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Football: Zach Harrison enters Ohio State with coaching staff familiarity

Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison talks to the media for the first time on National Signing Day on Feb. 6. Credit: Colin Gay | Sports Editor

Zach Harrison, the No. 1 recruit from Ohio and No. 2 defensive end in the 2019 class, had to choose where he wanted to play college football.

Instead of making his decision an extravagant one, Harrison shut people out, saying that if a person was not in his inner circle, he or she did not know in which direction he was leaning: Ohio State or Michigan.

In all honesty, Harrison said he did not know which way he was leaning until Dec. 17.

“When I called the coaches, I think it was that Monday, I sat there at the table,” Harrison said. “I was like, ‘I’m done. This is it.’ I slept like a baby that night.”

Al Washington, on the other hand, was not pleased.

The Michigan linebackers coach was one of the two main recruiters attempting to bring Harrison to Ann Arbor, working alongside defensive line coach Greg Mattison.

“When he committed to Ohio State I was bummed out,” Washington said. “I was, I guess, pretty upset, but I understood. It was one of those deals where he said, ‘I’m going’ — I said, ‘Hey, man, best of luck to you.’”

But it was not the last time Harrison would interact with Mattison and Washington.

After the five-star defensive end announced his commitment to the Buckeyes on Dec. 19, both Michigan assistant coaches were hired to be a part of head coach Ryan Day’s first staff. Mattison joined Ohio State as a co-defensive coordinator on Jan. 7 and Washington joined the staff on Jan. 8 as the linebackers coach.

“We laugh about it all the time. Zach Harrison right now is walking around with the biggest smile on his face of anybody in the whole campus. The reason for that was in the recruiting process he built relationships with Greg and Al,” Day said. “These guys are here now, he gets Larry, at Ohio State right down the street. He kind of died and went to heaven.”

Harrison said he and Mattison developed a good relationship from when he was recruited by the Wolverines, something he said kept Michigan as an option for him.

When he heard about the hiring of the former Michigan defensive line coach, the five-star defensive lineman said it felt like Christmas having Mattison team up with Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson.

I’ve got two of the guys I love the most during the recruiting process in the same place,” Harrison said.

But Harrison is not what brought Mattison to Ohio State after 13 years at Michigan.

Knowing that his role would remain the same on head coach Jim Harbaugh’s staff if he remained with the Wolverines, Mattison said he wanted the opportunity to become a coordinator again. He previously served in that role with Notre Dame, Florida, Michigan and the Baltimore Ravens.

Although there have been coaches have previously worked for both Ohio State and Michigan during their careers, including former Wolverines head coach Bo Schembechler, Mattison has spent over a fourth of his coaching career in Ann Arbor.

But the former Michigan defensive line coach said he can’t control what Ohio State fans think of him.

The only thing I’m going to tell you that they will see in watching me coach is they’re going to see me give everything I can to this program,” Mattison said. “They’re going to see that I will always try to coach the players the best they can possibly be coached, and how they perceive it and what they do, that’s up to them.”

Despite not serving as the defensive line coach at Ohio State, Mattison knows what Ohio State has in Harrison, describing him as an unbelievable athlete with great character.  

“And then watching, like we had mat drills today and just watching him in the weight room,” Mattison said, “he’s everything you thought when you recruited him. I mean, he’s a special athlete.”

Washington was one of Harbaugh’s top recruiters on the Michigan coaching staff, serving, along with Mattison, as one of Harrison’s main contacts with the Wolverines.

In the recruiting process, Washington said it’s important to develop the relationship between the team and the recruit’s family, answering every question the family has.

This is something Washington said he did with Harrison while recruiting him to join the Wolverines, saying the relationship he and Mattison have with Harrison is “well-documented.”

When Washington was offered and eventually took the linebackers coaching job at Ohio State, he said he discussed the position with Harrison.

“It was pretty unique,” Washington said. “To have all the people — I’m sure there’s some other coaches he was close with, also, but to have us there — is pretty unique.”

Harrison has a specific goal in mind for his college career.

“When it’s all said and done I want to leave a legacy here,” Harrison said. “I want people to be like, ‘Oh, Zach Harrison was one of the greatest to come through Ohio State.’”

And three of the coaches who recruited him most joined the same staff, having the opportunity to see if Harrison’s goal can become a reality.

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