Leadership Role Fits Steven Harris Perfectly

Steven Harris always wanted to be a leader but considering he'd been in trouble off the field in the past, he never thought anyone would want to follow him. All that changed when Urban Meyer became Florida's head coach. Challenged to step forward and assume a position of leadership, Harris saw a chance to become the player and person he always envisioned himself to be.

When Harris arrived in Gainesville, he was a lean 218 pounds and considered a player too small to be a defensive end and not quite fast enough to play linebacker. This is his fourth year at the Uinversity of Florida and he's built himself up to a toned, muscular 285. The lightweight defensive end who was an afterthought in the recruiting class of 2002 is now starting at defensive tackle next to Marcus Thomas on what could be one of the best defensive lines in the Southeastern Conference.

The move to the inside coupled with assuming a leadership role has changed Harris. He speaks and plays with tremendous confidence. He shares what he's learned with younger players and he tries to live an exemplary life off the field because he knows that others are watching.

"It's a really good feeling to be a leader," said Harris after Thursday afternoon's practice. "I always wanted to be the kind of guy who leads people in the right way but with the things that happened in the past, it was kind of hard."

An off the field incident, one of many that took place in the previous three years prior to the arrival of Urban Meyer, tainted Harris's image. He became a statistic on a police blotter which led to the perception that he was a bad guy with a nose for trouble.

It isn't so much that he had a nose for trouble as much as he had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A couple of things changed when Urban Meyer came to Gainesville, though. Meyer wiped the slate clean on every player, offering a new opportunity to those who were willing to follow his live your life right off the field doctrine. Then there was Meyer's appeal to all the players who had been in the program three or four years. Meyer called for these guys to take charge of the team, to become true leaders.

Harris welcomed the clean slate and thought "why not?" when it came to being a leader. Leading meant changing some old habits but he found that wasn't such a difficult challenge.

"I learned to stay out of some places," he said. "I had to make sure that I stay out of the wrong place and to be in the right place. I've learned a lot of lessons since I've been here and now I've got a chance to try to keep other guys from doing the stuff I did."

In the days when Harris and trouble spots were synonymous, it was all about the choices he made. He admits he made a lot of bad ones in part because he was always a follower, never a leader. He was never an instigator of trouble but he did have a habit of showing up at the wrong places with the wrong people.

"I was a follower then, but not now," said Harris. "Being a leader way better than being a follower."

Taking a leadership role hasn't been a move he's made without a little bit of help along the way. Harris has found his mentor in co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who also serves as the defensive line coach. Mattison is a hands on instructor whether it's coaching the defensive line or offering tips about living life right off the field.

Mattison leads and the band of brothers he coaches on the defensive line are enthusiastic pupils. The on the field relationship is so strong that Harris says "we'd do anything for Coach Mattison." Off the field, Mattison is heavily involved in every aspect of his players' lives to the point they know they have a home away from home at his home. At first the lure of Mattison's home was the food --- "always great" says Harris --- but it's grown to the point that Harris says "best of all, we get to hang with Coach Mattison.

"I can't say enough about Coach Mattison. Coach Mattison is definitely the real deal. He brings technique and coaching that we haven't had here in a long time. I really haven't ever had a real coach until now. Coach Mattison is my coach, he's my friend … he's a guy who I can say I admire the way he coaches and lives life."

Mattison had a real hand in the turnaround that is Steven Harris. It started with wiping the slate clean and then challenging Harris on the football field to be all that he can be.

"All these kids came to the University of Florida to get a great education and to play big time football," said Mattison. "As long as they keep doing that --- working hard in the classroom, working hard to be better football players, living their lives the right way off the field --- then it's our job to give them the opportunity to be successful. Whatever happened in the past happened in the past.

"Steven Harris is a kid who is taking advantage of his opportunity. He's a kid I really like as a person and as a football player. I think he can have a great year."

Harris, who is just a shade under 6-5, came to Florida from Coral Gables where he was considered a speed rusher who might someday bulk up to somewhere around 260 so he could contribute on the defensive line.

"Here's a guy who came in here at 212 or so and now he's got himself up to 280 something pounds," said Mattison. "Kids don't come in and play great at 212 on the defensive line. He's got a chance to be an outstanding player now."

When Harris got to 260, considered ideal size for a speed rushing defensive end, he kept working in the weight room. He played at close to 270 last year, mostly at defensive end but occasionally taking some reps on the inside. In the offseason, Florida's first under Urban Meyer, he proved to be a weight room warrior and a real tough guy in the February mat drills. He put on more weight and entered the spring with the body of an inside lineman.

"Never in a million years did I think I'd weigh 285," said Harris, who says the weight gain is the result of "a whole lotta weight lifting and a lot of eating."

In the spring he saw some time on the outside, but Mattison felt he was a natural on the inside and as the spring drills concluded, Harris was considered more of a tackle than an end. A couple of days into August practice, Harris was part of a two-player switch. Harris was moved permanently to the inside beside Thomas, and Ray McDonald, a starter at tackle the last two years, was moved outside. The switch has given Florida its best looking defensive line in quite some time.

Harris likes the move because playing inside is a much more physical game. Playing on the outside meant he had to rely his feet more than anything else. At tackle, he's a hand fighter and that's the appeal of the position.

"You can make a lot of plays at three (tackle)," said Harris. "On end, if the ball doesn't come to your side much you don't have much chance to be in on a play but at three technique, you got a chance on every play.

"A lot of people on the inside are moving around once the ball is snapped and there's a lot of hand fighting. It's really physical in there and I like it. My hands were busted up all spring and summer. That's the toughest part of it, having sore hands all the time but that's the way it's got to be because you gotta use them if you're going to be successful."

With a new outlook on life and a new position, Harris is ready to do whatever he can to make the Gators successful this fall.

"So much has changed since last year," he said. "Attitudes are different. Players are different. Everbody's hungry. Everybody wants to win. I'm ready to do my part."

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