From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about our Unreasonable Expectations. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our Unreasonable Expectations here.
Coming out of Olentangy Orange High School in Columbus, Ohio, Zach Harrison was the Buckeye state’s top-ranked football recruit in 2019. He was (also) ranked No. 12 nationally and No. 278 all-time, at least according to 247Sports. He was viewed by many as a can’t-miss prospect.
Carrying the “can’t-miss” burden on his broad shoulders for four years at Ohio State, Harrison was likely forced to ignore people such as myself who, for the duration of his collegiate career, felt that he was constantly underachieving. Or maybe it took no effort at all on his part because many of us are keyboard warriors who never played football beyond eighth grade. Our opinion(s) do not – and should not – matter.
That being said, I don’t think fans are/were the only ones of the opinion that Harrison fell somewhat short of the lofty expectations placed upon him. And that sucks, frankly. Because Harrison never called his shot, he never predicted that he would dominate the Big Ten and/or break any records. He played a game to the best of his ability, and by all accounts, was a great teammate and incredibly coachable while representing the Scarlet and Gray.
Despite Harrison’s consistent albeit unspectacular production, some will still call him a Buckeye bust, which I vehemently disagree with... Now. Admittedly, it took a while, but I am (now) of the opinion that Harrison was actually underrated in Columbus! And I think that he is going to experience real success in the NFL and make his new team, the Atlanta Falcons, extremely happy in the not-so-distant future. Am I crazy? Like a fox. But let’s really take a look at what Harrison achieved as a Buckeye:
He totaled 3.5 sacks as a true freshman playing limited snaps, before adding 4.5 sacks in 2020-21 as part of an otherwise average pass rush. This would become a theme throughout Harrison’s OSU career, and it should also be pointed out that he only started one of seven games during the pandemic-shortened season. He had a bit of a down year in ’21-22 but dealt with a few bumps and bruises and was still credited with 4 sacks and 8 TFL by the team itself (sports-reference.com will tell you otherwise).
Finally, in ’22-23, as an elder statesman asked to fill multiple roles, Harrison tallied 3.5 more sacks, in addition to 8 TFL, 5 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles, and 1 INT. He finished last season with more tackles than J.T. Tuimoloau, tied the latter in sacks, and forced three fumbles to Tuiomolau’s one. Apples to oranges? No, but I feel like the consensus is or was that Tuimoloua, who is projected to be an early first-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, vastly outperformed Harrison. That is simply not the case.
In total, Harrison was credited with 13 sacks, 25.5 TFL, 11 passes defended, and 5 forced fumbles as a Buckeye. His numbers might not look great spread across 46 games, but the newly drafted Falcon only started 28 of those contests. And let’s be honest, Ohio State’s defense as a whole was not great for the majority of Harrison’s career. Perhaps he should shoulder some of the blame for their performance, but if paired with a subpar interior unit and sieve-like secondary, I don’t think that Harrison or many other pass rushers would resemble peak Lawrence Taylor on the football field.
Nor do I think that Harrison surrounded by better talent would ever resemble the peak LT out there. But I do buy into the former’s size, raw skill, and potential as a late bloomer. We have seen dozens of NFL players not hit their stride until 25, 26, or even 30 years of age, and I believe that Harrison can be one of those guys. He might lack sudden burst and a refined set of pass-rushing maneuvers, but he also boasts certain attributes that cannot be taught or coached: an athletic 6-foot-6 frame and a wingspan that rivals that of the wandering albatross.
Simply put, Harrison fits the mold of a pass rusher coaches would create in a lab. His future NFL success (or lack thereof) comes down to whether he can put his size, talent, skills, and work ethic together like a complicated puzzle... Consistently, and while other big, scary men are trying to block the former Buckeye into oblivion. Certainly not an easy task.
Zach Harrison was a top prep recruit and he flashed that ability down the stretch as a senior. Needs coached up but the traits are still there. Falcons new DC Ryan Nielsen developed Trey Hendrickson in NOLA. #Falcons— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 29, 2023
But the pieces of said puzzle absolutely exist. Harrison has them. And the Falcons should have plenty of motivation to coach him up, get him on the field early, and see what happens. Because they are not a great football team. Furthermore, they lack pass-rushing juice, and Harrison has shown both a willingness and an ability to get after the QB from multiple positions.
Ohio State fans watched him play inside, outside, and standing up, although the latter did not turn out so well. But Atlanta runs a 3-4 base and might want to experiment with Harrison as a stand-up rusher anyway. After all, blitzing as a 3-4 OLB is unlike anything he consistently did for the Buckeyes. Otherwise, he possesses ideal size for a 3-4 DE.
I am not convinced that Harrison is destined for NFL greatness or multiple Pro Bowls, but I do expect him to become a major contributor at the next level. He reminds me of players like Dre’Mont Jones and Jonathan Cooper, neither of whom dominated in Columbus but were consistent when healthy and flashed on occasion. Both also showed some potential to move around the field. Now Cooper is starting games at OLB (as a 7th-round draft pick) and Jones is thriving as a hybrid DL (thriving to the tune of a 51 million-dollar contract).
Zach Harrison may not have met your expectations as a Buckeye, but don’t discount what he did do, both on the field and off. And don’t be surprised if he excels in the NFL.