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
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
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
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.
Baptism By Fire Prepared Harris
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