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Star Defensive Tackle Thor Griffith, On Fast Track to NFL, Set to Join Louisville in 2024

Then-junior defensive tackle Thor Griffith celebrates with the football after appearing to recover a fumble during Harvard's win over Merrimack on Sept. 16, 2022.
Then-junior defensive tackle Thor Griffith celebrates with the football after appearing to recover a fumble during Harvard's win over Merrimack on Sept. 16, 2022. By Josie W. Chen
By Griffin Wong, Crimson Staff Writer

Initially, Harvard didn’t recruit Thor Griffith — Thor Griffith recruited Harvard.

“If Thor hadn’t been his own agent, then he wouldn’t have got here,” Tim Murphy recalled with a laugh.

Murphy has served as the Crimson’s head football coach for the past 30 seasons, and throughout his tenure, he’s won more games than any other head coach in Ivy League history and coached 15 players who would go on to make the National Football League (NFL). But when he first met Griffith — then a rising high school senior — at a Harvard-hosted recruiting camp, he wasn’t impressed.

“Our coaches liked him, but they just didn’t think he was quite good enough for our level,” Murphy explained. “I hadn’t been in every single drill and seen him. His metrics were good. His strength was great, but his metrics were good but nothing special. And he was coming from a small program in New Hampshire.”

The star defensive tackle, then a rising senior at Portsmouth High in Portsmouth, N.H., was persistent. He sent Murphy videos of himself playing ice hockey as a 12-year-old, when he was considered one of the top 50 hockey prospects in North America before growing into his six-foot-two, 320-pound frame.

The coach asked him for more. He delivered, with footage of his high school state wrestling championship, which he went on to win.

In the clips, Murphy saw off-the-charts athleticism and strength. He was sold.

“I’d now seen his athleticism. I’d now seen his strength and mental toughness. I said, ‘We’re going on this kid,’ and the rest is history,” he said.

Defensive line coach Michael Horan required less convincing.

“First impression was, this has got to be too good to be true,” Horan recalled. “We were just so impressed by his strength, his determine to be successful, and his business-like approach to the sport.”

When Griffith arrived on campus, he brought “an FBS body and NFL strength”, but his technique was relatively unrefined.

With no freshman season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Griffith took advantage of the opportunity to spend a year working with his Harvard teammates and honing his strength, conditioning, and skills.

“What the coaches did, they just worked us out, six days a week,” he said of freshman fall. “In the spring, some of the upperclassmen came back. The freshmen had to go home, but I was one of the freshmen who was able to stay on campus. I think that’s where I really learned college football.”

By the time the Crimson kicked off the 2021 season, Griffith was ready. He combined for a tackle-for-loss in the first game of his career, a win at Georgetown, en route to a stellar first season that saw him named a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, given annually to the best first-year in the FCS. He was the only Ivy League player to earn such a distinction.

Throughout the season, Griffith earned his coaches’ trust.

Traditionally, Harvard has trotted out veteran-oriented squads; of the 46 players who saw action in the season-ending defeat at Yale, just five were first-years, including only one of 22 starters. But in 2021, Griffith was too good to ignore. Despite nominally serving as the backup to Jacob Sykes ’22 and Chris Smith ’22, he got the call for a critical late stop trailing 31-27 at the Yale Bowl in a game the Crimson would ultimately win, 34-31.

“We felt as though Yale was going to run the football right in the middle, and we put Jacob Sykes, our most athletic player — who was the starting defensive tackle — we brought him to the sideline, and he signed off on it,” Horan explained. “I said, ‘We’re going to put Thor in the game,’ so had Thor out there with Chris Smith. Stuffed them on the first three plays, they decided to go for it on fourth down instead of punt, and it gave us an opportunity to win the game.”

“Looking back on it, it was an incredible experience with Coach having that faith in me as a sophomore to put me out there in such a crucial moment,” Griffith said. “But during that time in the game, I wasn’t really thinking about that too much. My mind was just absorbed in what I had to do to make sure my team won.”

Griffith’s career took off the following season, as Sykes transferred to UCLA and Smith to Notre Dame. Over his junior and senior campaigns, he earned consecutive All-Ivy First Team nods and racked up 101 tackles and 8.5 sacks — including a career-high 10 tackles in Harvard’s title-clinching, 25-23, triple-overtime victory over Penn on Nov. 11. He was named a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which honors the FCS Defensive Player of the Year. And he began attracting interest from NFL teams.

By the start of Griffith’s senior year, his star had grown too bright for the relatively unheralded Ivy League, and he began to look at bigger programs. The fact that the Crimson won a share of the conference title in his senior season helped — but either way, Griffith never seriously considered taking the spring semester off and returning to the team in 2024.

Instead, after consulting his family, NFL agents, former Harvard players, and Horan, Griffith opted to enter the transfer portal instead of declaring for the NFL Draft, where he likely would have been a late-round selection.

“I was projected to go fifth-to-seventh round by several different agents,” Griffith said. “I had one year of eligibility left because of Covid. So I was like, ‘I could go in right now and I’ll get drafted, I’ll be on a camp, I’ll have a shot’, but I have one year. I might as well use that and make the most of it and boost my draft stock, play at a higher level of football and try to be a Day One, Day Two pick.”

The offers came flowing in. Louisville came first. He also received offers from Appalachian State, UCLA, Minnesota, California, Michigan State, and Oregon State. Ultimately, though, he fell in love with a Cardinals program that, in its first season under head coach Jeff Brohm, finished with a 10-3 record and narrowly lost, 16-6, in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

“They’re expecting me to come in and take that starting spot,” Griffith said. “They’re going to give me a shot to take that spot and be that guy. They’re going to have me mostly playing an interior, two-I role, so I’m lined up on the inside shade of the guard, and really just be that penetrator and pass rusher from the interior of the d-line to really get a lot of disruption. And they also said I’ll also play a little three-technique, which is an outside shade on the guard, to really mix it up. I feel like I fit in perfectly and that’s exactly my comfort zone when it comes to defensive line.”

The fit was mutual, as Griffith’s skill set aligned with what Louisville defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator Mark Hagen wanted to do in his second season with the team.

“He’s kind of the perfect guy for what Mark Hagen really wants: the height, the strength, the weight,” added Jody Demling, an analyst for 247Sports and Cardinals insider. “The way Thor gets off the ball and the way he uses his strength, it’s a perfect fit for what Mark Hagen wants to do in this defense.”

When he arrives in Louisville, Griffith will join a talented defense that allowed the 12th-fewest rushing yards in the FBS and finished 16th in total defense in 2023. Defensive linemen Ashton Gilotte and Jermayne Lole and defensive back Jarvis Brownlee, all considered NFL prospects, will all make decisions on whether or not to return following the team’s bowl game against USC on Dec. 27. If any of them suits up for the Cardinals next season, they should be capable of challenging for an ACC title again despite a difficult schedule.

With the College Football Playoff expanding from four teams to 12 this upcoming season, Griffith likes his chances of following up his Ivy League title with a national championship.

“I feel like that was a huge thing for me, when I heard it was going to be a 12-team College Football Playoff,” he said. “I feel like Louisville will have a great shot at being in the top 12 next year, especially with the guys coming in.”

Next year, Griffith will go from playing at 30,000-seat Harvard Stadium — which only ever sells out during the Harvard-Yale game — to 60,800-seat L&N Federal Credit Union Stadium in Louisville. He cited the fan atmosphere as one of his primary reasons for choosing the Cardinals, because the city, which has no professional sports franchises, rallies behind the team. And according to Demling, he can expect those fans to love him too.

“In my opinion, he’s going to be a hero with this fan base,” he said. “Every fan that I’ve talked to is like, ‘This kid’s gonna have to be great! He’s big, strong, physical, and his name is Thor!’ I think, for him, the expectations are going to be that he comes in and does what some of these defensive lineman in the last couple of years have done here at Louisville, so they will be high, but it seems he’s a kid who will thrive off of that.”

Murphy’s expectations are high, too.

“If you look at all the kids that we’ve had in the graduate transfer portal play for Power 5 teams and Division I teams in general, they’ve all done a terrific job,” he said. “If all those kids can do it, I have no question that Thor can do it.”

If Griffith posts a strong season for the Cardinals and demonstrates development in his one-on-one pass rushing moves — an area that he, Murphy, and Horan unanimously agreed holds reserves of untapped potential — he is likely to become just the 11th Crimson player ever to hear his name called on draft night. The 2025 NFL Draft will be held between April 24 and 26 in Green Bay, Wisc.

“That’ll be a pretty special moment for me,” he said. “All the work that I’ve put in up until this point, everything that I’ve sacrificed, whether that be during the summers, where I could have been hanging out with friends and relaxing but I’m in the gym and on the field … everything that I’ve done has been worth it and all the hard work that I’ve put in has paid off.”

“I think he will be like our very best kids that have been fortunate enough to not only get a chance in the NFL but to be good players,” Murphy added. “I am very bullish on his ability and his potential to be a starter in the NFL some day.”

If he is drafted, Griffith — whose mother was born in South Korea — would join a select group of Korean Americans to make the NFL. The current contingent consists of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell, Atlanta Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo, Baltimore Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton, Denver Broncos guard Luke Wattenberg, and Houston Texans tight end Brevin Jordan.

“The Asian American community is really underrepresented in sports, and especially in a sport like football,” he said. “If I can get my name in that group, that would be a really special thing … Having more younger Asian American athletes have another guy they can look up to and say, ‘Hey, if he can do it, why can’t I?’”

Griffith’s determination to represent the Asian American community has only strengthened his drive for success.

“In most of the locker rooms, I’ll probably be the only Asian guy,” he added. “Being one of only a few has definitely shifted my mindset of being like, ‘Hey, I can’t just be another guy. I have to be the best. I have to get people to know who I am, and I have to be leading teams.’ I always feel like I have to be a prominent figure on whatever team I’m a part of.”

—Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at griffin.wong@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @Wong_THC.

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