Free safety is one of the hardest positions to play on the football field. The very name of the position says it all. You must play free of everyone else, and be the last safety valve.
It takes a great player with extensive knowledge of the game to handle free safety. It is perhaps as important to the defense as quarterback is to the offense. You want a great athlete there, but someone who understands every thing that is happening on the field.
In short, the free safety is the great eraser of the defense. He enables the defense to keep a handle on the game. When you have a great one, the defense does not allow big plays. And, when you have the greatest of free safeties, they not only eliminate the other team's big plays, they create them for the defense.
It almost goes without saying that the Arkansas defense has ached for solid play at free safety over the past few years. It was a point of concern over the past several seasons.
It is far too early to suggest that anything has changed on that front through three spring drills. Arkansas has yet to hold its first major scrimmage of the Bobby Petrino era.
However, there is a new face at free safety, or an old one with a new body and enhanced athletic ability. Matt Harris could be in the process of emerging as the last line of the Arkansas defense.
Harris began to make his move last summer when he added about 10 to 12 pounds to his slender frame. He's still slender with 192 pounds on his 6-2 body. And, he added the needed speed to play in the SEC this past January, February and March under the work of a new strength and conditioning staff as hired and plugged in at Walker Pavilion by Petrino.
Harris, son of Dallas Cowboy Ring of Honor safety Cliff Harris, was the top defensive star at Saturday's UA practice, his second after moving to the front of the line on the depth chart at free safety.
"I'm really excited about Matt Harris," said Willy Robinson, UA defensive coordinator. "He's done really well the last couple of days.
"If he can keep adding to that, we just are going to be happy at free safety. He's making progress."
Robinson said he didn't want to pre-judge anyone, or go too much on tape or past history. He wanted to start this spring at ground zero in how he looked at players. But he knew that the history on Harris was that he made some plays with his ball skills, but wasn't as skilled as a tackler. He's turning things around in that area this spring.
"I think that Bobby (Petrino) talked to the team before spring and gave them a message about keeping your mental discipline and playing through doubt with courage," Robinson said. "It wasn't just meant for Matt and I think others got it, too. But I think if you look at Matt, you can tell that it was just perfect for where he was as a player.
"He is approaching each play and each practice with a focus and a maturity. He is playing through that doubt with courage. He's got a lot more to go. He's got to keep adding days to what he's done, but he's making a response to the message that Bobby delivered.
"I think if you are Matt Harris after today's workout, you have to feel good. He looked like he had a feel for what was happening and he made tackles. He got himself in position to make tackles and he didn't miss any. This wasn't a major scrimmage. He's still got to do it in major scrimmages over a long period of play on any given day, but he made a big step today."
Harris was smiling afterwards, but he wasn't claiming the position, either.
"Today was fun," he said. "When you get to work with the first team, you have to admit that it is fun. You come out to play the game to be on the first team and that is fun no matter how you want to deny it. There is a satisfaction in sitting number one.
"Now, having said that, I know that you have people trying to take it back and that you have to earn it every single day. We are just three days into spring. We really haven't done much yet. I know what the pace is going to be and I've got to keep pace every single day. There are not many practices in the spring. We'll be done in three weeks so there aren't many days to prove yourself. So each day is important."
Bobby Petrino said in a pre-spring interview that Harris was one of the bright spots in winter training. He said Harris proved himself in testing that he was one of the fastest and most athletic members of the secondary.
"I came in here light and had to gain some weight," Harris said. "Then, I had to get faster. The new strength staff helped me this winter improve my 40 time. I got faster and quicker. They helped me with technique. They helped me with my running form and showed me ways to get into a (running) position that made me more explosive.
"I have really improved my speed. That helps my confidence. If you know you are going to be able to turn and run with anyone in this league, then you are going to be more confident in your ability.
"Now, you know you can play, you have to find a way to compete each and every day. I think some of it is just maturity. I'm older and more mature."
The coaching staff has noticed all of that and has looked at Harris in other roles, too. He's competing with Reggie Fish for the job as holder on extra points and field goals. He's also catching punts.
"Hey, whatever I can do to help this team get in the championship game and win, that's what I want to do," he said, flashing a big smile. "I returned punts early in my high school days, but didn't do it as a senior. It's been a few years, but I'm glad to try it. Holding, I just want to do what I'm asked to do. I want to help anyway I can overall."
If Matt Harris can keep everything in front of him on defense, that will be a big help. He did that Saturday.
Harris Makes a Move
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