To Be or Not to Be a Buckeye, That's the Question for Local Phenom Zach Harrison

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterAugust 13, 2018

B/R

LEWIS CENTER, Ohio — It is seven days before his 17th birthday, and Zach Harrison can't stop dancing. Outkast. 50 Cent. Michael Jackson. Nirvana. Queen. Whatever the portable black speaker sitting along the sideline spins, Harrison finds a rhythm.

But between dances, this 6'6," 245-pound senior from Olentangy Orange High School High, who is ranked No. 4 in the nation by 247Sports' composite ranking, terrorizes his team's quarterback, running backs and linemen.

Wearing his blue No. 13 practice jersey and gray gym shorts rolled up unfashionably high, Harrison's wide grin can be seen under his bright orange helmet. He may be smiling and even singing on occasion, but on the football field, he is a menace.

Back in July, he was clocked at an eye-popping 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Only a few months earlier, he posted times of 10.78 seconds and 21.55 seconds in the 100- and 200-meter dash for the Olentangy Orange track team, equally astounding for an athlete of his size.

"He's Jadeveon Clowney athletically," 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons says. "And Jadeveon Clowney was probably the most clear consensus top player in a class we've ever scouted. He's as unique as it gets."

But here in Lewis Center, Ohio, 18 miles from the Ohio State campus—18 miles from a football program awaiting word on the fate of head coach Urban Meyer amid an investigation into how he handled domestic violence allegations against a former assistant coach—Harrison is trying to determine where he will play next year.

"I can't wait for it to be over," he says of the recruiting process, which has dragged out longer than he hoped.

The likely suitors have been established: Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State.

His original plan was to commit to one of those three on his birthday, August 14. But Harrison decided he needed more time and delayed his commitment before Meyer was put on paid administrative leave.

It has come down to three perennial powers, two programs that comprise one of the greatest rivalries in sports and one deeply uncomfortable controversy that will unquestionably impact what happens next.

"I just have to wait and see how this all plays out," Harrison says of Ohio State.

Less than three weeks before his senior season, surrounded by rabid Buckeyes fans who want a local product to stay home, Harrison remains undecided.

He wishes he had the answer now, and he hopes it will come soon. But he's not going to make any announcement until he's confident he's made the right choice.


Zach Harrison, center, with mother Tracey and father Jim
Zach Harrison, center, with mother Tracey and father JimPhoto courtesy of Tracey Harrison

Tracey Harrison, Zach's mother, remembers the first time a stranger greeted her son in public. They were at a Chipotle when a man in his mid-40s approached him to talk about his recruitment.

Her son was floored by the idea that a grown man would want to speak to a junior in high school, but Zach was still polite. He manufactured a smile and made short, choppy small talk while his mother processed what was happening.

"It happens at the mall, it happens at the pharmacy, it happens at the orthodontist," Tracey says. "It happens everywhere."

At a high school basketball game, a stranger holding his infant stopped Harrison to see if he would hold his child so he could snap a photo of the two. Harrison politely obliged, while his friends looked on in bewilderment.

"I asked him if this is something that happens a lot," Zach's friend and Olentangy Orange senior quarterback Robbie Dayhuff says. "I was shocked that he said it did."

Zach was not born in Ohio. His mother and his father, Jim, grew up in Southside Chicago before relocating to Ohio when Zach was four.

They did not grow up with an allegiance to Ohio State or college football as a whole. Instead, Tracey, who glowingly talks about her vintage Chicago Bears sweatshirt, says they grew up as NFL fans. But when they realized their son had a gift and would likely soon be playing on Saturdays, that changed.

Locally, the interest in their son has escalated over the past two years. In a state that has grown accustomed to the success of Ohio State, Harrison's recruitment has become a story being followed by more than just recruitniks and Buckeyes diehards.

Harrison has done little to fan these flames, hoping to maintain as low a profile as possible. In fact, unlike many recruits seeking attention and hoping to grow their Twitter followers, Harrison is trying to stay under the radar.

"It's obviously a blessing," he says. "I love football, and I will be able to play at the next level. I get to meet all these new people. But you want to do that so much you kind of lose sight of being a kid."

He's not on Facebook. His Twitter page is protected. His Instagram is private. He keeps his Snapchat handle concealed from everyone but his inner circle.

All this while many elite high school prospects garner huge social media followings—oftentimes sending out updates on their top-20 or top-10 schools.

"Yeah," Harrison says, pausing for the appropriate words before settling on how he really feels. "That's just stupid."

While he says he speaks to a small number of college coaches on a daily basis, Harrison has tried to limit the number of programs he talks to regularly. Getting comfortable with his chosen schools is a process that's taken years. It is also still evolving.

"Once I get to know you, I'm pretty open," Harrison says. "If I don't know you that well, I can be kind of quiet. I'll be on visits, and I feel like the coaches think that I'm a quiet person. I just don't know them that well yet."

As for all the offers he's received, Harrison laughs at trying to recite them on command. On his cellphone is a list of all the programs that have offered him a scholarship—"just so I can look back and remember," he says.


Ohio State fans rally in support of suspended head coach Urban Meyer.
Ohio State fans rally in support of suspended head coach Urban Meyer.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Since the Meyer news erupted, the Harrisons have yet to explore the situation in depth. This is partly because, at the moment, the Harrisons say any decision would be based on speculation on their part.

What would they do if Meyer is no longer there? How many of his assistants would still be there? What would the program look like if Meyer is retained? What should Zach do now? All are questions yet to be answered.

"It just has to play out," Tracey says. "I don't know if that's going to change his mind either way. Zach is far more focused on Orange football right now."

In fact, Zach rarely talks about his recruitment. Not with his coaches, friends or family. Even as he works through his personal list of pros and cons, he tries not to let this decision consume him.

"It's stressful trying to make the right decision," Zach says. "Sometimes you just feel like you won't."

As of now, he's genuinely torn. But in trying to evaluate Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, he sees positives in all three.

On Penn State: "I like Coach [James] Franklin a lot. They've built a really good program, and I'm really close to some of the current [Penn State] commits in my recruiting class  It's a close-knit team, and I can see that when I'm up there."

On Michigan: "Coach Matti [defensive line coach Greg Mattison] is one of the best to ever do it. And Joey Velazquez's [a 2019 commit] father coached me in the fourth grade, so I know him and some of the other guys very well. Similar comfort to Penn State."

Adds Tracey on Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh: "You can't really put your finger on the word that describes him, his approach to life and his approach to football and approach to players. It's just different."

Zach Harrison thinks highly of Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, pictured above.
Zach Harrison thinks highly of Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, pictured above.Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

On Ohio State: "Obviously, Coach Jay [defensive line coach Larry Johnson] is one of the best, if not the best to ever do it on the defensive line. They win a lot of games. And if I go there, I'd be a hometown hero."

His last sentence seems to linger for a moment. Despite the weight of his words, Harrison's tone doesn't shift. His body language doesn't budge.

Harrison knows how people in the area will respond if he ultimately becomes a Buckeye. The way strangers in his hometown will rally around him all at once.

He also recognizes that many within this group and outside his inner circle will be displeased if he selects a school outside the state of Ohio.

"It's something that has to be part of his evaluation and his decision-making," Tracey says. "Should it be? I don't know."

At practice last week, satisfied with the way Harrison has tormented his team's linemen, Olentangy Orange head coach Zebb Schroeder plugs in Harrison at quarterback. The next play, he runs untouched for an easy first down.

He then puts Harrison at tight end, where he catches a deep pass over the middle in traffic. Finally, he tries him at wideout, where Harrison snags a screen pass and easily runs past the defensive backs trying to corral him.

"Two years from now he's probably going to be 280 pounds and still look like he could play wide receiver," Schroeder says. "He has such soft hands. If one day he decided he didn't want to light up quarterbacks, I think he could be the best tight end in the country."

Harrison is a college football strength coach's dream. His legs, while capable of deadlifting more than 600 pounds, are still begging for more weight. His long, rangy arms will unquestionably fill out.

Although he is a senior, the 16-year-old Harrison is the same age as many of the nation's most gifted juniors. And while his physical gifts have much of the college football world eager for what's next, he's still learning the nuances of playing defensive end.

Zach Harrison in a four-point stance
Zach Harrison in a four-point stancePhoto courtesy of Olentangy High School

"The thing that's keeping him from being Jadeveon Clowney as a prospect is he has to get the football side of it to that level," Simmons says of Harrison. "In some ways, that makes him more exciting. Some coaching staff is going to get a kid that's a malleable piece of clay brimming with upside. He will figure it all out; it's just a matter of time."

In early July, Harrison matched up against up against the best players in the country at The Opening—Nike's recruiting camp held in Dallas.

Although the competition for the camp's "fastest man" is typically reserved for running backs and wide receivers, Harrison bucked that trend. Despite weighing roughly 40 pounds more than the majority of his competitors, Harrison clocked a time of 4.47 seconds—closing the ground on the first-place runner in one of the heats with long, late strides.

"If the race was longer," Simmons says, "he probably would've won."


The Olentangy Orange High School girls' soccer team arrives at the stadium just as the football team's practice winds down.

Before they leave the field, a handful of the football players, including Harrison, wheel the soccer goal onto the field for the next practice.

It's a gesture not lost on his head coach, who has watched the best football player he will ever coach handle his newfound spotlight—and looming decision—with remarkable grace.

"He's a fan of football. He's a great, smart kid," Schroeder says. "In this position, what should somebody do? Think things through, right? Explore all your options. That's exactly what he's doing."

In the coming months, Harrison hopes to watch a game at Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State. With his original commitment date scrapped, he's no longer attaching a timetable to his decision.

He wants to sign with his future team in December so he can enroll early and be involved in spring practice before his freshman season. But outside of that, he has no plans on when he will announce.

He does know this. Before he makes his announcement, Harrison wants to call the coaches of the programs he does not select—whoever those coaches might be—and tell them how thankful he was that they recruited him.

Then, he will make his announcement. No major press conference. No hat ceremony. No drama.

Whether he chooses Ohio State or decides it's time to leave home, Harrison will pass along his decision on Twitter. And those fortunate enough to have cracked the inner circle will know before everyone else.

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