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Malik Hartford headed to Ohio State ‘to play in the big games’

Malik Hartford headed to Ohio State ‘to play in the big games’
Malik Hartford is one of several in-state recruits that will be joining Ohio State next year. (Courtesy: All-American Bowl/Twitter)

WEST CHESTER, Ohio (BVM) – When it comes to discussing the best high school football players in the state of Ohio, Malik Hartford’s name certainly comes to the forefront. The Lakota West safety and Ohio State commit has continued to make big hits and flash elite potential, something he has done often over the past few years.

Hartford is an athletic player, as evidenced by playing multiple sports throughout his life including baseball, soccer and lacrosse. However, he also relishes physicality, and has enjoyed that aspect of the sport since he began playing contact football in first grade.

In addition to the physical side, Hartford knows his preparation and mental game are big parts of his success. He has modeled his game after former NFL safeties like Kam Chancellor and Rodney Harrison, who also found tremendous success by putting in work on all aspects of football.

“I hit hard, I’m aggressive,” Hartford said. “I know the game. It’s not just about the physicality of the game, but also the mental aspect, and that’s where I feel I stand apart from a lot of players.”

Not only has Hartford seen individual success, but team success has followed him as well. During his youth career, Hartford lost just a handful of games. By the time he reached Lakota West, Hartford also went undefeated playing on the Firebirds’ freshman squad while adjusting to playing the game at a new level.

Malik Hartford Lakota West High School Firebirds football Ohio State Buckeyes
After seeing a lot of his action come on special teams as a sophomore, Malik Hartford had a breakout junior season at safety for Lakota West in 2021. (Credit: JOSHUA A. BICKEL FOR THE ENQUIRER / USA TODAY NETWORK)

“I was on the freshman team with a lot of other guys,” Hartford said. “We went undefeated and had a great season. Freshman year is mostly just all about playing time, getting used to the feel of sort of a faster pace.”

By the time Hartford joined Lakota West’s varsity team as a sophomore, he again had to make an adjustment, as he was not the starting safety to begin the season. As a result, he dedicated himself to proving his talent when he did see the field on special teams, and also made sure to take in as much as he could from his coaches and his upperclassmen teammates.

“That was the year that I sort of made the jump to becoming a better player, and that’s when in my junior year I broke out,” Hartford mentioned.

Earning his chance to start at safety last season for Lakota West, Hartford truly shined with 58 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and six blocked kicks on special teams. An all-district and all-conference performer, Hartford became a leader of the defense for a talented Firebirds squad, and while it wasn’t necessarily his main goal, many began taking notice of the defensive standout.

“To be honest, my junior year, I wasn’t really thinking about colleges coming after me,” Hartford explained. “I was more focused on getting myself better, making the team better and hopefully winning the state championship.

“We had a great team. We fell a little short and I’m upset about it still. But it’s a new year, we’re getting to it this year and will hopefully make it to state.”

Going 11-2, Lakota West would fall short of winning state in 2021 after losing to a talented Moeller squad late in the postseason. It’s something Hartford still uses as motivation, and in 2022, the team has started undefeated, earning big wins against some of the state’s top teams like St. Xavier and Princeton.

“The main goal is really state,” Hartford said. “I don’t really care what happens as long as the team is winning. That’s all I could ask for. Not everyone is going to have a perfect game every week.”

Lakota West has been perfect so far, however, which Hartford attributes to the team’s preparedness thanks to its coaching staff. Hartford himself has been elite once again, and has made some headlines with a couple of big hits this season, one which went viral towards the end of Lakota West’s season opener.

Although the hit against St. Xavier sparked a debate for some, it has also proved the mindset and mentality Hartford has when he’s on the gridiron. Like many great safeties before him, the Lakota West senior is out to protect the middle of the field, and he clearly has the talent to do it.

“Hopefully it just sets the tone,” Hartford said. “That’s all a hit like that can really do for you. I want other teams to see that I’m there and my presence will be felt in the middle.”

Malik Hartford Lakota West High School Firebirds football Ohio State Buckeyes
Malik Hartford, No. 1, has the Firebirds off to a strong start in 2022 and is hoping to cap his high school football career with a state title. (Credit: JOSHUA A. BICKEL FOR THE ENQUIRER / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Hartford certainly has set the tone for the Lakota West defensive over the last few years. However, while doing so, he also hopes he has given the younger players in the community someone to look up to.

“I hope I left a mark for the younger kids,” Hartford said. “At the time, those are the kids that actually look up to you, whether you know it or not, whether they show it or not. I hope to leave a mark on my coaches, on the school, on my teachers; I just want to be remembered and remembered in a good way.”

Over the past couple of years, the spotlight has been on Hartford, too. Ranked as one of the top players in Ohio, the 94th-best player in the Class of 2023 by 247Sports, and as the country’s top high school safety by Scorebook Live, he has had a lot to live up to.

“I definitely use it as motivation, but I feel the pressure as well,” Hartford said. “I don’t exactly let it get to me, but it’s definitely there. People have targets on your back that I didn’t have my junior year. People will use that opportunity as, ‘Oh, let me make a play against him, so I can get seen.’ That just makes me have to play harder, play smarter and focus on my techniques every single play.”

Often relieving some of that pressure is the fact that Hartford has teammates in a similar position right in the defensive backfield with him, including three-star cornerback and Northwestern commit Josh Fussell, and four-star Notre Dame commit Ben Minich.

“It’s definitely special because the competition is so high,” Hartford said. “If you’re a great player, and you surround yourself with mediocre players or players that aren’t as good as you, you can’t really get better, in my opinion. But when you surround yourself with guys that are DI talents, and in some cases maybe better than you at certain things, it only makes you better. They push me to be the best person I can be, and I push them to be the best player and person they can be. And we have great relationships off the field which just makes it so special.”

Each player will be going their separate ways by the time the season ends, and Hartford’s next chapter of his football journey will lead him to Ohio State. As his recruiting picked up over the past year, Hartford has seen offers ranging from an emerging in-state program like Cincinnati to college football’s elite in Alabama. His final seven included Cincinnati, Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame and West Virginia. However, when it came down to it, the senior’s top choice was the Buckeyes.

“Ohio State was the best option for me,” Hartford said. “It felt like the best place for me to be. They have all my goals in mind. I want to play in the NFL. I want to have a great degree which Ohio State can provide. And then just the family atmosphere. I love all the guys that are there right now. I’m close with a lot of the commits too. And I’m close to home.”

Perhaps the goal that sticks out most is making it to the NFL. It’s not a secret Ohio State has produced plenty of pro talent over the years, especially out of the secondary. For Hartford, being the next Buckeye to hear his name called on draft day would be a dream come true.

“The NFL is something that you dream of ever since you’re a little kid,” Hartford said. “I just have to keep working hard. I can’t get lazy, I have to do all the right things. I have to focus on school, I have to focus on football and I have to focus on getting better in every aspect of my life. NFL teams see that. Hopefully I’ll become a first-round draft pick one day, make it to my dream, make the money and play the sport I love.”

However, first comes what is likely to be a rewarding experience at Ohio State. Hartford is already getting more and more eager to take the field at Ohio Stadium, aided by attending the Buckeyes’ season opener this year against Notre Dame in which the Lakota West senior got to experience a crazy atmosphere and meet the likes of celebrities like LeBron James.

“I don’t think there was an atmosphere that could have been better than the Notre Dame game,” Hartford said. “The fans were crazy, the student section was crazy. I met LeBron, you don’t just have that anywhere. It definitely makes me want to get out there sooner. There are die-hard fans for the team and I want to be a part of that.”

Malik Hartford Ohio State Buckeyes football Lakota West High School Firebirds
Malik Hartford has formed tight relationships with many on the Ohio State staff thus far, including safeties coach Perry Eliano. (Courtesy: @MalikHartford/Twitter)

Already, Hartford has formed a tight relationship with head coach Ryan Day, and has also become very close with Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and Buckeyes safeties coach Perry Eliano.

“I love Coach Day,” Hartford said. “He’s a genuine guy and just cares about his players, not just as football players, but as people as well. He wants to develop us as young men and he’s a winning coach. Most of the time I am talking to Coach Eliano and that’s where our bond is just so tight … I just can’t wait to get up there and learn from him.”

When it comes to the team, Hartford will join several in-state products in his class like linemen Luke Montgomery, Joshua Padilla and Austin Siereveld, as well as cornerback Jermaine Mathews, linebacker Arvel Reese and defensive lineman Will Smith Jr. He will also reunite with a couple of former Lakota West teammates in cornerback Jyaire Brown, offensive lineman Tegra Tshabola, and linebacker Jackson Kuwatch.

“With all those guys being around, it just makes me more comfortable,” Hartford said. “As far as representing my home state, I just have to play to the best of my ability … I know the guys that I’m close to, they’ll push me to be the best that I can be. That’s all I can ask for.”

No matter who or where, Hartford remains focused on one thing every time he takes the field: winning. The Lakota West senior plans on enrolling early at Ohio State, and hopes to see action in Columbus during his freshman year. But when it comes down to it, Hartford is set on helping the Buckeyes to what is their ultimate goal each season.

“Freshman year, I want to get used to the speed,” Hartford said. “I want to get bigger, I want to get faster, I want to be at the college level. I’m going to figure out all the plays, get my football IQ up and hopefully see the field a lot. I’m not coming there just to be on the sidelines. I want to play in the big games and I want to win a national championship.”