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Mike Preston: Ravens LB Malik Harrison excelled in the preseason. Now he’s ready to step into a leading role. | COMMENTARY

No. 40 is no longer the “other linebacker.”

As a rookie last season, he seemed to get lost in the fame of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon and the emergence of fellow rookie Patrick Queen, the Ravens’ top draft pick out of LSU. But that hasn’t been a concern so far in the 2021 preseason.

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The name is Malik Harrison. Remember it. He’s the Ravens’ new starting weak-side linebacker.

“I like the violence in the guy,” Ravens linebackers coach Rob Ryan said. “Once you get around him, I found out he’s one of the most intelligent guys I’ve been fortunate enough to coach, and his athleticism — he’s fast. He wants to be a contributor and a great player on defense. He wants to be a Raven.”

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The Ravens have been waiting for this moment since they drafted Harrison last year in the third round out of Ohio State. They thought he might get more playing time last season, but his preparation time was cut short with the coronavirus eliminating minicamps and preseason games.

Harrison played in all 16 regular-season games, starting six, and finished with 44 tackles, but his weaknesses were evident. His subpar technique and inability to shock and shed blockers exposed him in the running game. He also struggled in pass coverage as much as Queen.

But in the first series of the first preseason game against New Orleans last month, Harrison twice stepped into the hole, plugged gaps and made tackles. That was his calling card. The Saints probably know his name now. Other teams will get acquainted.

“I think my rookie year, it was the speed of the game at first and knowing the [offensive] linemen are just as athletic as you,” Harrison said of his biggest adjustment. “They are just bigger and recognizing formations and what plays can come out of those formations.”

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Sometimes an athlete’s biggest strength can also become his biggest weakness. Harrison is 6 feet 3 and weighs 247 pounds. He could easily be confused for a tight end or pass-rushing defensive end. But his height and his tendency to stand straight up allowed offensive linemen to get into his body, and he didn’t have the strength to overcome that as a rookie.

It’s different now.

Mike Preston writes that Ravens inside linebacker Malik Harrison, pictured at training camp practice Aug. 2, is ready to step into a leading role this season.
Mike Preston writes that Ravens inside linebacker Malik Harrison, pictured at training camp practice Aug. 2, is ready to step into a leading role this season. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

“I think in most places it is teaching the physicality of the game,” Ryan said of the biggest obstacle in coaching young linebackers. “You’re an undersized guy when you are taking on a 350-pound linemen, so first you have to have the want-to to go in here and strike a big guy and then to violently go in and throw him on his face, that’s a tough thing to do.”

“He’s very physical and I just wanted him to finish more,” Ryan said after watching tape of Harrison from last season for the first time. “He does some things that just aren’t natural. He can take an offensive lineman and shove him back and do some things. I thought this guy was a piece of clay.”

Translation: Harrison is a specimen. While at Walnut Ridge High in Columbus, Ohio, Harrison played fullback, receiver, running back, quarterback, linebacker and safety. As a senior in 2015, he rushed for 897 yards and 15 touchdowns and passed for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns. He also had 40 tackles, five of those sacks.

He got recruited to play Division I basketball by almost every school in the Mid-American Conference before he finally decided to play football after his junior season.

The combination of size and athleticism is as promising now as it was then.

“He wants to be a contributor and a great player on defense,” Ryan said. “You can see the physicality jump off the tape when you watch it, but so does his athleticism. This is a guy that’s going to be dynamic in coverage with his length, he’s going to be problems for an offense. He can play 60 snaps a game. He’s in unbelievable shape.”

Ryan said Harrison stayed at the team’s training complex so much during the offseason that it became his permanent address. There were times when he called Harrison on the phone to ask about his whereabouts and Harrison had already been in the building for about an hour.

Inside linebacker coach Rob Ryan talks about the positive culture at Ravens facility and the amount of talent the team has assembled.

That’s commitment. Harrison wanted to get better, but he also knew he had to make up for lost time from last season.

“I thought I had a strong year [last season], but there were some mental errors that I had throughout the year,” Harrison said. “I didn’t know the defense like the back of my hand. That’s something I wish I would have improved on. Sometimes, I caught myself being too high on a tackle or just standing up before the play. That’s just me not realizing that I have to get low.

“But starting with the OTAs, I’ve been working and building the chemistry and slowing down the game, which has made it easier for me to just go out and play.”

Besides the offseason training and constant study, Harrison had one other adjustment. He had to get used to Ryan, who can be as kind as a grandfather one moment, then light you up the next. But you can’t mistake Ryan’s sense of humor for a lack of desire to win.

“He’s like one of us,” Harrison said. “You never know what you are going to get as far as his coaching style, but he just wants everybody to be the best. He doesn’t care who you are or anything, he just loves that physicality.”

And Ryan loves being in that linebackers meeting room. He’s got Harrison on one side and Queen on the other.

“I walked into that room and looked at those young guys and said, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’” Ryan said.

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