May 26, 2024

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The tall tales of Marvin Harrison Jr.‘s work ethic have followed him throughout his Ohio State career.

They began with the predawn workout sessions as a freshman, which often were bookended by return trips to the facility that led to Buckeyes coaches tossing him out after midnight.

They continued with a practice temperament so fierce he once threatened to boycott team workouts after slipping in a speed workout and losing the top spot in an offseason competition. (He returned the next day and went 17-0 in his races to reemerge as No. 1.)

The crown jewel of Harrison Jr.’s competitiveness anecdote compilation came at the hotel lobby of a bowl site, when the staff set up a Jugs machine for him to get extra work.

Halfway through what’s presumed to be Harrison Jr.’s final season at Ohio State, he has taken his prototype wide receiver frame and the Hall of Fame tutoring from his father, Marvin Harrison Sr., and nurtured those gifts in the Ohio State wide receiver room, the country’s best incubator for future NFL pass-catching stars.

The confluence of raw talent, unmatched mentorship and elite collegiate coaching isn’t the reason Harrison Jr. is considered a generational NFL prospect, however. What has impressed throughout his three seasons in Columbus is the way he has maximized all the raw talent and inherent advantages of his father being one of the best receivers of all time.

“Many times, the more talented you are, the harder it is to develop discipline and skill,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day told ESPN. “And when you take somebody who has a lot of talent, who has a lot of discipline, that’s when you have Kobe Bryant. And you look at this kid, he’s got a lot of talent. He’s got a tremendous amount of discipline.”

Harrison Jr.’s 31 receptions and 604 yards so far in 2023 have lived up to the lofty expectations, and he’s expected to be the highest drafted wide receiver since Calvin Johnson went No. 2 in 2007.

His 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame cuts the archetype of a classic NFL outside receiver such as Julio Jones, an outsized version of his Hall of Fame father’s 6-foot, 185-pound frame. But his father’s genetics showed up in his hips, scouts and OSU coaches say, giving him the quick-twitch traits of a slot receiver in an outside receiver’s body.

That has all been honed by Harrison Sr. forcing his son to play against older kids growing up, orchestrating a high school transfer to a better program and steering him to be surrounded by the best wide receiver room in college football.

“Some kids are bigger and stronger and faster,” Harrison Sr. told ESPN. “Determination and competitiveness is the difference in him.”

How far can Harrison Jr.’s Mamba Mentality take him? Younger scouts don’t flinch when they say he’s the best receiver they’ve ever scouted, a full package of speed, hands, circus catches and smooth jazz routes aided by those loose hips.

“I think he’ll be with his dad in Canton,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Brian Hartline, referencing the site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, told ESPN before the College Football Playoff last year. “I’ve told people that, and there’s no point in keeping it a secret. That’s just reality.”

Harrison faces the reality of perhaps the biggest challenge of his career on Saturday — Penn State’s No. 1-ranked pass defense (121.2 yards per game) — when the No. 3 Buckeyes host the No. 7 Nittany Lions.

Those who’ve witnessed his rise remain confident: Marvin Harrison Jr. is built for these moments.

As the cacophony of Ohio State’s pro day unfolded around him, Harrison Sr. sat on a bench in the Ohio State football facility. He still found bracket coverage, even 15 years after retiring — old-timers came with items to sign, agents came in for a quick greeting and half-hug, and scouts and general managers paid their respects.

He watched his son put on a show in front of scouts. Even though Harrison Jr. wasn’t draft-eligible, he ran routes for C.J. Stroud to tease the dozens of NFL personnel gathered about what they could look forward to the following year.

When Harrison Sr. reflected back on his own rise at Syracuse to a first-round pick in 1996, he didn’t even remember the school holding a Pro Day. But he does recall every deliberate and calculated step to help hone his son into the top receiver in college football.

“You have to go where the competitiveness is,” Harrison Sr. told ESPN.

That began in high school. Harrison Jr. began his career at La Salle College High School in Philadelphia and transferred to St. Joseph’s Prep after his freshman year, in part to play with current Buckeyes quarterback Kyle McCord.

Harrison Jr. chuckles at the memory of La Salle students chanting “Overrated” at him before a game during his junior year. He took notice, and he happily recalls a performance that rendered the chanting observation incorrect.

“I was like, ‘Oh, all right, that’s not cool,” he said of the sing-song chants in pregame. “I think I only played a half a game and had like 222 yards and four touchdowns. So, I don’t think that’s overrated.”

Early on in his son’s high school career, Harrison Sr. got a call from then-OSU assistant coach Ryan Day. He was in charge of recruiting Philadelphia and claims no scouting genius when the coaches at La Salle gave an early scouting report. “They said, ‘You know, we have Marvin Harrison Jr.’ I said, ‘We want to check on that one.'”

Day laughs at the obvious interest because of the bloodline, but the early call to Harrison Sr. meant a lot. Day had been the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback coach in 2015 and was a familiar name when he first got on the phone with Harrison Sr.

“The biggest portion of the recruiting process was two words — Ryan Day,” Harrison Sr. said. “I’d heard of him, through multiple sources.”

Day was also recruiting McCord, who was one of the first big commitments after he took over the head coaching job in December 2018. And that meant the two eventual high school teammates took recruiting trips there and developed a comfort level.

To Harrison Sr., the big allure was the program’s NFL pedigree. He loved that wide receiver coach Brian Hartline played in the NFL and was in the process of developing six NFL draft picks at the position since 2019, including three first-round picks the past two years — Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

Harrison Sr. appreciated Day’s NFL pedigree from his time with the Eagles and 49ers in 2015 and 2016, and chuckled like an old receiver when he noted his appreciation for a “greedy” offensive coach. (He compared Day to former Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore.)

Harrison Sr. also appreciated that Ohio State produced a steady stream of high-end defensive backs. The opportunity to get pushed by his coaches, his teammates and in practice every day provided the biggest allure for Harrison Sr.

“It’s a competitive development,” Harrison Sr. said. “He had skills when he got here. He knew the game before he got here. He’s enhanced it and got better as you get older. But it’s, ‘Are you going to get here and get in the back of the f—ing line? Or are you going to go in the front of the line and say, ‘I’m going to kick your ass.’

“That’s a credit to the university and the school. The better competition they recruit, the better the kids are going to make each other. That’s the difference.”

Harrison Jr. showed up in January 2021 after the COVID-19 lockdown having grown three inches and put on significant weight, because he’d had extra time to work out. Mickey Marotti, Ohio State’s veteran strength coach, chuckled as he recalled him “showing up like a different person,” the physical changes were so stark.

The stories of the work ethic came soon after, as Harrison Jr. ended up being so dedicated that his work ethic pushed the veterans in the wide receiver room. Marotti said Harrison Jr. would bring groups in to catch balls before 6 a.m. lifts.

Harrison Jr. earned a small role as a freshman, broke out as arguably the country’s top receiver last year with 77 catches for 1,263 yards and 14 touchdowns and likely would have been the first wide receiver picked in the NFL draft last year. (His teammate, Smith-Njigba, went No. 20 to the Seahawks with the first receiver off the board.)

And on pro day in March, Harrison Sr. smiled when he pointed out the full-circle nature of the relationship that started nearly six years earlier. He sought out Day for a simple message: “I want to thank you from Day 1 for recruiting my kid. Thank you for everything that you’ve done for me and my family.”

Bill Polian vividly remembered Harrison Sr.’s private workout with the Carolina Panthers in spring 1996.

At Manley Field House at Syracuse, Harrison Sr. lined up in front of Panthers officials for a crew that included Polian, then the Panthers’ general manager, and coach Dom Capers. An assistant drilled Harrison Sr. in a drill called “Around the World,” where he fired the ball at “full throttle” from 10 yards away at every point on Harrison Sr.’s body.

“Our mouths were agape,” Polian recalled in a phone interview this week. “We’d never seen anyone with hands that fast. I certainly hadn’t.”

Polian, who became the Colts general manager in 1998, recalls someone in the group remarking: “He looks like a major league shortstop with those hands, the quickness, agility and softness. That’s Derek Jeter.”

Harrison Sr. crafted a comparable career in a different sport, as he went No. 19 overall to the Colts and finished his career with 14,580 receiver yards and 128 touchdowns. The yards put him No. 9 all-time in NFL history, and the touchdowns place him No. 5 in league history. So it’s revealing that he views his son as well ahead of where he was at this stage in his career.

“Absolutely, not even close,” Harrison Sr. said. “Obviously, things get better in time. Everything is more technical. More of this. More of that. More of everything now than it was in 1996.

“He’s been blessed to be around myself, Ohio State and Coach Day and Coach Hartline.”

Harrison Jr. recalled his father drilling in the nuances of the position from an early age. He said young receivers tend to want the ball to fall “in front of you” on routes, but he grew up understanding that the key to ball tracking is not necessarily running under it.

“You need to track the ball on the outside shoulder,” Harrison Jr. said. “You have to adjust the route not only to catch it, which is hard, but to catch it at a very specific spot.”

Hartline said a part of Harrison’s game that goes unseen is his “mad scientist” ability to learn a concept or see something executed on film and immediately apply it to the field. “Marv’s ability to apply his mental makeup to his physical mechanics is awesome,” Hartline said.

That translates to a prospect scouts say could end up as a top 5 pick in the NFL draft, with the third spot behind USC’s Caleb Williams and UNC’s Drake Maye a possibility.

One veteran NFL scout compared his body type to former NFL star A.J. Green and said he’s the best receiver he has scouted since Johnson went to the Lions No. 2 in 2007.

“What the fan wouldn’t notice is that when he runs his routes, he can really sink his hips and get out of breaks and cut without losing speed,” the scout said. “It may look like he’s blowing by someone, but corners can’t read his hips and doesn’t turn on the blink, as they say, to signal where he’s going.

“It’s not as good as someone like Tyreek Hill, but it’s the same thing. They don’t have to gear down to cut. He separates very easily for a tall receiver, which you don’t see.”

Another NFL scout called Harrison Jr. a “once-in-every-10-years-type” player. He noticed the same thing about the receiver’s hips and called his torso “long,” which gives him a “special change of direction and agility.”

Polian said he notices Harrison Jr.’s loose hips, which are the key to changing direction. A third scout summed up Harrison’s unique movement for his size this way: “He’s the best I’ve ever scouted,” he said. “That guy should be 5-11, but he’s 6-3. You don’t see guys that big do that. Ever.”

At some point this spring, a struggling NFL franchise is going to have a pre-draft workout with Harrison Jr. and likely come away with a similar impression Polian had of his father in 1996.

As Harrison Jr. hits the back half of what’s assumed to be his final season in Columbus, he’s aiming to get the ending right.

The consummate competitor finished last season with the ultimate motivator — sitting on the sideline as the Buckeyes squandered a 38-24 fourth-quarter lead and lost to Georgia 42-41 in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Harrison Jr. took a vicious hit from UGA’s Javon Bullard, suffered a concussion and has spent the offseason pondering what could have been.

“I definitely wish I could have been out there,” he said. “I think I definitely could have made a big difference — rewrote history if you look back at that game. If I don’t get hurt, I think Ohio State wins that game.”

Instead, the Buckeyes came achingly close to spoiling Georgia’s back-to-back title run with Harrison Jr. on the bench for the comeback. Harrison lobbied to return, but he is appreciative of Day and the medical staff looking back. “They’re looking at my best interests, not just as a football player, but as a person,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough for that, as bad as I wanted to be out there.”

Harrison Sr. said the first call he received the next day was from Day: “I said, ‘Coach, for not allowing him to go back in the game, I want to thank you again for protecting my son as if he was your own.'”

The close loss to Georgia, which wasn’t sealed until a missed field goal near the stroke of midnight on New Year’s, set the tone for Ohio State this past offseason.

Day emphasized the inches of the game, staying consistent because you never know where inches will show up. For Ohio State, they won at Notre Dame with a Chip Trayanum 1-yard plunge to secure a thrilling win, which personified Day’s focus.

With Penn State and its top-ranked pass defense coming to town in what’s expected to be another close game, the determining factor will again manifest itself in the smallest details. And for Harrison, it’s the type of stage he has been built for.

“Look at the inches,” he said. “We lost that [Georgia] game by inches on the kick, obviously. It’s just inches away from the [championship game]. How do we find those inches everywhere? Everything is coming down to the smallest of details.”

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