Baptism By Fire Prepared Harris

Most people expected Chris Harris to spend 2007 on the Memorial Stadium sidelines. He'd play a little bit, sure, but start? No way.

After all, KU had Butler County Community College transfer Kendrick Harper, who led the Grizzlies with six interceptions and nine break-ups in 2006. He was game-tested and ready to play in the Big 12. Meanwhile, Chris Harris was a 6-0, 180-pound true freshman from Bixby, OK, who'd never played a down of college football.

“I'll be honest: going into camp, I really didn't think Chris Harris would figure in,” KU defensive co-coordinator Clint Bowen said Tuesday at KU football media day.

On the first day of fall practice, though, Harper had to figure in. He had no choice.

Bowen recalls, “Kendrick got hurt, which forced us to throw Harris in right away.” If Harper had to get hurt, though, “right away” was probably the best time.

“Had Kendrick gotten hurt later and Chris had missed all those reps during camp, it might not have worked out the way it did,” Bowen explained. “The timing of Kendrick's injury allowed us to get Chris all the work.”

Of course, Harris' explanation is a bit simpler: “About this same time last year, after Kendrick (Harper) got hurt, I just broke my way into the starting lineup.”

Maybe the chain of events wasn't quite that simple, but Harris managed to make the game look pretty simple from his first snap. In fact, that was when he knew he belonged in the Big 12.

“The first play of the first game, against Central Michigan, I made the tackle,” Harris remembered, smiling. “I was real nervous, but that play took all the butterflies away.”

Harper made his return in game five against Kansas State, but Harris never did return to the bench. When all was said and done, he started 10 games – the first seven and the last three – for the 12-1 Jayhawks. He made 65 tackles (6th best on the team), picked off two passes (including one in the Orange Bowl) and had consecutive double-digit tackle games (11 against Iowa State and 13 against Missouri) along the way.

Harris' play earned him Freshman All-American Honorable Mention and all-Big 12 Freshman Team honors from The Sporting News; Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year from the Associated Press; and KU Defensive Player of the Week twice (vs. Baylor and Iowa State). It's also earned him multiple preseason mentions as the Big 12's best cover corner.

This year, Harris aims to earn a leadership role among his teammates, and he said he and his secondary mates feel like they have a lot to prove with the departure of Aqib Talib for the NFL.

“I feel I can come out and bring it to the table this year, and everybody in the secondary feels like that. We've been working hard together. We've got a lot to prove, so we're trying to watch film together, making sure we gel together. That's what we've done a lot more this year than we did last year.”

Harris isn't quite sure, though, why prognosticators think that the Jayhawk defensive backfield has so much to prove.

“Minus two players, we're the same defense,” he said, matter-of-factly. Harris, like his teammates, has gained a lot of confidence from playing a key part of KU's best football season in school history.

Jayhawks head coach Mark Mangino says he expects solid play again this season from his sophomore cornerback. Harris trained very hard in the off-season, and in Kansas’ first four fall practices, Mangino said, he's picked up where he left off and then some.

“He can see the advantages of playing last year, getting a lot of playing time,” Mangino said. “He's really seeing things quicker and processing things quicker. He's stronger than he was a year ago. We really like what we see so far of him.”

Harris agrees: it’s a different game from a year ago.

“From this time last year to now, it's totally opposite. I was nervous, just battling everyday. It was very difficult last year. This year, the game has just slowed down a lot, and that's helped a lot,” he said.

Along with hard work, though, Bowen says Harris has an intangible that has accelerated his development and may pay big dividends as KU sets out to make consecutive bowl trips for the first time in school history.

“The biggest thing is, he has football 'instincts' or whatever word you want to use. Some kids have it and some kids can't ever figure it out. The game just comes natural to him. He just has a feel for it and an understanding.”

The same football savvy that turned Harris' potentially-disastrous rookie season into a memorable Big 12 debut is the same kind of smarts that have exemplified Mark Mangino's teams at Kansas.

If last season was any indication, that same quality is going to make it tough to bet against Chris Harris for the next three seasons, regardless of who he lines up against.

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