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How Najee Harris defines the evolution of the Alabama running back


#Maybe it’s because of the uniform he wears or the fact that he checks in at an imposing 6-foot-2, 230 pounds that people seem to have a preconceived notion of the kind of running back #Najee #Harris is.

The senior from #Antioch, #California, is well aware of this. #He ran for 1,224 yards and caught 27 passes for #Alabama last year, and yet he heard the doubts.

#He couldn’t catch.

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#He couldn’t block.

#He wasn’t elusive enough or explosive enough or enough of a third-down threat.

#In a recent interview with SEC #Network, #Harris recounted those supposed knocks and then asked incredulously, “#Have you seen the film?”

#Harris smiled as he said that and smiled again after the SEC championship game on #Dec. 19, when he was asked whether proving he could catch the ball was one of the reasons he returned for his senior year rather than enter the NFL draft early. #He had just caught three touchdowns in the win over #Florida, making him #Alabama’s career total touchdowns leader with 54, and he wasn’t buying the premise of the question.

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“#What are you talking about, man?” #Harris said playfully. “#It’s just because I’m a running back so people don’t expect it. … The slogan is, ‘#Well, can he catch?’ I’ve been catching the ball since I was in the fetus position.”

#Clever retorts aside, #Harris hasn’t been catching passes since birth, as he claimed. #Nor was he delivered by stork to #Alabama four years ago as the most complete running back ever to play under coach #Nick #Saban.

#That took time, patience and hard work to achieve.

#Mike #Locksley was offensive coordinator during #Harris’ first two seasons at #Alabama, and he remembers a young running back who relied on his natural abilities. #Sure, #Harris was big, powerful and fast, but he wasn’t refined in terms of understanding pass protection or route running.

#Locksley tried to spread the ball around to all his playmakers, but, “#Of course, [Harris] wanted all the touches.”

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#Harris grew frustrated playing third fiddle to #Damien #Harris and #Josh #Jacobs. #He had 61 carries as a freshman and told the #San #Francisco #Chronicle he thought about transferring. #His carries increased to 117 as a sophomore, but his workload waned the second half of the season as he averaged less than 5.6 rushes over the final seven games.

#In his first two seasons, #Harris caught only 10 passes.

#Locksley credits #Alabama analyst and former #Tennessee head coach #Butch #Jones for playing a pivotal role mentoring #Harris during that trying time. #Harris, #Locksley said, “had great respect for #Butch,” who played running back in college and coached the position early in his career.

#Jones helped keep #Harris focused and working toward becoming an all-around back. #As a junior, it paid off, as #Harris blossomed into a more patient runner and stepped up as a blocker and pass-catcher.

#But even that coming-out party, which featured 304 yards and seven touchdowns through the air, wasn’t enough to dispel the notion that he was a one-dimensional back. #Sure, he looked the part of a workhorse in the mold of predecessor #Derrick #Henry, but #Harris was capable of much more.

#Shortly after the season ended, #Harris sent a private message on #Twitter to former #Auburn running back #Brad #Lester. The two had met briefly on the field after the #Iron #Bowl months earlier, and #Harris wanted to see what the SEC running back-turned-trainer could do to help him improve.

#Lester, who had worked with NFL backs #Alvin #Kamara and #Chris #Carson, drove to #Tuscaloosa for that first training session, wondering what he was getting himself into. #He thought, “#This guy’s a top-15 pick. #How much better can I get him?”

#Harris told #Lester he had two primary goals: to get faster and get better in the passing game.

“#His biggest problem was the problem of a lot of athletes,” #Lester said. “I told him, ‘#Stop trying so hard.'”

#After that first weekend working out at the marching band’s practice field on campus, #Harris rented a house in #Atlanta, where he trained with #Lester for a few weeks, sometimes having as many as three workouts in a single day.

#By running more freely, #Harris’ mechanics improved, which helped his initial quickness. ESPN NFL draft expert #Mel #Kiper #Jr. said he has noticed #Harris progress in making people miss this season. #Kiper compared him to #Le’#Veon #Bell in that they both fool defenses with how quick they are.

The numbers back that assessment up, as #Harris ranks first nationally in evaded tackles with 42, up from 29 last season.

#Harris has become by far the most explosive running back to play under #Saban at #Alabama, with 128 career rushes of 10 or more yards — 40 of which have come this season. The next closest are #Henry and T.J. #Yeldon, who each had 99 such runs.

#Harris’ most noticeable improvement has come in the passing game, an area #Lester said they worked on every day, either at the start of their workouts or at the close. #One particularly trying exercise required #Harris to stand on one leg on a balance ball while #Lester circled him, throwing passes at random intervals.

The result: #Through 11 games, #Harris has racked up 32 receptions, which is more than any #Alabama running back since 2009, when #Mark #Ingram caught 32 passes in 14 games. #Harris has dropped only one pass all year.

#His 69 career receptions are the most at the position under #Saban and are nearly twice the total of former #All-SEC back #Eddie #Lacy.

#Harris might have been molded into a more straight-ahead, move-the-sticks type of runner five years ago, #Lester said. #Alabama has had plenty of those guys through the years.

“#But the game has changed,” #Lester said. “#He’s probably the most diverse back they’ve had.”

#Locksley said the NFL has influenced the college game in terms of throwing more to tight ends and running backs. The matchup of a running back on a linebacker is one coordinators love to exploit, and it’s one #Harris excels at.

“#You’ve seen #Najee develop himself from being just a runner to being a guy that now understands leverage and running routes and setting up the routes and finishing the catch,” #Locksley said. “I’ve been really impressed with how he’s matured in that phase of the game.”

#On top of all that, #Harris has turned into someone #Saban said is “very good in pass protection.” #It’s something the future #Hall of #Fame head coach said goes unnoticed.

#Which begs the question: #What can’t #Harris do?

#If he has proven he can catch, block and make defenders miss, there’s nothing left to prove.

#He’s already the #Alabama’s all-time leading rusher, and it’s high time he be considered #Alabama’s all-time best running back.



[ source link ]
https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/30613751/how-najee-harris-defines-evolution-alabama-running-back

##Najee ##Harris #defines #evolution ##Alabama #running

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