Where Najee Harris can rank among Alabama's running back greats
The inevitable part of championship-level college football programs means that, right as the calendar turns to a new year, the next level comes calling.
Millions await in the National Football League for several players at places like Alabama, and players — along with their families and close confidants — have to make the difficult decision whether to make the jump early or stick around for one more year as a collegian. It’s just what comes with excellence, the tug-of-war between generational wealth and the chance to win just 1 more title.
Several Crimson Tide players faced that difficult decision earlier this month. Some, like Tua Tagovailoa and Jerry Jeudy, received more than enough 1st-round guarantees that staying in Tuscaloosa would simply cost money. No amount of prayerful counter-opinions/ramblings from keyboard jockeys could alter that reality.
But as is the case every year, there is a player or 2 that find themselves on the proverbial fence. They could go pro and earn a tidy living, no doubt. Might not be a 1st rounder. Might slip to the 3rd round, where the money — while still insane — isn’t in the couture suits and blinged-out watches realm that comes with bro-hugging the commish on stage during the NFL Draft’s opening night.
Najee Harris found himself in that spot after his junior season at Alabama. And while he indeed is destined to make a tidy living toting The Duke on Sundays, Harris opted for a senior season at Alabama.
That decision leads to this question: How good can Najee Harris become in the pantheon of great Crimson Tide running backs?
The short answer … pretty darn good.
With all the (deserved) attention shone on Tagovailoa and Alabama’s stellar wide receivers, it was almost an afterthought that Harris rushed for 1,224 yards — that landed him just outside the Top 10 single-season rushing performances of all time for Alabama running backs.
Think about that. Harris, who entered the 2019 season sharing time in the backfield with fellow junior Brian Robinson Jr. (96 carries, 441 yards), almost cracked the Top 10 in Alabama history as perhaps the 6th-best offensive option at any given time.
Harris finished 25th in the nation in rushing on 209 carries and scored 13 touchdowns. The touchdowns were tied for 21st, the 5.86 yards per carry were 30th and the 94.2 yards per game were 33rd. Harris was Alabama’s most consistent offensive playmaker in 2019. He led the team in explosive plays (carries of 13-plus yards and receptions 17-plus), and had a 1st down or touchdown on 85 of his touches.
Even more impressive is that Harris piled up those 1,224 yards mainly against really good teams. He rushed for 146 yards against LSU and Auburn in what became shootout losses. And he rushed for 136 yards against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, shoving the ball down the Wolverines throats with 2 touchdowns.
These performances against LSU, Auburn and Michigan cemented Harris as a potential early departure for the NFL. And while Jeudy and Tagovailoa announced their intentions relatively early in the process, Harris waited and mulled his decision before finally green-lighting the decision to be made public.
“If he really felt comfortable with the grades that he got, I think he would have made that jump (to the NFL),” said Marcus Malu, Harris’ close friend and personal trainer, who confirmed the news via an Instagram post.
In determining whether to stay or go, Harris found himself swimming in a deep pool of potential NFL running backs — not quite getting a 1st-round grade as part of a group of RBs led by Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State, Jonathan Taylor from Wisconsin and Cam Akers from Florida State.
“It’s all based on how guys get ranked and rated from NFL teams and I give the players the information,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said during Senior Bowl week in Mobile. “Where he was spotted relative (to the other running backs going into the draft), it’s a very heavy year for running backs. He made the decision to come back and we’re happy to have him back.”
Harris has been quiet since the decision became public, but Malu offered another explanation why Harris is coming back to Tuscaloosa for his senior season.
“Coming back, I think it’s more school — he really does want that degree — and then another part of it is I think there’s unfinished business,” Malu told AL.com. “And I think there’s some questions that he wants to answer for everybody. And I think he’s going to prove a lot of people either wrong or right.”
With 4 returning offensive linemen, Alabama’s running game has the potential to be the most challenging in the SEC, if not all of college football. Only right tackle Jedrick Wills departs, and left tackle Alex Leatherwood joined Harris in opting to return for his senior season. Right guard Deonte Brown, center Landon Dickerson and and left guard Evan Neal — who is likely to move to right tackle — also return to give Harris a tremendously experienced group to run behind.
How good can Harris be in 2020? It is possible that he can join the pantheon of 1,500-yard RBs in Tide history — 2 of which won the Heisman Trophy (Derrick Henry with 2,219 yards in 2015 and Mark Ingram with 1,658 yards in 2009) and 1 who just missed (Trent Richardson with 1,679 yards in 2011).
That isn’t to say that Harris will be a Heisman Trophy contender, at least not to begin the season. The early money actually is more on quarterback Mac Jones than his talented running back.
But make no mistake: Harris will be a workhorse in his senior season for Alabama. Unfinished business and all …