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Football: ‘Let the chips fall where they may’: Harrison’s return spearheads experienced defensive line

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Ohio State junior defensive end Zach Harrison (9) cheers as he leaves the stadium after the Ohio State-Penn State game Oct. 30. Ohio State won 33-24. Credit: Christian Harsa | Special Projects Director

Eleven draft-eligible Buckeyes participated in Ohio State’s Pro Day March 23.

Zach Harrison was not one of them.

The defensive end and Lewis Center, Ohio, native chose to come back to Columbus for his senior season and said his path — albeit a long one — is his own.

“Everybody comes in with the mindset of, ‘I’m going to go to college for three years and head to the NFL,’ and that’s not reality,” Harrison said. “Everybody has different stories and realizing that’s not my story — my story is to come back for my senior year and play ball.”

Harrison returns to Ohio State looking to improve his all-around skills and help lead an evolving Buckeye defense steeped in tradition.

“I still have a lot of areas to improve in and I want to improve in every area I can,” Harrison said. “I want the junior Zach to pale in comparison to senior Zach, and that’s what I’m working towards.”

“Junior Zach” set career-high marks in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, forced fumbles and passes defended in 2021.

Despite a career year, Harrison said last season’s defensive performance as a unit didn’t meet the goals and expectations the group had for themselves.

“We definitely know that we weren’t what we were supposed to be,” Harrison said. “When the term ‘Silver Bullet’ gets thrown around, we kind of took that for granted. We’re taking it more personal now.”

Ohio State’s revamped defense, led by new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, is still in “early stages,” according to Harrison.

Harrison said experience and game reps are very valuable in preparing for offenses amidst a changing defensive outlook.

“Experience is the greatest teacher, so we all have a little bit under our belt,” Harrison said. “We know what to expect and we know what to work towards.”

Harrison noted a key difference between his first year and now: younger Buckeyes like sophomores defensive linemen J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer come into their second year with additional game experience to draw from, which allows them to be conscious of their training efforts and evaluate their performance.

“We know when we’re hitting on all cylinders and we know when we’re not,” Harrison said. “We can be open about it and call each other out. We know what it’s supposed to look like.”

Graduate defensive tackle Jerron Cage said a new “energy” has developed with defensive adjustments and the feeling around the program has changed.

“The whole vibe is just different,” Cage said. “It’s not only that the coaches can see it — it’s them showing it to us so we can see it.”

Harrison said he’s recovered well from a “little” injury sustained in the fourth quarter of No. 10 Ohio State’s 48-45 victory over No. 7 Utah in the Rose Bowl Jan. 1. He said he is excited about the possibility of helping reinvigorate a storied defense.

“We know that there’s a standard guys set at Ohio State before we were even born, and we’re the next step to hold that legacy and hold that standard, and we take pride in that,” Harrison said. “All of us know that’s what we got to get to.”

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