Getting high on Harris

During his pro baptism last season as one of the youngest players to start a game in 49ers history, Kwame Harris learned the finer details of playing left tackle in the NFL. "A lot of money is put into those right defensive ends to get to the quarterback," Harris said. "There definitely is a difference between the run stoppers and those missiles coming off the edge, the sack specialists." It's Harris job now to stymie those specialists, and both he and the 49ers say he's ready for the challenge.

Harris returned from an eventful offseason to impress the Niners during spring drills and leave them confident he is ready to replace veteran Derrick Deese as the starter at one of the game's most important and consequential positions.

It's a tough act to follow. Protecting the blind side of San Francisco's right-handed quarterbacks, Deese – according to team statistics – completed his 49ers career by going 33 consecutive games without allowing a sack before he left the team to sign with Tampa Bay in the offseason.

Harris, meanwhile, occasionally struggled in pass protection when he was thrown into the starting lineup last year after Deese was injured in San Francisco's season opener. Harris was forced to start a key game the next week in St. Louis, becoming the first rookie to start at left tackle for the 49ers since 1953. At 21 years, five months and 29 days, he was third-youngest starter at any position in San Francisco history.

Harris held his own and was strong in run blocking, but he was beaten for several sacks in the five games he started in Deese's place. The athletic 6-foot-7, 310-pounder realizes that is the primary area he must focus on this year to get better, and he spent two weeks earlier this spring in Los Angeles picking up some pointers from Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater, who played 20 season with the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams.

That was after Harris had surgery in January to repair a dislocated right shoulder, an injury Harris unknowingly played with throughout his rookie season last year. He lost about 20 pounds after the operation, but had his weight back up to 305 by May and hopes to play at 315 pounds this season.

The 49ers have been both pleased and impressed by Harris' commitment and development.

"If you watch him now in one-on-one pass rush compared with in training camp a year ago, it's unbelievable improvement technique-wise," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "His technique is a lot cleaner, a lot better. We all forget he never played on the left side (before last year)."

Said running back Kevan Barlow: "When he got his act together (last year), he was pretty good. I love running behind that guy. No question about it. I mean, look at him. He's a stud. Six-foot-7, 310 pounds and he moves like he's a defensive back. Yeah, I love to run behind that dude."

Said right tackle Scott Gragg: "Kwame has made some vast improvements. He's a great player with a great work ethic who was a raw guy last year, but now he's done some things that have really helped him out. Watching him (this spring), he looks great. And it's neat to see that. It's going to be a lot better for him this year because there's no question of where he fits in. He's our starter, he's got to play, and he's got to do well."

Said Andre Carter, the Niners' sack specialist at right defensive end who goes up daily against Harris in practice: "This guy's going to be good. He's ready to step in. He got stronger and his feet are definitely faster. I put all of my faith and trust in him to protect that blind side."

Harris is eager for the formidable challenge that awaits him in 2004, and it all begins with the start of training camp on July 30. He understands the responsibility of that challenge, and he also understands the opportunity.

"And I really feel like I have to earn it," he said, "because it sort of just fell in my lap right now and I really want to go out there and show this team, my teammates and this organization that I belong there. I'm proud to go out there and work on that, keeping myself accountable for every snap. But I guess it's up to me now not to let them down. And, more importantly, not to let myself down."

The way it appears entering summer drills, the only way Harris is going is up.

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