You don’t have to wait until November of 2019 to see new Ohio State head coach Ryan Day and current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh face off for the first time, because it is happening right now on the recruiting trail.
Zach Harrison is a 5-star defensive end from Lewis Center, Ohio and he is at the center of Ryan Day and Jim Harbaugh’s first significant showdown.
Harrison plays football about 15 miles away from Ohio Stadium, so the prevailing wisdom always viewed Harrison as an eventual Buckeye.
That has not actually been the case throughout Harrison’s recruitment, however, as the recruiting experts go back and forth on where they see Harrison ending up. Harrison himself even seems to waver from day to day, though he will be making his announcement known on Wednesday December 19, which is the first day of the early signing period.
Harrison is 6-foot-6, weighs 243 pounds and runs a 4.47 forty-yard dash. He is ranked the No. 1 strongside defensive end in the nation and the No. 4 player overall.
If Harrison stays in the top four and he signs with Ohio State, it would give Day a higher-ranked recruit than anybody Urban Meyer signed at OSU. That would be a pretty good start to anybody’s career.
The highest-ranked recruit of the Meyer tenure was Noah Spence, who was the No. 5 player (247Sports Composite) in 2012. Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, landed No. 1 recruit overall Rashan Gary in 2016, and inherited Jabrill Peppers, who was the No. 3 player in 2014.
Landing Harrison would be huge for either coach based on his immense physical potential and also because it would be taking a “Plan A” guy away from the enemy.
A month ago, it looked like Harrison was headed to Michigan. Six months or so before that, most would have said Ohio State.
Of the 26 crystal ball predictions on 247Sports, 65% of them are pointed Michigan’s way, while 31% list the Buckeyes as the eventual winner of the Harrison sweepstakes. Four percent of the predictors are too torn to venture a guess one way or the other.
This isn’t the first time a new head coach has taken over and immediately stepped into an important recruiting battle.
It almost happened in late 2011 when Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State. Five-star offensive lineman Kyle Kalis out of Lakewood St. Ed had been an Ohio State commit until June, then decommitted and eventually committed to Michigan.
One of the first things Meyer did when he was hired was put a call in to Kalis, who said “Thanks, but no thanks.” That battle was over before it began for Meyer, and it has been pretty much downhill for Michigan in The Rivalry ever since.
When Jim Harbaugh took over for Brady Hoke, he stepped into a recruiting battle for Detroit running back Mike Weber. Weber had been committed to Michigan for most of the 2014 season, but saw the Hoke writing on the wall and decommitted. Following OSU’s 59-0 Big Ten Championship Game over Wisconsin, Weber committed to the Buckeyes.
And then the battle really began.
Even on the night before Signing Day that year, it looked like Weber was going to flip back to Michigan. Obviously that never happened, and Weber gave Urban Meyer his first of many wins over Jim Harbaugh.
Now, four years later, Ryan Day is looking for that first victory as well.
For Harrison, he is just looking for a home that feels right to him. And one that can help him become the best version of himself, like Ohio State has done with Nick and Joey Bosa, and Michigan has done with Rashan Gary.
For the coaches fighting for his signature, however, this is the first battle in the Day-Harbaugh Era and neither head coach wants to start out with a loss.
Harrison is a local player, and for Ohio State to lose him would be a kick to the gut for a program that expects to keep the best players at home.
If Michigan can come into the Columbus area and land a commitment from the highest-ranked Ohio prospect since Ted Ginn in 2004, that would be a significant development and could give Jim Harbaugh his first bit of momentum in this rivalry since he arrived.
If Harrison ends up a Buckeye, however, then what was looking like a positive development for Michigan will once again fade down the stretch, just like many of their seasons have done over the years.
It’s unfair to Harrison to paint this as being larger than just one player’s decision, but this is an opportunity for each coach to make their first major statement in a brand new chapter of a century-old rivalry.
No pressure, guys.
This just happens to be the most important thing ever right at this moment.