And time does not fly when a ballplayer isn’t having fun. Fortunately for Harris his waiting ends August 30 as the redshirt linebacker hits Scott Field. Not to mention hits anyone in a different jersey. With two entire seasons’ worth of pent-up energies to unleash at last, it’s possible some golden will get knocked off some unlucky Eagles.
Nothing personal, Harris says. “It’s just I finally get to live out my dream and go play SEC football.”
A dream delayed when Harris tore a knee ligament in, of all things, a preseason jamboree game in Hueytown, Ala. The man from McAdory High had no idea his career had just taken a serious turn for the worse. “My trainer told me to put some ice on it and I should be back at practice Monday. That didn’t work out too well!”
Everything since has gone a whole lot better for Harris, and for Mississippi State as well. If the injury cost his high school a season of service, at least Harris’ bad personal timing worked out well for the Bulldogs since it served for a rehabilitation year. And just to be on the safe side the 2013 true freshman season was spent redshirting as usual.
Except this isn’t a usual sort of linebacker suspect. Coach Geoff Collins was raving about the redshirt’s scout team prowess, as well as how Harris was gaining muscle without losing any speed or agility. With so much build-up of a raw rookie there was some natural spring camp curiosity about this kid.
Not by the spring game. Observers came away almost as impressed as Collins that this could be the next great young linebacker on the Bulldog roster. Harris is flattered. “But at the same time it’s been a learning process for me. Like coming from playing offense to playing defense has been a complete learning experience.”
Right, the transition. Harris earned his attention in high school as a linebacker but his real fun was running the offense. Literally running too, though he had some respectable passing numbers. All along he knew which side of the ball his college future pointed but those years calling counts and picking plays have paid off here.
“I just tend to know a few more quarterback tendencies and reads than most that didn’t play that much offense in high school,” Harris says. And hey, he is following in a fine set of footsteps here at Mississippi State. Benardrick McKinney was a capable prep play-caller in his own right and could have played the position at some programs. Now he terrorizes quarterbacks as an all-star middle ‘backer.
Or take wideout Jameon Lewis, another prep triggerman who moved in college. And that’s not all the former quarterbacks now thriving in better roles. Harris isn’t sure whether or not Coach Dan Mullen specifically looks for quarterbacks to move, but… “It’s just if you can play ball you can play ball,” he says.
“I just like football. As long as I’m on the field I’ll play whatever I have to play.” And where Harris is playing is one of the outside spots, coincidentally behind his fellow Alabamian Beniquez Brown. Since Collins’ plan is to rotate all his linebackers, not just individually but in complete trios, Harris knows he is getting primed to play on opening day.
Actually, “I felt like I was 100% towards the end of my senior year. I felt I could have played in the state championship game!” Regardless the waiting has paid off in unplanned ways and Harris always had the security of a safe redshirt season. “It helped me a lot. Coming into a new position, playing a new role on the team, I had to learn more. I already understood defense because I played quarterback in high school. I needed to learn more to be able to contribute to this team.”
“I wasn’t worried about it, I was concentrating on being a coach and a motivator for my team. If they would have seen me down they would have been down. I kept positive, motivating my team. And I planned on redshirting so I could get into the flow of the defense and learn plays and my roles.”
Based on spring ball, the advance billing from Collins was merited. Though, “I didn’t really read much of it!” Harris says. “I’ve always known he had good faith in me. It’s just reassuring he believes in me and knows what I can go out and do.”
“I just tried to do my best to go out and make plays and play through my teammates. I had a pretty positive mindset knowing we lost Deontae Skinner and needed somebody to come in and back up Beniquez. I planned on doing that and being a part of the best linebackers in the SEC.”
At an official 235 pounds on a 6-4 frame Harris certainly looks that part and is sure to add even more muscle as he matures. Even at 215 pounds upon arrival he might even have earned a rookie-year chance at some duties given his speed and skills. A special teams assignment this year seems near-certain. Not that Harris is assuming anything at this point.
”Be patient. The whole injury thing really humbled me because I was committed to play SEC football and it humbled me, brought me back down to show me that as easy as it comes it can be taken from you.”
Now to be clear, Harris says he was never a cocky kid before the injury. The humbling referred to is just the reality that playing careers are as fragile as a ligament. Or a choice of college and playing position and every other crossroads a ballplayer reaches. Harris has overcome the most serious setback possible already; and the other decisions seem to be working out well.
“It’s been different. I’ve been itching to get back out there, but at the same time be patient to let my injury fully heal and let my mind develop. How to play linebacker.” In that regard Harris has about the best coaching collection in the country. Not just Collins but the counsel and correction that comes from his player peers. McKinney has sort-of adopted the second-year frosh this year.
”On and off the field we always hang out, we watch film together at home. Benardrick is my roommate now and we always hang out and talk football.”
And just think, in another couple of weeks Harris can finally talk about having played football for-real again. Until then… “I’m just working on my techniques and learning how to play football on a high level.”