So. A great quarter, a good game, and a big evening for this Bulldog, right? Upon further review Harris…still mixes his emotions. “My own play? We didn’t get the W.”
It’s true Mississippi State left Baton Rouge with a three-point L. Then again the margin of Dog defeat could have and likely would have been much, much worse if not for Harris.
The backup middle linebacker came up big in not just stopping Tiger star Leonard Fournette on a 4th-and-short run, holding him up short of the marker. He forced the ball free in the process. That in itself was a feat to cheer, even if Harris treated it as business-as-usual.
“I guess he just ran my way!” he said. “It was only one blocker on me, we were in a goal line set. He just ran my way and I made a play.” A major-league play at that, with review showing the stop and fumble were a foot shy. Not that Harris could recover this one. “I was under somebody so I couldn’t get up to get it!”
After Mississippi State converted the turnover into touchdown, again Harris rose to occasion by chasing down the bumped-left kickoff. “It was really a great play by Justin (Johnson) keeping it in bounds. It just bounced right in front of me.”
Luck wasn’t involved with most of Harris’ work at Tiger Stadium. He might have set some sort of ‘record’ by forcing not one but two fumbles by the great Fournette. The other came in the third quarter as Harris stripped him after a move-the-chains gain. Still it was that fourth-quarter stop-and-strip which garnered Harris most attention.
“So I guess it was a good play…but it still would have been better to get the win out of it.”
Fair enough. At the same time Harris is a winner just for playing this junior season. His injury history, of three knee surgeries on two ACLs in high school and at Mississippi State is well-recounted. Before that first college setback, as a second-year freshman in 2014, Harris was touted as a rising star of the linebacker corps. His work on the ’13 scout team drew raves from position coach and teammates alike.
Now the potential is becoming production. Sure, just being healthy is an obvious difference.
Otherwise, “I mean, nothing really. I’m still making the same preparation, getting ready the same way, practicing hard every day. So it’s nothing really different. This year I just had an opportunity, and I seized it.”
For perspective, those five tackles at LSU…are half of Harris’ entire total ten in 2014. He had nine stops in seven ’15 games before the most recent injury. His opportunity last Saturday was partly due to starter Richie Brown having to take a series off after a pileup.
Once in, Harris showed this was a matchup he could handle. As coordinator Peter Sirmon noted, it was a more physical (re: run-oriented) game and this suited Harris’ style and strength. So even when Brown returned quickly, Harris was used as the other middle-linebacker.
“I guess it’s just working hard at practice and going hard at practice, understanding my role for the most part.” A role that is different, by the way. Up to this year Harris was an outside ‘backer and most often on the weak side. Getting health (yet again) and moving roles in spring wasn’t exactly easy.
“It was rough at first. But at the same time it’s still playing football, just on a different side. I’m playing a totally different side of football form high school.”
Harris is also playing with a free mind. After having seasons ended with torn-up knees (right ACL in high school, left ACL twice here) it would be too easy to play tentative, to not risk going down again. Harris doesn’t attack things this way.
“I try not to think about it. I had tremendous faith and trust in the doctor that operated on me. So I don’t really think about my knee any more. I put the brace on but if it’s not sore I don’t even wear the brace.”
That, is confidence. And this, is a Bulldog earning an ever-larger role within the defensive rotations. This weekend’s matchup with UMass will likely emphasize speed—and thus coverage—over strength. Still Harris says he has regained his old agility and is just as fast as ever.
And of course there are more SEC bruising battles ahead. Harris will be happy to muscle his way through those brawls as well. He just wants a better-looking scoreboard at the end, whatever his big plays and statistics.
“I mean it’s always fulfilling. You make a play doing what you love to do. But like I said it’s still a whole lot better and sweeter to have a W at the end of it.”