Welcome to Leaders of the Room — an ongoing Land-Grant Holy Land series that looks at the most important players within each unit at Ohio State. With the team’s preseason camp supposed to be underway this week, now is a good time to start taking a deep dive into the depth chart to find out who the Buckeyes will turn to at each position as they look for leaders both on and off the field in 2020.
Today’s focus: defensive line.
Ohio State lost a ton of production along its defensive line, with the obvious being a man by the name of Chase Young. Setting school records with 16.5 sacks and 117 sack yards, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end’s dominant 2019 campaign was enough to play his way into the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Young was the best defensive player in the country as a junior, winning the Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chicago Tribune Silver Football, being named a unanimous All-American, and finishing as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
While the absence of Young will certainly be felt in 2020, Ryan Day and position coach Larry Johnson will also be tasked with replace a trio of rotating senior defensive tackles. Davon Hamilton, a third-round pick in the NFL Draft, finished second on the team in sacks behind only Young with six on the year. Jashon Cornell, a seventh rounder, registered 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2019. Finally, Robert Landers, the only undrafted player of the three, tallied 6.5 tackles for loss and was an integral part of the team’s efforts in stopping the run.
Which brings us to this year’s unit. Ohio State is returning a bunch of guys that got significant playing time last season, but nobody with much of any starting experience outside of Jonathan Cooper.
Cooper is an interesting story, and while he will likely not be the leader in many statistical categories in 2020 barring a fifth-year resurgence, he will absolutely provide a ton of leadership to an otherwise young and inexperienced unit. The senior played in just four games last season before an injury cut his season short, forcing him to use a redshirt. He chose to play his fourth and final game against Michigan in the last game of the regular season, registering three tackles and a sack against the Wolverines.
Cooper will be the spiritual leader of the defensive line as a veteran of 37 total games played as a Buckeye. A team captain in 2019, he will almost certainly repeat as a captain this upcoming season as he looks to lead a deep but unheralded group of defensive linemen. However, when it comes to statistical leaders, the man at the top of the list should be Zach Harrison.
The man affectionately known as ‘Sack’ Harrison around Buckeye Nation comes with a ton praise and hype. A former five-star prospect and the No. 2 strong-side defensive end in the 2019 class, Chase Young had a lot of positives to say of the highly-touted edge rusher. Telling reporters back in December that Harrison was ahead of where he was at this stage in his career, Young was quoted as saying that the then-freshman DE will be “a force to be reckoned with,” as Ohio State looks to continue its reputation as a defensive end factory.
Playing mostly as a backup behind Young in 2019, Harrison played the second-most snaps of any DE on the roster, recording 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in his first year on campus. Grading as a “champion” five times as a true freshman, Harrison is now ready to take the next step as he embarks on his new role as a starter.
“I am way better than I thought I was going to be last year at this point in time, to be honest with you,” Harrison said after the Big Ten title game. “The crazy part is that I’ve still got so much to grow. That’s exciting for me. Everything can improve. Everything.”
Off the field, Harrison is also an outstanding citizen. In June, he was selected as one of eight Ohio State representatives on the Big Ten’s Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition. The rising sophomore is one of 11 football players on the council, which represents student-athletes, coaches and administrators from all 14 schools within the conference.
The freak athlete is not alone in trying to replace Chase Young’s production. He is joined along the defensive line with other highly regarded prospects such as Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday at the end spots, as well as a former five-star recruit in Taron Vincent at defensive tackle. However, it is Harrison that is expected to take command among the unit, and become this year’s top dog in a room brimming with untapped potential.
Harrison has all the raw talent and athleticism to be the next great defensive end prospect to come out of Ohio State. The expectations have been high for the 6-foot-6, 265-pound edge rusher ever since high school, with 247Sports Director of Scouting Barton Simmons naming him a potential No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick back in 2018. It would be hard for anyone to fill the massive shoes left behind by Young, but if Harrison can even marginally live up to his lofty expectations, he could easily morph into one of the best defensive ends in the nation in 2020.