Malik Harrison was one of those Central Ohio prospects who had to wait until after his senior season to receive an Ohio State offer.
A three-star prospect out of Walnut Ridge High School in Columbus, Harrison had already taken official visits to Wisconsin and Indiana before the Buckeyes ever even offered.
Harrison finally got that OSU offer in early December of 2015 and took an official visit to Ohio State six weeks later. He then followed that up with official visits to Michigan State and Syracuse before ultimately signing with the Buckeyes.
As a true freshman, he spent most of his time on special teams. As a sophomore, however, he found a reserve role on defense, finishing with 36 tackles.
Harrison then earned a starting job in 2018, which he kept in 2019. He led the Buckeyes in tackles each of the last two seasons, and leaves Ohio State with 205 career stops.
Replacing Harrison will not be easy because he was a well-rounded linebacker. His speed allowed him to cover ground and his size made him a formidable run stopper as a senior. He was a versatile defender, which makes one wonder if it will take more than one player to replace him in this Ohio State defense.
Malik Harrison played the Will, and ideally in this defense the Mike and Will are interchangeable, so it begs the question of whether OSU will continue to rotate Tuf Borland and Baron Browning at Mike, or will one of them move to the Will so they can both play full time? The rotation worked pretty well last season (Ohio State was one of just seven teams nationally to allow less than 3 yards per carry), so there may not be a desire to fix what wasn’t broken.
There are also three highly-touted rising juniors who have spent their respective careers as backups and special teamers. Both Teradja Mitchell and K’Vaughan Pope were listed as backups to Harrison last year, while Dallas Gant was listed as the backup to Borland. Pope had interceptions in back-to-back weeks against Maryland and Rutgers.
Sixth-year senior Justin Hilliard could also be a candidate. He was on the field quite a bit when Ohio State went with four linebackers this past season. His future as a Buckeye is still being discussed, however. Or at least it was when he last spoke with reporters during bowl prep.
Redshirt freshman Tommy Eichenberg will also get an opportunity.
With a pair of interchangeable positions featuring so many possibilities, expect to see several different looks this spring. Borland and Browning could be sharing the Mike or playing next to each other. Linebackers coach Al Washington will have the freedom and the players to experiment a bit in finding his three best linebackers.
There is also the fact that Borland shouldn’t need as many reps as everybody else, so that could free up some looks for other players at the Mike. With five upperclassmen possibly vying for one spot, Washington will be presented with some very difficult choices. Each of the linebackers should get a fair and decent look, however.
There probably are no best bets yet because there are so many unknowns.
Because it worked last year, it may be somewhat safe to assume Browning and Borland will stay in the middle. Then you basically have a mad dash between K’Vaughan Pope, Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant, and Justin Hilliard at the Will.
Based on what was seen last year, which of those four would be considered a favorite?
Gant led the four of them with 21 tackles and 3.0 tackles for loss last season. Hilliard and Pope finished with 13 tackles, and Mitchell had 12.
Or maybe Browning does move to Will, giving the Buckeyes three senior starting linebackers?
The best bet here is that it will be an entertaining competition and it may not be as straight forward as we think.
And also, way more than just three linebackers will see time on the Ohio State defense this season.