There has already been plenty said and written about Ohio State junior defensive end Zach Harrison this winter and spring. After a personally difficult year for everyone, Harrison was left wanting more this year and set about to make that happen once winter workouts started for the Buckeyes.
Those on the inside — coaches and teammates — noticed the change in Harrison right away, and seven or eight weeks since those workouts began, the progress has been impressive.
“It is absolutely the truth,” defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “You know he had a phenomenal seven weeks in the weight room, not just taking care of his business and his body but making sure that he’s holding others accountable. It’s really important I think especially for younger players to see guys who are great athletes that are also great workers and I think when your best players are your hardest workers, you got a chance to be good. And so we had some of those guys that aren’t here anymore that were those type of players and Zach stepped right in, filled that void, and was very, very impressive with his leadership. And he’s excited for the season. I’m really excited to watch him play.”
Zach Harrison is working to exceed expectations, but he’s not the only defensive end on this Ohio State football team receiving lofty comparisons.
True freshman Jack Sawyer was seen by some recruiting services as the top player in the 2021 class. Already receiving comparisons to the Bosas and Chase Young at the same stage, he enrolled at Ohio State this winter and has been impressing many, including one guy who used to be in his same situation.
“Jack’s a worker,” Zach Harrison said. “He is one of those guys who’s gonna give everything he’s got all the time. Jack’s got a lot of skill. Jack’s quick. Jack’s fluid. I feel like Jack’s going to be a good player here at Ohio State.”
Jack Sawyer is one of 15 true freshmen enrolled early and taking part in spring practice for the Buckeyes. While most of those freshmen are competing for playing time this year, none of them are competing for a starting job as high-profile and important as quarterback Kyle McCord.
Like Sawyer, McCord is a 5-star signee who comes to Ohio State with accolades and expectations. Normally, a true freshman quarterback is almost never in contention to start at quarterback for the Buckeyes. But rarely is Ohio State in the position they find themselves in this year with no players returning who have thrown a collegiate pass.
McCord is competing with redshirt freshmen CJ Stroud and Jack Miller to be Ohio State’s starting quarterback and no position battle this spring is being watched more closely. Especially by their teammates.
“You know what stood out to me about them is that they love the work,” senior left tackle Thayer Munford said. “I see them out after every workout just throwing balls. Throwing balls to the wide receivers. They try and get better. They want this spot. They want to compete for this spot. And when we see that we are more comfortable actually blocking for them. When receivers see them throwing the ball, asking them, ‘Can we throw, let’s do some top ends.’ That makes everybody else feel a lot better for the team because what are we without the quarterback, you know?”
Contending with those quarterbacks is an Ohio State defense that is replacing four senior linebackers, two starting defensive linemen, and a starting cornerback. Jobs are wide open everywhere and how those positions fill out will go a long way in determining wins and losses for the Buckeyes this year.
In Ryan Day’s preferred one-high safety defense, the free safety needs to be elite. He needs to be able to cover ground and tackle. When the Buckeyes don’t have that, they can struggle like they did last year. When they do have it — like they did with Jordan Fuller in 2019 — the defense can look really, really good.
So who has been getting the first look at free safety so far?
“Josh Proctor lined up there today,” defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said after the first day of practice. “He played extremely well and is going to play really well, and Byson Shaw stepped right in behind him. And we have a young freshman that played there, a kid who should be a high school senior, Jantzen Dunn, stepped in there today.”
Proctor has seen time all over the field for the Buckeyes, but if he can lock it in at free safety, that would be huge. But even so, the Ohio State defensive backs are going to need to remain versatile this year.
“We’re going to be versatile,” Coombs said. “We’re going to have some guys that are going to be able to do more than one job in the back end. We’re going to have to, that’s one thing COVID taught you. You got to have guys that can do it. Well, same things true if injuries or anything else arise. So, Proc went out there played it he played it well today, so I was excited about that.”