Najee Harris making case to rank among Alabama's all-time great backs
When Najee Harris planted his left foot and cut back behind a pancake block from Alabama left guard Deonte Brown en route to a 2-yard, lead-extending touchdown Saturday, Brad Lester just sat back in Atlanta and smiled.
“I was like, ‘We worked on that all summer,'” the former Auburn running back, with whom Harris spent the offseason honing his craft, told Saturday Down South. “It’s just awesome watching everything coming together for him.”
Harris’ evolution into a Heisman candidate has been swift, decisive and punishing — kind of like how the 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior runs between the tackles. After the Crimson Tide’s emotional, 41-24 win over Georgia in a 2-vs.-3 affair, Harris has carried the ball 83 times for 499 yards and an FBS-best 11 touchdowns.
His 31 carries against the top defense in the land were his most since high school, Harris said. A week prior, he became just the third Bama running back to run for 5 touchdowns in a game as the Tide outlasted Ole Miss.
That’s 358 yards and 6 touchdowns in the past two weeks. The last Alabama back to have a two-week span like that? Derrick Henry, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner.
A hallmark of Alabama’s five national championship teams since 2009 has been otherworldly tailback play. Harris now needs 715 yards in the Crimson Tide’s final six-plus games to catch Henry as the program’s all-time leading rusher.
And the guy who helped him work on his cutbacks, bursts of speed and reading of defenses all summer isn’t at all surprised.
Lester, who toted the ball for Auburn from 2004-08, met Harris after Alabama’s Iron Bowl loss last year. Their relationship became even more important when COVID-19 sideswiped spring football and forced Power 5 players to work out on their own until July.
Harris did it primarily with Lester, bouncing between Tuscaloosa and Atlanta for workouts. Highlights from their sessions together are chronicled on Harris’ branded YouTube channel.
Lester said there were some “rough conversations” about whether Harris should turn pro following a junior season in which he compiled more than 1,200 yards and certainly would’ve garnered NFL Draft consideration.
“I told him to just get the right info and not rush into any decision,” said Lester, who also trains Auburn back Tank Bigsby during the offseason. “I told him to think about it, pray about it and even talk to Coach (Nick) Saban.”
Harris ultimately decided he had more to give at the collegiate level. Last week, he was asked how the threat of injury played into his decision and became a bit indignant.
“Whoa, knock on wood on that one, dude,” Harris said. “You can’t ask a player about injuries, man; come on now. This is a rough game. I don’t want to answer that question. I don’t want to talk about injuries. That can happen any day, any play. You can’t think about that type of stuff, especially being an active athlete. You know that injuries aren’t rare.”
What’s rare is Harris’ talent. And it appears his choice to show it off as a senior is paying off.
It has also allowed him to build his personal brand and make an impact in the local community.
Never was that more apparent than when he met local fan Braxton Weidman, an 8-year-old from Birmingham who was diagnosed with a brain tumor last month. Weidman’s relationship with Harris and a subsequent phone call from Saban to the youngster were featured on ESPN College GameDay on Saturday.
“Are you gonna run Najee?” Weidman asked Saban before No. 22 went for 206 yards against Ole Miss.
“To see what he’s going through, all of us as a team and a university is rooting for him and cheering for him and hoping he can actually make it to a game,” Harris said. “It just really motivates me and us to know that we can play a part in these kids’ lives, and our platform is bigger I guess than just football.”
It’s a window into the Najee Harris fans don’t always see on camera — a kid who grew up in a broken home and bounced around the West Coast before football brought him to the Deep South.
“He’s actually a really, really funny guy,” Lester said. “Super humble guy, too. You would never know somebody of his status could be that humble.”
From Mac Jones and Alabama’s superb passing game to an offensive line that Harris believes deserves more credit, he definitely has help.
“I feel like we have the best O-line in the country,” Harris said Monday.
But he gives offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s unit the balance it needs if it hopes to run the table in the SEC and contend with Clemson, Ohio State and others for another national crown.
The next test is Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT at Tennessee.
“This offense is designed to strike fear in opponents,” Harris said. “It’s not just one player. It’s going to be multiple players making plays.
“We try to be as explosive as possible. We try to be an offense where we can’t be matched, really.”