In his third and possibly final season at Alabama, Najee Harris should have everything he wants
I can’t help but think that Najee Harris is chomping at the bit to get 2019 started. Everything is working in his favor.
Gone are the likes of Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs, both of whom got more carries last season than the former 5-star recruit. The 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship performance that was supposed to serve as the kickstart for Harris’ promising career didn’t turn out to be that. Instead, Jacobs emerged into a first-round prospect and Harris, while productive (a team-high 6.7 yards per carry), was a rotational guy in Alabama’s loaded backfield.
In the final 8 games of the 2018 season, the sophomore never hit double-digit carries in a game. That was after he led Alabama in carries in each of the first 5 games.
Nick Saban told Harris that he was saving wear and tear on his body by keeping his workload limited in his first 2 years (Harris has yet to carry the ball more than 13 times in a game). When Harris was asked about that philosophy after Alabama’s national championship drubbing to Clemson — he had 9 carries — he didn’t hold back on his desire to get more touches.
“That’s what people say,” Harris said via the San Francisco Chronicle. “It might be right, but at the same time I feel like not everybody’s the same. The way I train my body for certain stuff, to take hits … I understand why people are saying that, but I guess we have two different ways of thinking.
“I know what comes with this position and I know what happens if I get a lot of carries at an early age. My future (later in life) could be barely walking. But not everybody’s the same. There are a lot of examples of people walking now and doing good, and they had a lot of carries when they were my age.
“Again, it’s nothing I can control. But if it was me, I’d carry 20 times a game.”
Never fear, Najee. The work — and the massive production — is here.
With Alabama’s upperclassmen running backs off to the NFL, 170 carries are available out of the Alabama backfield. Granted, some of those will go to incoming 5-star freshman Trey Sanders, who already said he’s planning on winning the Heisman in his first year in Tuscaloosa.
I picture Harris rolling his eyes at that, not because doesn’t believe in Sanders’ ability, but because he knows how hard it is just to become the lead back at Alabama, much less the best player in America. It wasn’t that long ago that Harris was the 5-star recruit with aspirations of taking the college football world by storm.
Now, though, is the right time for him do that.
Besides the obvious factor of him now being the trusty veteran in the running back room, there are a couple other major things working in Harris’ favor.
For starters, nobody in America returns a better, more dangerous passing game than Alabama. Obviously Tua Tagovailoa is a preseason Heisman favorite — his odds are just a touch better than Sanders’ — and the Crimson Tide receivers are as good as any. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Alabama is the only team in the country that returns 4 receivers who:
- A) Had at least 40 catches
- B) Had at least 690 receiving yards
- C) Had at least 6 touchdowns
Goodness, there are teams in the SEC who don’t have one receiver returning who hit all of those marks last year.
Harris, so far, hasn’t been much of a factor in the passing game. Call it a mix of Jacobs’ emergence as a pass-catcher and Damien Harris’ pass-blocking abilities. But even if Najee Harris doesn’t become a factor in the passing game, that group will benefit him. A ton. Stopping Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle and the rest of the Alabama passing game will be priority No. 1 for any defensive coordinator.
Why hello, massive holes for Harris to run through.
Every running back with a pulse would sign up for the opportunity to play in an offense that can stretch the field like Alabama’s. The 6.7 yards per carry that Harris posted in 2018 should — dare I say — increase?
There’s something else that will work on Harris’ side that might be overlooked nationally. It’s the addition of Charles Huff. Who’s Huff, you ask? Go ask Saquon Barkley, the guy who Huff developed when he was the running backs coach at Penn State. The new Alabama running backs coach knows a thing or two about maximizing special talents.
While Harris’ career hasn’t taken off yet, all signs still point to him being just that. The explosiveness that he runs with at his size has shades of Adrian Peterson to it. It was actually another former Oklahoma back, Joe Mixon, that Harris’ style was compared to as the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2017 class.
Mixon, a fellow 5-star U.S. Army All-American out of California, didn’t emerge until his third year at a big-time program. Perhaps the same will be true of Harris.
As Alabama’s spring camp opens Friday, you’ll likely hear way more about Harris than from Harris. He won’t be a team spokesperson like Damien Harris was. In his first couple years at Alabama, it might’ve been easier for Najee Harris to avoid the spotlight. Those days are gone now.
Harris’ third chapter is here, and nobody will be surprised when he jumps off the page.