Harris showing his stuff in Niners' secondary

Walt Harris is back in the NFL limelight, sending a message to those suggesting his career is in its twilight. "I still can play in this league," Harris told SFI. "I have a lot left and I really want to show that." The 49ers have given the 11th-year veteran that opportunity, and Harris has been a godsend to their secondary so far during what even Harris says is the best start of his career.

Harris has been showing he still can play since the moment he joined the 49ers in March, but the rest of league has taken notice during his standout play through two September games, when Harris has helped solidify the league's worst secondary of 2005 with strong all-around performance at right cornerback.

Harris' experienced leadership, playmaking ability and smooth reactions in coverage have been missing links to the improvement San Francisco has been looking for on that unit since Mike Nolan and Co. arrived to run the operation early last year.

"I can't tell you how happy we are with him," defensive coordinator Billy Davis gushed. "He's been a great addition to us. Walt knows his business and brings a professionalism, a worth ethic and a love of the game. He's played a long time, and I think he still approaches it like a young, hungry player who's in his first couple of years out."

Harris certainly is playing that way, continuing to perform like a veteran who has found the fountain of youth since signing a two-year deal with the 49ers in March.

The Niners immediately placed Harris in their starting lineup opposite Shawntae Spencer, their rising young starter at left cornerback, but several observers felt he might just be keeping it warm for someone else.

That has not been the case.

During last week's 20-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams, Harris led the 49ers with seven tackles and made several outstanding plays in coverage.

He knocked away three passes - including a deep bomb to Torry Holt early in the fourth quarter - as the 49ers limited an explosive St. Louis offense to just 147 net yards passing. Harris also showed he still has plenty of pop left in his pads when he leveled Joe Klopfenstein on a completion down the left side that had the rookie tight end shaking out the ringing in his ears as he picked himself up slowly off the turf.

Harris was just as busy in his San Francisco debut the week before at Arizona, recording six tackles, knocking away two passes and recording just the second sack of his career. On that play, Harris hit quarterback Kurt Warner on a blitz, stripped the ball, and then recovered the fumble deep in Arizona territory to set up a San Francisco touchdown.

Harris says he has been given the freedom to make those kind of plays by the way he's being used within San Francisco's defensive structure.

"I'm being used a lot better here than I have been in the past, and I love it," Harris said. "It's not so much of being robotic out there. Sometimes you get in certain organizations and they want you to look a certain way, everything has to be a certain way, and that kind of puts you in a box. I think the coaches here are smart and they want to maximize a guy's potential. They're allowing me to play into the game and giving me a little more room to be who I am. That has really helped me here a whole lot.

"I like that responsibility. When they give me a lot of responsibility, that's showing me that they trust me. I like being a factor, and when coach says you can be a factor, that means a lot to me. I take that to heart when a coach and organization shows that they trust me. I definitely don't want to disappoint them. That just brings it that much more of me trying to make sure I perform up to my ability."

After starting 127 of 147 career games the past 10 seasons with the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins, the latter team apparently no longer felt Harris could handle that kind of responsibility as a starting corner, even though Harris made 12 starts in Washington last season.

The Redskins released him in early March, and Harris was signed by the 49ers five days later. He has become a fixture in San Francisco's lineup ever since and has been one of the top defensive performers on a unit that appears on the upswing during the 49ers' 1-1 start.

"It kind of upset me a little bit when that is put on you, when people all of a sudden put a certain tag on you," Harris said of the whispers that followed him when he left Washington - the ones that said he no longer was quality starting material at age 32. "I definitely didn't believe that. I didn't want to believe it. I tried to do everything I could to convince that I'm not. I really wanted to show that I'm not just a third-down corner now, that I can still play in this league."

The 49ers, who allowed a franchise-record 4,427 passing yards last season, have seen the best of Harris so far, and coach Mike Nolan had to admit he has been just a bit surprised by the quality of Harris play.

"I hate to say that I am, but I am a little bit," Nolan said. "He's a player another team let go. It's a little embarrassing to say that you don't expect a guy to play well, but there are degrees of how well you play, and the level of which he's playing is very good. He's a good football player who has been very good for this football team, very good for the defensive back position. Walt has been a pleasant surprise. He's got gas in his tank, as they say."

Harris' tank, in fact, still is full. Even though he's the oldest player in the San Francisco secondary and the second-oldest on the team's defense behind veteran lineman Bryant Young, Harris said he's playing younger because he has learned over time the importance of training and diet. Harris says he has "taken my training to another level and learned how to eat (right), and all those little things play a part in it."

The 49ers also are enamored with the kind of impact his veteran style and experience is having on the team's impressionable young players, along with the example he is setting for them on the field.

"Walt is playing outstanding," said Spencer, a third-year veteran. "I ask Walt a lot of questions and pick his brain as much as I can. He's been through pretty much everything. Me, I'm still young and going through it. I've already learned a lot from him, and he's always there to pick you up or give you little pointers on this and that. That's definitely been a big plus."

Another thing Harris knows better than many of his new teammates is that two weeks of strong performance doesn't really mean jack in the context of a 16-game season. He must do it again and again to really make a difference, beginning with Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who come to San Francisco led by prolific quarterback Donovan McNabb and the NFL's No. 1-ranked offense.

"It doesn't stop," Harris said. "I looked at our schedule and went, ‘OK, it's going to be week in and week out.' It's another test for us, and you've got to keep bringing it."

So far, Harris is bringing it with the 49ers better than anybody ever could have imagined.

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