Maybe it is because of the uniform he wears, or the fact that he is six feet tall and weighs 90 pounds, that people tend to trust Najee Harris.
The senior from Antioch, California, is well aware of that. He walked 1,224 meters and made 27 passes for Alabama last year, but he still heard doubts.
He couldn’t catch him.
He couldn’t block.
He wasn’t evasive enough, he wasn’t explosive enough, he wasn’t dangerous enough.
In a recent interview with the SEC network, Harris talked about these alleged abuses and then asked disbelieving questions: Have you seen the movie?
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Harris smiled when he said that, and smiled again after the SEC championship game on the 19th. In December, when he was asked if he could prove he could catch the ball was one of the reasons he had come back for his final year instead of entering the NFL Draft earlier. He just caught three touchdown passes in victory over Florida, equal to Alabama’s career leader with 54 touchdowns, and he didn’t believe the premise of the question.
What are you talking about? Harris said playful. Just because I’m a running back doesn’t mean it’s what people expect. … Motto: Can he get him? I’ve been catching this ball since I was in the fetal position.
Smart answer, Harris doesn’t catch outsiders from birth, as he claims. Nor was he brought to Alabama four years ago by the stork as the most complete return rider to play under coach Nick Saban.
It took time, patience and hard work.
Mike Locksley was the attacking coordinator during Harris’ first two seasons in Alabama, and he remembers that the young runners relied on his natural ability. Sure, Harris was big, powerful and fast, but he wasn’t very sharp when it came to understanding the passing protection or the course.
Locksley tried to distribute the ball to all his players, but of course [Harris] wanted every touch.
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Harris was upset because he played the third violin next to Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs. He had 61 recruits and told the San Francisco Chronicle he was considering a transfer. His workload increased to 117 points in the second half of the season, but he averaged only 5.6 points in the second half compared to the previous seven games.
In his first two seasons, Harris has only caught ten passes.
Locksley believes that Alabama analyst and former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has played a key role in coaching Harris at this difficult time. Harris, said Locksley, had great respect for Butch, who played in college and coached early in his career.
Jones helped Harris focus and get back on track. As a junior it paid off when Harris became a more patient runner and a blocker and pass-catcher.
But even that party, with 304 meters and seven touchdowns in the air, wasn’t enough to dispel the idea that he was a one-dimensional back. Of course he looked in part like the workhorse of Derrick Henry’s predecessor, but Harris was capable of much more.
Shortly after the end of the season, Harris sent a personal message on Twitter to former Auburn fullback Brad Lester. They had met on the field after the Iron Bowl a few months before, and Harris wanted to see what the SEC coach who worked from behind could do to improve it.
Lester, who worked with NFL fans Alvin Kamara and Chris Carson, traveled to Tuscaloosa for that first training session and wondered what he was getting into. He thought this guy was a better choice. What can I do better?
Harris told Lester that he had two main goals: to be faster and better at passing by.
His biggest problem was many athletes, Lester said. I said to him: Stop beating yourself up.
After that first rehearsal weekend on the band’s practice field on campus, Harris rented a house in Atlanta where he rehearsed with Lester for a few weeks, sometimes three times in one day.
With greater freedom of movement, Harris’ mechanics improved, contributing to the initial speed. NFL design expert Mel Kiper Jr. said he’s noticed the progress Harris has made in getting people to miss this season. Kiper compared him to Le’Veon Bell, because they both cheat defensively as fast as they do.
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The figures confirm this estimate, with Harris rejecting the country with 42 tackles, an increase over 29 last season.
Harris has become by far the most explosive player in Alabama under Saban, with 128 rushes of 10 meters or more in his career – 40 of them this season. Henry and T.J. Yeldon follow with 99 races of this guy each.
Harris’ most notable improvement is in passing, an area Lester says he worked on every day, either at the beginning or at the end of the practice. A particularly difficult exercise required Harris to stand on one foot on a balance ball while Lester circled him and threw passes at random intervals.
Results : In 11 games, Harris picked up 32 assists, more than any other Alabama in the running since 2009, when Mark Ingram picked up 32 assists in 14 games. Harris only missed one visit all year.
His 69 career receptions are the most numerous for a position led by Saban and almost double that of Eddie Lacy, the former Securities and Exchange Commission spokesman.
Harris could have been formed into a straighter cop with sticks five years ago, Lester said. Alabama’s had a lot of guys like that over the years.
But the game has changed, Lester said. It’s probably the most diverse they’ve ever had.
Locksley said the NFL has had an impact on the varsity game in terms of finals and running backs. The coordinators love to exploit the match between the running back and the linebacker, and Harris excels in that.
Locksley said Najee has gone from being a pure runner to a man who now knows how to use levers, set routes and finish catches. I was very impressed with the way he matured at that stage of the game.
Plus, Harris became what Saban called a really good pass guard. That’s what the future head coach of the Hall of Fame said, without knowing it.
Which makes you think: What can’t Harris do?
Once he has proven that he can catch, block and offside defenders, there is nothing more to prove.
He’s already the best runner of all time in Alabama, and it’s time he was considered the best runner of all time in Alabama.
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