do. From his freshman year coming in the door, he was different. Finishing the season the way he played, the ceiling's very high for him going into his sophomore season. I'm really pleased with where he's at right now.”

On Wednesday, Johnson likened his quintet of defensive ends this year – which includes Harrison, Smith, Tyler Friday, Jonathon Cooper and Javontae Jean-Baptiste  – to the group of edge rushers he had in 2017. He plans to rotate heavily. But even the group three years ago had a star coming into his own. 

In 2017, it was Nick Bosa who happened to be going through his second-year breakthrough. This fall, it could be Harrison.

“Again, he's just a sophomore,” Johnson said. “So as a sophomore, he's still learning how to do this thing the right way. But I like where he's at. He's got a chance (to be on the Bosa or Young level). Really, it just depends on him and how he's developed as we go forward.”

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