We talk about signature games all the time for prospects. These can be found throughout the season. It might be a tough road test in which a prospect puts out their best tape. Maybe it’s an emotional game, as we’ve heard stories before where parents or friends of a player may have passed and they honor them with their play. Perhaps it’s in regard to some sort of tragedy to a city or hometown. Or maybe it’s just a big game that you’ve been waiting your whole life to contribute to and finally get your chance. It could be for a championship, or maybe it’s just against a rival school.
Rivalry week gives players and prospects at least one guaranteed chance to play with emotion outside of the rest of their other games. Not every team will play for a conference title or a national championship, but every team has a rival. When you show up in those games, people notice.
That’s why it seemed like there was no hotter name than the one that belonged to Buckeyes linebacker Malik Harrison following Ohio State’s huge win over Michigan this past weekend.
Harrison grew up as an Ohio State fan just 15 minutes from Ohio Stadium. After the game, as the man of the hour, he told reporters that he’s been watching “The Game” since he was a little kid, and getting to play in it — as much as star in it — was a dream come true.
Harrison had seven tackles and two tackles for loss against the Wolverines, and he almost had not only an interception, but a scoop-and-score fumble recovery, too. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound junior linebacker was truly a ball-stopper for the Buckeyes on the day they needed him most. Harrison played in every game last season for the Buckeyes as a true sophomore, but was not a starter for them. This season he has been, and he’s recorded 64 tackles with 8.5 tackles for loss.
After a game like the one we watched Harrison have on Saturday, many, like myself, likely asked the question, ‘why am I just now hearing of this guy?”
I’ve heard from those who cover the Big Ten closely that Harrison’s game against Ohio State was his most impactful performance to date, and since scouting is all about what a player can do for you rather than what he can’t, I decided to pop in what people called his best tape and put it through the 5-Play formula.
Play No. 1: Opportunist
After watching every snap from Harrison’s game against Michigan, I think the best way to describe his success is that he’s an opportunist. Now, some people might hear that and immediately think it’s a negative, due to the fact that the nature of the tag would be that he often doesn’t create on his own. While true, he is still the one putting himself in position to make the plays — and does.
On both of his tackles for loss against Michigan, he was untouched by the offensive linemen. However, he still shot in there and made the tackle with good burst and anticipation of the snap. This is where there is a give and take with Harrison’s analysis, it just all depends which one you give more weight to. Harrison did his job well on both plays and got the stop, but he didn’t have to create the stops on his own. Both things are true.
Play No. 2: Limited Flexibility
If we get into a little more of the details of scouting rather than just the production, that’s where the criticisms of Harrison can start to hold water.
In the previous two clips, Harrison had a relatively straight path to the ball carrier. Especially in that last one, it was just him bursting forward in a straight line. In the clip directly above, however, Harrison had to show some change of direction and potential bend, which was not there. Harrison looked very awkward trying to round himself around the offensive line to get to the quarterback, and that lack of true flexibility at the hips and in his balance was not uncommon in how he move naturally throughout the game.
So, again, an opportunist who puts himself in the right situations and knows his assignment well, but one that will have a hard time keeping up if lateral athleticism and above average flexibility are required.
Play No. 3: Bump-N-Cover
As you would expect with a linebacker who doesn’t have great lateral quickness, Harrison likes to be physical with his man coverage assignments. He’s fine in zone coverage, often keeps his head moving and his eyes in the right direction, but in man coverage there are certainly things he does well and things he does not. When he can get physical, he can be subtle with eating space and disrupting separation with players that are faster than him laterally. This is a good thing.
However, when Harrison can’t get physical, things can get ugly. Even in run support, there are times where he’s reacting instead of anticipating. Harrison is not good enough of a lateral athlete to simply react and recover when it comes to there being a lot of space he has to cover. He has to be a guy who can anticipate. When he can — and he does — he’s decent in coverage, especially when he’s able to get his hands on a guy. But when he can’t, plays like the one above are the result where he can get absolutely toasted.
Now you’re starting to get a good idea of where he is limited as a prospect.
Play No. 4: Do Your Job
One thing I love about Harrison is that he does his job. That may sound like a total cliche, but when you have linebackers who aren’t afraid or hesitant to do the dirty work, that makes it a lot easier for more talented players on the edge or on the interior to be able to make an impact.
The play above is a good example of Harrison just doing the dirty work. He saw right where the center was opening up the hole and where the fullback behind the center was running to try and lead block. Harrison ran straight into it and stood two blockers straight up. That not only forced the running back to move to a different gap, but also allowed Harrison’s help to stay free and get the tackle.
A win for the team is a win for Harrison there. He is not afraid to do the dirty work as a linebacker.
Play No. 5: Patience, My Friend
The last trait I wanted to point out for Harrison, at least for this episode of his scouting portfolio, is that he is a very patient linebacker. He rarely over pursues to the line of scrimmage, and can often mirror where a running back is trying to go.
Harrison sees through chaos very well, which is tough to do. You can tell that he anticipates things quite well, and is often in position to make stops because of it. Patience is Harrison’s best trait when it comes to scouting.
There are things to like of Harrison’s tape, but overall, the performance he had against Michigan seemed a bit more opportunistic than say a coming out party for a draft prospect we should be driving Top 50 hype for. Harrison is a true junior, so I would be surprised if he declared this year. If he did, right now I’d see him as a decent depth piece that a team can pick up on Day 3.
If he doesn’t declare, we already have a baseline to analyze more of him for another year.