And quite a celebration it was for young Mr. Harris. Not only did he finally step onto a college football field for the first varsity experience; he was playing live-game football for the first time in two entire years. And just to make Harris’ story that much more special…it was in a brand-new Bulldog identity, on defense.
No wonder then, “Oh, it felt great. It was a nice experience, I loved it.”
As well he ought have. Just the same as should Mississippi State fans who’ve heard glowing forecasts for the redshirt linebacker since last fall, when as a true freshman Harris stood out for scout-team performances. Because it wasn’t just his position coach but the overall defensive coordinator singing the praises, people paid attention.
Now Coach Geoff Collins practically beams his pleasure discussing how Harris performed for-real. After, the coordinator agrees, a slightly slow first step on the big stage.
“The first series you can see he’s kind of tentative because he’d never played defense in a game, in his entire life! So he’s a little apprehensive. And Beniquez (Brown) is like hey Dez, just cut it loose. That second time you see it get a little more comfortable.”
Harris came out of his varsity initiation with four tackles, two each solos and assists. Not huge statistics but then no Bulldog defender piled up big numbers. A total 29 participants were credited some sort of stop in the 49-0 romp over Southern Mississippi.
Still getting out there, getting up to physical speed first and then the mental part, and simply making contact with a strange uniform was enough to make Harris happy. “A couple of plays, two or three plays and I felt like I was at home again.”
Which is an odd statement for those who know Harris’ history. As Coach Collins reminded, Harris came to college with a resume built on the offensive side of his McAdory High team. A quarterback, no less…though it also needs noting that even unofficial scouts forecasted the kid would ultimately become a linebacker wherever he signed. So the change-over was no surprise.
The twist was how Harris missed his whole senior season after tearing a knee ligament in an August jamboree. This might have unintentionally kept Harris’ recruiting profile a little lower, but Coach Dan Mullen’s program never wavered with the offer. And if a kid had to get hurt, using a high school year to rehab was to Harris’ long-term benefit. He got to show off as a scout team tackler, then earn his place as with the 1B Dog defense in spring.
Now here he is, healthy and happy with an entirely new football identity as a defender. Harris claims there were no game-day nerves. The days before game-day? That’s another matter!
“I talked to my momma the day before the game and she helped calm my nerves, just to chill out. So it wasn’t really nervous going into the game.” Nor was he antsy about taking the first live hit, since he’d had a whole redshirt year to shake off any rehabilitation rust. That inaugural lick came on kickoff coverage, since Harris is an absolute natural for State special teams.
“Being redshirted last year taught me that I’m supposed to take pride in being on special teams, doing my job and playing my position I do what I have to do for my team.”
How well did Harris handle his kick-cover duty? Just ask Collins. It was on one of Mississippi State’s many kickoffs—by scoring seven touchdowns the cover squads got lots of live practice!—when Collins noticed the husky Harris running stride-for-stride with safety Justin Cox. “A really fast human being, and Dez Harris is right there with him, I think they’re 1 and 2 going down the field.”
A key to Bulldog defensive success this season is that the staff doesn’t treat units as 1 and 2. It’s 1A and 1B they have proclaimed since spring and the opener proved it. So Harris knew he was going to get in the opening game not just for occasional backup or mop-up situations; he would play for real in a competitive game. This, Harris said, helped keep the preseason and game-week focus sharp.
Now he has live video to review and figure out what he did well…and what not well enough.
“Of course, nobody is perfect. Being my first game of course I’m going to have places where I can get better. But I’m still going to come in and work harder every day and get better at what I can get better at.” “Pursuing and tackling. And you can never get too good at pursuing and tackling.”
Week-two opponent UAB might not be the same sort of pursuit challenge as in the opener. The Blazers look this year like an offense that comes right at the defense. Harris is suitably impressed after scouting up the opponent.
“They look like a well-coached team. They look like they can run the ball. We just have to maintain focus on us and fitting our gaps right, and we’ll stall them pretty good.” So, Dezmond, you want to play somebody who will test the muscle as much as the mind this time? “Of course! I love the challenge!”
Said well by a still-young man who since coming to college has packed on twenty-plus pounds and still looks just a little slim at an honest 6-4. Without, mind, adding anything to his dash time. No wonder Collins can’t wait to develop his prize redshirt linebacker further.
“He’s got the ability, he’s got the size, he’s got the speed. He just needs to play more football and the sky is the limit for the kid.”