The question made Zach Harrison pause for a moment, but one beat’s worth of deliberation was all that was required.
Asked if he’s close to making his mind up on a decision about his future during an interview session at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center last week, the junior defensive end nodded his head and said “Yeah.”
“I think so. Right now I think I’m leaning one way or the other,” said Harrison on whether he’ll return to Ohio State or declare for the 2022 NFL draft.
Asked if he’s ready to divulge the direction in which he’s leaning, Harrison’s answer was instantaneous.
Harrison said he’s still “gathering the right information” before he comes to a conclusion, although he’ll play in the Rose Bowl nonetheless. But Harrison is not of the mind that he’s achieved everything he hoped to at Ohio State, either as an individual or a member of the collective group, and that will be one factor that influences the direction he ultimately decides to head.
“That’s definitely part of my decision. I feel like there’s definitely some things that I’ve left on the table that I feel like if I come back I can accomplish,” Harrison said. “That’s something that I just gotta factor in and sit down with my mom and dad and make those decisions.”
A five-star recruit and the top-rated prospect in Ohio State’s class of 2019, the Lewis Center, Ohio, native has gotten plenty of chances to showcase his talents at the college level. But to Harrison, those opportunities have not always been capitalized on.
Harrison had more sacks as a true freshman in a reserve role in 2019 (3.5) than he has had in either of the past two years (although a big game in the Rose Bowl could still change that for this season), and none of his traditional stats necessarily suggest he’s been a game-changing pass rusher for the Buckeyes.
But having started all but one game in the regular season and having logged more snaps (506) than any other Buckeye defensive lineman, Harrison believes his 2021 campaign so far has shown plenty of growth from the player he was when he first set foot on campus.
“I just feel like I improved from last season,” Harrison said. “I feel like I affected the game a lot more than I have my first two years, that’s something that I want to continue to do; just grow as a player every single year, get better and better.”
Zach Harrison with the strip sack and Haskell Garrett with the TD return.— Chris Hummer (@chris_hummer) September 3, 2021
Harrison is the type of guy who could mess around and be a top 10 pick this year. pic.twitter.com/0HR0UgjtAk
Displaying his talent in flashes has never been a problem for Harrison. Rather, it’s been the ability to maintain a level of pillar-to-post dominance throughout an entire game that’s eluded the in-state product during his first three years with the Buckeyes.
That’s a fact Harrison is well aware of, and one that could steer him toward another year of collegiate development before testing NFL waters.
“Consistency, that’s probably my biggest thing,” Harrison said. “Always being the dominant player I know I can be, that’s probably the biggest thing for me, is just making sure I’m that player every single snap, every single game.”
Harrison certainly kicked things up a notch in the second half of the season following the Buckeyes’ bye week, as five of his seven tackles for loss and two of his three sacks on the year to this point have come since Oct. 23.
But Harrison had no sacks in any of the final three games of the regular season, and just two total tackles (neither for a loss) against Michigan State and Michigan combined. Harrison’s absence of productivity was especially noticeable in the loss to the Wolverines, a game in which the Ohio State defensive line had a season-worst effort and the toughness and physicality of the entire team was subsequently called into question.
That’s not a rap Harrison, a Buckeye captain, takes lightly.
“I think we’re as physical as every team in the country and I think we’re gonna show that in the Rose Bowl,” Harrison said. “Just me being around the team, being here, practicing, knowing what our practices are like.
“I don’t think we’re soft, but going out there and handling business in California could definitely help,” Harrison added.
Both another crack at Michigan and the modern name, image and likeness landscape in college sports are factors Harrison said could keep him at Ohio State for another year. Another piece of the puzzle is a pending conversation with new Buckeye defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, whose scheme at Oklahoma State features different responsibilities for defensive linemen.
One notable example is the use of a hybrid defensive end position, which was known as a Leo in the Cowboys’ system, that could see a player like Harrison – if Knowles thinks he fits the profile – lining up in a variety of spots around the line of scrimmage.
“I’d love to sit down with our new DC and see how this defense looks like and how the ends play, and that will definitely factor into whether I stay or leave. … I’ve watched little Oklahoma State highlights just to get a feel for their defense, but nothing I’ve really broken down on film and watched it,” Harrison said.
As for the Leo position, Harrison said “I feel like I can do that,” although his 6-foot-6, 272-pound frame may make him better suited for a more traditional defensive end role.
All things considered, Harrison sounds like a player that still thinks he has more to show in the college ranks. But the comments from one interview aren’t necessarily indicative of his entire decision-making process.
Nothing’s final for Harrison as of now, but a fourth season with the Buckeyes might enable him to finally show what he’s capable of for an extended period of time.
“I feel like I had a good year, but like I said, there’s definitely some things I left on the table that I could cross off the list if I were to come back for next year,” Harrison said.