Why Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. is a matchup nightmare: Can Michigan stop him?


There’s been an embarrassment of riches for Ohio State at the wide receiver position in recent years, and we may be looking at the next great one to grace the turf at Ohio Stadium. Marvin Harrison Jr. clearly has the tangibles to write his name in Ohio State lore, at 6 feet 4, 205 pounds, with a 3.94 pro shuttle and a 10-9 broad jump.

But a deep look at what separates him reveals something different. His true value to this Buckeyes squad lies in the purity of his route-running ability, which is artistic. For his size, his body control is impeccable and the ferocity with which he attacks the defender’s leverage is eye-opening. Quite simply, Harrison is a route technician who has mastered his route toolbox, which we will detail below. And the fact that he embraces route running is verification of that.

As he told The Athletic’s Cameron Teague Robinson recently: “I just like running routes and breaking people off by changing directions.”

Heading into The Game against Michigan this weekend, he’s already surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving mark, the fourth fastest to reach that goal in Buckeyes history. He’s in the top 10 nationally in receiving touchdowns (11) and yards per game (94.3). And while he’s still considered a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate, a possible sixth 100-yard receiving day Saturday can put his name into the discussion. The structure of Michigan’s defense could lend itself to that kind of performance at the Horseshoe.

So, what makes Harrison so lethal? Let’s go in-depth to take look at how offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and passing game coordinator Brian Hartline build their system around Harrison and how he will present matchup problems for a Wolverines defense that hasn’t seen a top-10 receiver yet all season.

The route tree

Let’s start with the numbers. Harrison has been targeted a team-high 99 times in the passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, only 26 of Harrison’s catches have truly been contested and none of them have been dropped.

Harrison’s route running is so disciplined that most times defensive backs don’t even have a chance against him. And while his route tree is limited, it’s not due to his ability. It’s an addition-by-subtraction philosophy; the man possesses a certain set of skills, and he hones them with an unparalleled work ethic that produces an excessive amount of reps.

“(Jaxon) Smith-Njigba runs the full route tree — corners, outs, etc.,” said one Big Ten defensive coordinator, speaking on the condition of anonymity for competitive reasons. “Marvin has mastered a select amount of routes to the point where he’s become virtually unstoppable when running them.”

Essentially, Harrison’s route toolbox consists of the following routes:

  • Vertical
  • Comeback
  • Stretch hitch
  • Dig
  • Climb

Wilson and Hartline will align Harrison to the left and right side of the formation and to the field and boundary — contrary to his father, who regularly lined up to the right of Peyton Manning in the Colts’ operation. He’s even gotten 87 reps this season in the slot, although it’s clear that’s not his home. When Wilson wants to get Harrison as a middle-of-the-field threat, he’ll do so by using some switch principles, as I’ll explain later.

Vertical route

Harrison’s repertoire has to start with the vertical route, and it’s not because he has unmatched linear speed. While a 4.6 verified 40-yard dash isn’t slow by most standards, it’s the body control he possesses for his bigger frame that separates him from others. Indiana outside linebackers coach Kasey Teegardin was an eyewitness to a hellacious catch Harrison made on the Hoosiers’ sideline, one of the seven he made that day.

“He has the uncanny ability not just to track the ball through a defender’s hands, but then has the strength to rip it away from them,” Teegardin said. “You can be draped all over him, but most times his hand strength will come down with the ball. It’s really impressive.”

Those 50/50 jump balls turn out to be 75/25 balls in Harrison’s favor. He comes down with that many of them. Just on vertical targets alone this season, he’s been targeted by C.J. Stroud 24 times with 10 receptions, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s a high percentage for that type of route. And the majority of these routes have come as field-side fades, which Stroud has the arm strength to complete. There have been numerous occasions in which Stroud has thrown Harrison away from coverage to the field.

And to the boundary, where the throw is shorter, Harrison does a terrific job of staying “in the paint,” which is a football term for keeping 5-yard spacing from the sideline, giving Stroud enough room to deliver the ball in bounds, away from the high safety.

Even more impressive is the touch that Stroud puts on the ball against split safety defense, where the space the near safety has to cover is smaller.

Against Maryland last week, Stroud got the party started on play one with a “honey hole” shot over the corner and in front of the safety.


In most systems, the comeback route is structured as a 15-yard vertical stem, back to a 12-yard break on the sideline. It’s a route that has garnered a 66.5 percent completion rate from Stroud with a 10.8 average per reception. It’s a staple in most West Coast systems, but what makes Harrison so good at running it is the violence he uses against defenders when coming back to the ball.

Case in point, against Notre Dame in Week 1, where Harrison gets Irish corner Cam Hart pushed vertically, only to fight back for the ball and a first down.

Harrison has a knack for keeping defenders away from the ball by using his 205-pound frame to protect the football. And he’s not just able to do it against smaller corners. In the clip below against Indiana, where Harrison exploded for a seven-catch, 135-yard performance, he’s able to use his body to shield the ball away from safety Josh Sanguinetti on a corner blitz to the boundary.

Most of these comebacks are designed as boots with run action away, but Stroud is one of the few quarterbacks at the FBS level who can deliver the field comeback from a stagnant position.

In the clip below, Harrison gets a Cover 3 corner technique from Notre Dame cornerback Clarence Lewis, and it’s an easy pitch and catch for a first down.

‘Stretch’ hitch

Harrison is a master at attacking the pre-snap leverage of corners and does so often with the quick hitch, which is the easiest completion in the Buckeyes’ system. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s accumulated 167 yards receiving on this route alone, which is pretty significant considering it’s mainly a 5-yard stop route. Again, Harrison uses his vertical stem to get corners moving. The route to the boundary side will culminate at the bottom of the numbers to create more space after the catch.

In the clip below against Arkansas State, Ohio State motions receiver Xavier Johnson inside Harrison to clear more space for the throw.

The stretch hitch has been easy money against one-high teams like Iowa when that corner has to anticipate and match pure verticals in the deep third.

Below, the Hawkeyes’ corner gets caught in transition and the Buckeyes complete another first down, demonstrating Stroud’s ability to throw the hitch to the field.

It’s often termed the “gift” route, which is automatic when given off coverage by the corner. But while some teams shy away from the hitch against press coverage, Harrison’s ability as a route runner keeps the play efficient.

In the clip below, he uses a throw-by technique with his inside hand against a press corner to get back to inside leverage for the pass by Stroud.


One of the newer additions to Harrison’s route arsenal has been the 10-yard dig route, which proves he’s not afraid to attack the middle of the field. He’s been targeted 12 times on this route with eight receptions. Of those eight, five have been explosive plays.

Some of the more impressive highlights have shown how Harrison has used that body control we discussed earlier to attack inside leverage against man coverage. Defenders have pressed him on 43 percent of snaps this season, which only adds fodder for him to use their momentum against them in his vertical stem.

In the clip below, he winds up stacking the Arkansas State corner, only to make a malicious inside break for the catch and score.

Harrison also shows his awareness of sitting down the dig window against zone coverage, which is usually a trait reserved for slot receivers.

In the clip below against Northwestern, he winds up finding space against Drop 8 coverage to convert a critical third-and-short for the Buckeyes.

Against Penn State, Wilson and Hartline worked switch releases to attack the middle of the field with Harrison.

The clip below is from late in the game with the Buckeyes holding on in a one-possession game. Again, watch the body control as he executes a “look, lean and drive” technique, leaning into the cornerback’s far shoulder, then driving away to create space for the in-cut.

‘Build to climb’

The climb route is relatively new to Harrison’s toolbox, but it’s been extremely effective against two-high-safety structures. While it may look similar to the drag route, the coaching point is “get under the sam linebacker and over the mike linebacker,” climbing to a depth of 20 yards at the far numbers. It’s different than a traditional crossing route in that way.

Because it’s a deep timing route, Ohio State meshes it with outside zone action away to get Stroud throwing the ball on the run. The Buckeyes ran the climb route twice to Harrison against Toledo for a total of 62 yards.

It was an answer against the two-high, quarters safety coverage that Toledo used as an effort to provide help to the corners on the outside.

“They completely worked the middle of the field against us, which created some issues against quarters,” said Rockets defensive coordinator Vince Kehres.

Here, the offensive staff designed it as a switch concept, with Emeka Egbuka running a vertical stem to eat up the quarters safety.

“In true quarters, the corner can play with outside leverage because he has some inside help,” Kehres said. “But that switch concept eliminated the safety help and allowed Marvin access to the middle of the field.

The difference: red zone

Harrison has become Stroud’s favorite target in the red zone for two reasons: his strength and his body control. Most defenses have two options in the red zone — play man coverage or some sort of bracket — and Harrison has become a master at negating them both. He does it by threatening and attacking leverage where it’s given.

“He’s so good at coming out of a break,” Kehres said. “He’ll sell a slant, then break back outside. And if you’re double-covering him, he’s still difficult.”

Early in the first quarter against Toledo, Harrison got matched up against corner Quinyon Mitchell, who is second in the country with 15 pass breakups. Harrison sold a slant, then broke on a 90-degree angle for the touchdown catch.

Several weeks later at Indiana, Harrison used the same drop step break, attacking inside leverage and pushing outside.

This time the ball was underthrown by Stroud, but you can see how much space he created if the ball was thrown properly.

The game plan

For the first time all season, Michigan will face a top-10 quarterback and a top-10 receiver, who just happen to be on the same team. But don’t expect a Wolverines defense that is first in the country in total defense (241.3 yards per game) and second in passing efficiency defense (100.5) to change what they do. And what Michigan does is play single-high-safety defense, utilizing either Cover 1 or Cover 3 on 47 percent of snaps this season.

This means there will be matchups opportunities on the perimeter for Harrison, who will likely will draw either senior corner Mike Sainristil, who has allowed 65 percent of targets to be caught against him, or Gemon Green, who at 6-2 may have the range to contest some of those deep throws. While he’s allowed only a 48 percent completion rate, Green struggled against Michigan State earlier in the year, giving up 20 yards per reception on those deep balls. Another option for the Wolverines is to put DJ Turner, their best cover player but who usually defends in the slot, outside on Harrison.

Regardless, Michigan will play man; it’s what the Wolverines do.

“You have the advantage of keeping an extra guy in the box and making them one-dimensional in the run game,” said one opposing defensive coordinator who faced Ohio State. “You have to test the young backs.”

The young back who will be tested is true freshman Dallan Hayden (503 yards), who has been picking up the workload with leading rusher Miyan Williams (783 yards) questionable with a lower leg injury that held him out against Maryland. Second-leading rusher TreVeyon Henderson (571 yards) is also banged up and was unproductive against the Terps, rushing for 19 yards on 11 carries. The injury problems at running back for the Buckeyes may provide some opportunities for Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter to mix in some two-high looks in early run downs to provide help on Harrison in the quick game and get the Buckeyes into third-and-long, where Stroud has targeted Harrison on 37 percent of snaps. It’s the opportune time to bring pressure and force the ball out.

“Now you can be creative with what you want to do there,” said another Big Ten defensive coach familiar with the Buckeyes. “You can’t be stagnant against Ohio State. Eventually, you’ll need to pressure, which forces the one-on-one match-ups. If you don’t pressure them, they will sit back and pick you apart because their athletes are better. You have to find the medium behind playing some coverage and bracketing Marvin.”


Harrison will get his touches on Saturday. He always does. The question is whether the Michigan defense has the patience to keep everything in front of it and challenge Ohio State to complete those timing routes and back-shoulder throws at a consistent rate — without giving up the big plays that change the course of the game. It’s something that no defense has been able to do so far this season.

(Top photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)


Related posts

Leave a Comment