Ohio State football’s Marvin Harrison Jr. creates ‘impossible’ problem for Big Ten defensive backs

By Nathan Baird, cleveland.com
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil vaguely remembers the two plays from The Game last season in which he matched up with Ohio State football’s Marvin Harrison Jr.
One, a running play, didn’t feature much action. On the other, Harrison hauled in one of his seven receptions that totaled 120 yards and a touchdown.
Sainristil made one of the loudest statements that day in Ohio Stadium when he planted the Michigan flag after a 45-23 victory. So in context, the thing he remembers the most about matching up with Harrison makes more sense.
“One thing I do remember for sure — he’s very quiet,” Sainristil said last month at Big Ten Media Days. “I remember wanting him to say something, you know?
“But that’s the type of guy he is. His game is gonna speak for him. So I can’t wait to match up against him again this year.”
Harrison’s unanimous All-American season in 2022 made him the preseason Offensive Player of the Year in the 13th annual cleveland.com Big Ten preseason poll. A year ago at this time, he had only a Hall of Fame name and a three touchdown game in a Rose Bowl shootout on his resume. By midseason he had clearly established himself among the best receivers in the game.
Asking around the defensive backs who came to Indianapolis last month, all had the same two reactions to Harrison’s name — respect and resolve. There will be no better way than to prove one’s abilities this season than to shut Harrison.
Problem is, teams are still figuring out how to do that. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz kept it plain for reporters in Indianapolis: “It’s impossible.”
“He’s obviously a special player,” said Iowa DB Cooper DeJean, the preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and an OSU opponent last season. “There’s not many like him. He’s tall, long, he can run, can catch the ball anywhere around his body.
“But their whole receiver room -- they’ve got a lot of talent in that room, so it was a challenge last year to go up against them. But it was a fun challenge. I think a lot of guys love that opportunity.”
Ohio State anticipates teams trying to shut Harrison down and make someone else in this prolific offense beat them. That’s why the Buckeyes are already experimenting with moving Harrison around. After playing a lot in the slot last spring with Emeka Egbuka out with injury, Harrison still took reps there in early preseason practices with Egbuka back.
Maryland corner Tarheeb Still did not square off as much with Harrison last season because he defended the slot. When told Harrison might be there more this season, Still said that idea made him “excited.”
“He can do a lot of different stuff,” Still said. “He has a wide catch radius, so he’s gonna go get the ball. Really good competitor. I feel like going against guys like that brings the best out of you.”
As much as Sainristil respected Harrison’s game, he prepared for last season’s matchup as he did every week. He took note of how Harrison released from his routes, his footwork, how he played balls in the air, the timing of his hands, how often he jumped. He sought out granular details that he could apply on the field later that week.
Maryland coach Mike Locksley said that will be the crucial first step for young defensive backs who do not want to be highlight fodder this fall.
“Marvin is really talented, but there’s been a bunch of really talented receivers come through (the Big Ten),” Locksley said. “So for us, we will focus more on what we do than what the opponent does to us. And when you take that approach, I think it minimizes the whole fan-boyish things that go along with reading press clippings about how great a player is before you play him.”
Of course, it’s not like teams weren’t putting an abundance of film time and practice reps into stopping Harrison last season. He still topped 100 yards in three of his last four games.
The other key to slowing Harrison down may be moving on from the previous play.
“If his spectacular catch rating on Madden was to be rated by me, I think it would be probably in the 90s,” Sainristil said.

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