When Alex Grinch signed junior college safety Justin Harrington last year, it was kind of like unwrapping a gift at Christmas that won’t get used until summer.
Grinch had to be patient. He wasn’t sure when he would be able to use his new toy, but he knew it would be a lot of fun when he finally did.
Now, with spring football practice just two weeks away, Grinch still isn’t quite sure what all that new toy can do.
“Justin, I think he has position flexibility,” Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator told Sooner Sports TV’s Chris Plank. “Played safety in junior college. We play and really base out of five defensive backs, between the two corners spots, two safeties and the nickel. So our job, myself and coach (Roy) Manning, is to find kind of what his best position for us would be.”
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Harrington came to OU from Bakersfield College ready to step into a big role last season — possibly a starting role — but a knee injury in junior college required additional cleanup, so he sat out all of 2020.
Harrington’s recruiting profile coming out of Raleigh, NC, was minimal. Out of junior college, he chose OU over NC State, Oregon State, Charlotte, Colorado, Houston, Iowa State and Louisiana.
He was a 247 Sports and ESPN 4-star and a Rivals 3-star, and the No. 7 overall juco prospect in the country by 247 Sports, No. 9 by ESPN and No. 21 by Rivals. In his two seasons at Bakersfield, he logged 97 tackles, seven interceptions and two tackles for loss.
Now Harrington is healthy, Grinch said, and he could contribute at a number of positions. Both players who started at the nickel safety spot last year — Tre Norwood and Brendan Radley-Hiles — have either moved on (Norwood entered the NFL Draft) or expressed a desire to move on (Radley-Hiles entered the transfer portal but hasn’t announced a destination yet and, coach Lincoln Riley said, the door is open for him to come back.)
Even if Radley-Hiles does come back, he’d have to fend off Harrington and others to keep his job. And the experience gained by Delarrin Turner-Yell and Pat Fields as starters over the last two seasons probably keeps Harrington out of those positions — unless there’s trouble.
Harrington probably won’t play corner — Woodi Washington had a strong 2020 season, and D.J. Graham appears to be the next great OU corner, although Jaden Davis is most definitely still a factor — but ESPN rated Harrington as the nation’s fourth-best juco cornerback.
For now, Grinch said, it’s probably best to take it one step at a time, meaning Harrington, gifted as he may be physically, hasn’t played in two years and is going to need time.
“We felt like he had position flexibility coming out of college,” Grinch said. “He has athleticism, certainly has the size. So this is a huge spring for him. It’s a difficult spring.
“One particular reason is the fact that you’re wearing the knee brace, you’re coming off that (injury). So it’s not just, ‘New player, let’s find the best spot for you.’ It’s also a guy — the maturation, understanding the defense, just playing and executing the techniques and fundamentals of being a defensive back, you haven’t had the chance to do in a long time.
“So not dissimilar to where a Tre Norwood would have been a year ago (coming off a 2019 knee injury) — which obviously, that got wiped out with the (2020) spring in its entirety.”
As for Harrington’s progress this offseason, Grinch said, so far, so good.
“A guy that’s worked out, is getting healthy,” Grinch said, “and will be healthy this fall.”