INDIANAPOLIS – Zach Harrison, in a sense, is a changed man.
In the not-too-distant past, he hid from the spotlight. He had no interest in making himself part of a story. Avoided interviews at all costs and, whenever somebody in the media pinned him down for one, gave the shortest possible answer to everything they asked. In short, he hated the attention people paid to him. Mickey Marotti once said that he initially didn’t even want to recruit Harrison, despite his talent, because he was so incredibly quiet and awkward while on a visit to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
The several-years-older version of Harrison who showed up at Lucas Oil Stadium this week for Big Ten Media Days was anything but timid. He answered every question. He smiled. He joked. He laughed. And, perhaps most shockingly to those who remember him as a five-star defensive end playing for Olentangy Orange three or four years ago, he actually voluntarily showed up to answer questions about himself and his team.
Yes, part of Harrison has changed. But not all of Harrison has changed.
The rising junior Buckeye still hates recruiting. So you can forgive him for never having seen J.T. Tuimoloau – the highest-rated defensive recruit to ever pick Ohio State – play football before.
“I don't really follow recruits,” Harrison said. “As a recruit, I didn't even want to be a recruit. Once I was done being a recruit, I left that behind. It's in the past.”
Not even Tuimoloau could penetrate Harrison’s lack of interest in recruiting. Heck, he didn’t even know somebody could wait until July to make up their mind, joking that he probably would have done that if he knew it to be an option.
But Tuimoloau had all of head coach Ryan Day’s attention.
Day and defensive line coach dedicated not-insignificant chunks of multiple years of their lives to ensuring Tuimoloau played college football for the Buckeyes. They hadn’t gotten the five-star mega-recruit to Columbus by the time the COVID-19 pandemic caused an indefinite recruiting dead period that lasted nearly 16 months, and yet they went full-bore after him. They fended off his hometown team (Washington), an up-and-coming recruiting power in the region (Oregon), the should-be king of the west coast (USC) and the defending national champion (Alabama) along the way.
Not until July 4, two weeks after Ohio State rolled out the proverbial red carpet for his first-ever visit, did he finally announce he’d play college football in the Buckeye State.
“His skill set speaks for itself,” Day said on Friday. “But it was his makeup, his family, what people say around the area about who he is as a person. If he wasn't very, very special, we probably wouldn't have waited like that and shown the patience that we did. But he is special, his family's special and they did things the right way. We're very, very happy to have him.”
While that skillset may speak for itself, it doesn’t tell the full story. It doesn’t, for example, say what to expect of Tuimoloau as a true freshman in 2021.
Almost anybody of his skill level would play meaningful snaps immediately in college. But he didn’t start working out with the team until mid-July, and he’s joining a talented – and experienced – crop of defensive ends that already includes Harrison, Tyreke Smith, Tyler Friday, Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Jack Sawyer.
Even considering that, is Tuimoloau simply too good to keep off the field as a true freshman?
“I hope so, but we'll see,” Day said. “He did start late, so he's going to have to pick up the pace. But it's not like he wasn't working out. I mean, he was doing a great job this summer working out. So we'll see. I think as the year goes on – it's a long year – he'll have an opportunity to get out there, for sure.”
To the rest of the team, the mystery surrounding Tuimoloau still remains. But it’s slowly coming off.
Thayer Munford, for example, hung out with him earlier in the week and heard the whole story of why Tuimoloau waited so long to make his commitment. He learned how the Washington native wanted to make all of his visits to ensure he was making the right choice.
What Munford hasn’t learned is what to expect from him on the field. He had no answer when asked about his first impressions of Tuimoloau as an athlete.
“I don't know yet,” Munford said. “To be honest, I don't know. I can't wait to actually see what he does.”
Harrison is much the same way. He’s in the dark on Tuimoloau as a player.
But Harrison is getting the added benefit of experiencing some one-on-one time with Tuimoloau in the weight room, where he sees how the first-year lineman “looks smooth and fluid” in workouts.
“I've never seen J.T. play, but I'm excited to watch him play,” Harrison said. “He seems really athletic. He moves well in the weight room. He loves being pushed. He's my partner for most of the workouts, and I get to get after him. He's one of those guys who's going to give it to me right back, and I love that. The give and take. That's how you build a relationship with somebody. On the field, it just translates.”
Tuimoloau remains a mystery man, for now. In time, that’ll change.
And given the recruiting cache Tuimoloau came to Ohio State with and Day’s hope that he gets up to speed fast, it could change fairly quickly with preseason camp beginning in a week in a half and the season kicking off a month later.