Malik Harrison is an interesting study in how a football player develops. You look at him. You see this big, burly athletic inside linebacker who can make plays all over the field, and you think he was born to do this. He has been a terror on the field since pee wee football.
Yet the truth of the matter is that he was a high school recruit without a position. He basically played everywhere except linebacker. He was a high school quarterback, safety, and wide receiver. His coach Byron Maddox explained, “He was so versatile and doing so many things, we didn’t want to limit him.”
This hurt his ability to get a scholarship to a Power Five school. He was considered a 3 star recruit. The coach at Indiana (Kevin Wilson) saw a tight end. Michigan State defensive coordinator Mike Tressel saw an outside linebacker or safety. Every team had different ideas of what and who he should be.
The whole process got so overwhelming with so many coaches contacting him with such a wide range of ideas he just stopped replying to their messages. Luke Fickell who was Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator (now the Cincinnati head coach) saw a linebacker. When Fickell didn’t get a response to his messages from Harrison,he went to see him.
It was easy since Harrison’s high school was 15 miles from the Horeshoe (Ohio State’s stadium). He had known Harrison since he was a sophomore. Harrison liked and respected him. “He finds some diamonds in the rough,” Harrison said.
Fickell loved the athleticism Harrison had. He played all over the field. He was even a basketball star who led his team to the state tournament for the first time in over 40 years. He also ran track, but he really like the overall aggressiveness he got to show on the football field. He had that hunger with an overall confidence in himself.
Plus Harrison loved the physical part of football. He wrote up a play for his HS coach that had him (as the QB) pitching the ball to his running back and becoming the lead blocker. Still Fickell had to convince Urban Meyer to offer him a scholarship. Harrison was patient when receiving offers. He didn’t receive his offer from Ohio State until December 2015, after his senior season. Of course he took it.
Coach Meyer had expanded his recruiting to all over the country. Only 11 of 85 scholarship players on the Ohio State roster came from the Central Ohio area. Many are overlooked which is something Harrison doesn’t appreciate. “I wish it was never like that,” he said, “but it actually fueled me up to just go harder.”
Harrison went to Ohio State as a linebacker, a position he had never played before. He had to work hard to learn the position One thing he does when he reviews film is watch players from other positions to gain knowledge. He even watches footage from practice of the secondary or defensive line. He watches their hand placement or footwork to see if he can incorporate those moves into his game.
His co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley has seen Harrison develop over time. He has always shown good instincts to close on the ball or to work in zone coverage. “His instinct is probably from playing a lot of sports growing up, just seeing the ball,” said Hafley
Harrison is still in a learning mode, but he is a hard worker who will study and listen to coaches; anything to get better. The player you see today is far better than he was 3 years ago. He will be a much better player 3 years from today as well.
Harrison has progressed so much since 2017 that he hardly looks like the same player. When you play with confidence you move more fluidly with quickness to the ball. He is reacting now instead on thinking. He processes information fast now. He believes what he sees, and he reacts quickly.
He also plays very smart. Here he is covering the edge on a line stunt. He sees the ball carrier then makes the play. This is good leverage on his part to keep square to the play. No one is getting outside of him. As he pushes the play back inside he makes the tackle.
Harrison is also a very sure tackler. He will wrap the legs when he can, but he rarely just shoulders a player to the ground unless it’s a bang-bang play. With his increased knowledge of playing his position he more than doubled his TFL total (17) in 2019 than he had the previous 3 years combined. He has also played every LB position while at Ohio State. If he has a chance to play a single position it will only accelerate his learning curve.
On this next play you can see him move towards the play at the snap by reading his keys. This is now near instantaneous when before there was a hesitation to believe what he saw. He had to think to figure out the correct path in the past.
This is how it is done. He comes around the edge with some depth to set the end of the line. He reads the play with his eyes while simultaneously stuffing then discarding the blocker. He now has Trevor Lawrence all to himself. He absorbs a stiff arm then takes down his man who is trying to spin away from him. Harrison has some very good length for a man his size so he is a stack and shed machine with his superior upper body strength.
This next play was a simple read for him. but he uses great technique. He is quickly into his run fit but keeps good leverage by coming from the outside in instead of coming in flat where the back could jump cut him to the outside and around him.
With his good leverage on the play secured he comes in and breaks down into sound tackling position. His legs are wide with a good solid base. He puts his head to the side of the runner’s belt then drives him with his shoulder. It’s just a real nice job.
The next play Harrison is moving to the outside to cover the edge as Chase Young (LDE) is slanting to the right so Harrison has to maintain outside leverage on the play.
Since the play is in front of him, and he is unblocked he just uses his good speed (4.66/40) to run down the back from behind. This play was a result of his late movement to the outside. The offensive line didn’t have time to adjust to him, allowing him the freedom to chase down the back.
This next play Harrison is playing a spy on the QB. You can see he is covering no one, and he stays right in position until the QB is flushed from the pocket.
What is beautiful on this play is how fast he moves once the QB breaks the pocket. As soon as he moves Harrison is like a heat seeking missile that keeps great leverage then takes down the QB with authority. He stays outside the right shoulder of the QB giving him only one way to go then he hunts him down quickly making the tackle.
This next play the impressive speed of Harrison is on display. He reads the play quickly then takes off like he’s shot from a cannon to get by the blocking attempt of the pulling guard. #66 in white is supposed to be the cut off block on the backside linebacker (Harrison), but he is too late once he makes it through the line because Harrison reads then reacts to the play so rapidly.
Once there Harrison makes short work of the RB with a hard shoulder. Usually Harrison will wrap tackle, but I believe the back saw him coming, slowed his feet, and went down a little easier than expected. I was a nice hit, but not some slobber knocker like he is capable of.
This next play is a wildcat play that Harrison read again very quickly. For some reason Michigan State decides to triple team Chase Young then leave a gaping hole for Harrison to have free access to the backfield.
Harrison is into the backfield so quickly he nearly overruns the play He still plays with good leverage by staying outside of the right shoulder of the runner which gives him a single direction to go. He gets there so quickly it is an easy 2 yard loss on the play.
This next play is against Wisconsin with All-American RB Jonathan Taylor. Wisconsin always has some huge linemen, and even though Harrison is nearly 6’ 3” he has to look around the linemen to see the play. Once he finds the ball carrier he knows what to do.
This is a standard inside linebacker play to keep yourself clean of blockers, find the ball, and make a sure tackle that keeps the offensive team from making a first down. This is the type of play he will make 2,000 times in the NFL, and all will have to be just like this.
Now how about some athleticism? Harrison had a 36” vertical at the combine, one of his many impressive stats. He also gets in the passing lane very well. Often QBs have to swallow the ball for fear of an INT. He had two passes deflected in this game alone.
At 247 lbs Harrison is just an impressive athlete. He had the 6th fastest 3-cone drill of anyone in the Draft. He was faster than every RB who participated in that drill. The 3-cone is used to evaluate agility, quickness, and fluidity of movement of the prospects. You can see here that Harrison was upset he didn’t tip the ball to himself on the play.
How about closing speed? Here he reads the play off the snap, takes the proper angle, and runs down the running back for a two yard loss. The back saw him coming, but Harrison was just too fast for him to do anything about it.
Harrison just got better every week in 2019 and really showed what he is capable of doing when he had a chance to be at one position instead of playing all over. He should get even better with NFL coaching or playing alongside a mentor like a C.J. Mosley. They could form a duo on the inside for the next 5 years at least.
No Ohio State player can be shown without giving some insight on how he played against his arch-rival Michigan. This is another linebacker trait he will need to be proficient at in the NFL, and it is the art of stacking and shedding blocks. This can happen anywhere on the field but will usually occur around the line of scrimmage.
This is near textbook precision on how to do this skill. Harrison reads the play quickly and gets into position where he has the edge covered. By pushing the blocker back he cuts off the inside route for the QB which leaves him but a single direction to go. Harrison then takes down the QB for a 3 yard loss. This is how it is done.
This last clip (again against Michigan) Harrison is in a spy mode on the QB again You can see he has his eyes fixated on the QB and doesn’t leave him until he knows the QB no longer has the ball.
Once he knows he is free of his obligations he now can just go find the ball. He fills from inside out on the play which gives the ball carrier only one way to go then takes him down forcibly. See how he stays in great tackling technique. His feet keep moving but the never cross. He puts his helmet to the side of the belt buckle and his shoulder to the midsection.
Malik Harrison is just a terrific athlete and a quality inside linebacker prospect He played in mostly zone coverages at Ohio State, but he has the skill set and speed to handle man coverage against RBs and TEs in the NFL. He is an ascending prospect who will be learning and getting better for the next few years.
I know Gregg Williams would love to have him, and although it’s not considered a high priority position he would give the Jets a nice duo inside for years to come. Some players we have now could be backups and other trade fodder for more Draft capital.
You can never get enough high quality players on your team, and if the opportunity is there to add one for a pick in the 3rd round or later it may behoove Joe Douglas to make that choice. Malik Harrison has only been playing as a linebacker for 4 years. He works hard and studies. He will be much better than this in a couple of years.
The NFL Draft is dynamic. You never know what is going to happen until it does. The only thing for sure is that nothing is for sure so Joe will keep his options open.
That is what I think.
What do you think?