It is not easy being a 5-star prospect and the No. 1 recruit at your position heading to the most prestigious program in the country.
(Did — did he really just say that?)
It sounds funny, but it is true. If Najee Harris went almost anywhere other than Alabama, the No. 2 rated high school player in the country likely would have not only played right away but been the focal point of the offense. In Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide gets so many 5-star players that once you get there those ratings do not matter. Harris was one of six 5-star recruits from ‘Bama's 2017 class, and that does not include players listed as 4-stars like Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith, Xavier McKinney, Jedrick Wills, Isaiah Buggs and Brian Robinson.
At Alabama, the only thing that matters is what you have done since you arrived on campus — and Harris learned that the hard way his first few years. After just 61 carries and 370 rushing yards in his freshman season, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he thought about transferring from the Crimson Tide football program.
That’s why he contemplated leaving Alabama after his freshman season, frustrated by sparse playing time. And that’s also why he ultimately stayed, figuring Alabama still offers the best path to the NFL.
“The only thing I can tell you is, I hope I’m on the field more,” Harris said. “Last year was the worst feeling. That whole season was mentally challenging.”
College is a big adjustment for many, not just football players. Harris is no strange to adjustment.
Before suiting up for Antioch High School an hour east of San Francisco, Harris and his family moved back and forth from the Bay Area to Seattle, often finding rest in cars, hotels and shelters. Eventually, they settled in West Antioch, but the environment was an uneasy one. In another story told from the San Francisco Chronicle, Harris encountered bullet holes in his garage door, witnessed a man get shot and killed in a parking lot and heard gunshots so frequently that after a while he would not even flinch.
Harris' mother said she got to him into football as her version of daycare, a place where he would be safe. It was his "way out." What he was able to do on the football field was jaw-dropping. It was also attracted nearly every university in the country. Harris ultimately selected his best chance at reaching the NFL: Alabama.
Harris did not redshirt his freshman year. Instead, he competed with veteran running backs Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs. Najee Harris was more of a change-of-pace player than he was a player the Crimson Tide needed in a feature role. Both RBs ahead of him on the depth chart went to the NFL. Najee Harris wanted to be next.
This year it has been his show. Najee Harris is just shy of 1,000 rushing yards, at 942, with 10 touchdowns on the ground and another seven through the air. As the year goes on, he keeps getting better with time.
"I think he's played really well and that he's improved as the season has gone on," head coach Nick Saban said via the Chattanooga Times. "In the last few games, he's played his best football of the year, and I think a lot of it is just confidence — not really confidence in your ability to do things but confidence in how do you press the hole or how do you run the runs that match up with the position of the offensive linemen relative to who they're trying to block.”
Here is what impresses me most about Najee Harris' game when it comes to him potentially putting his name in the 2020 NFL Draft pool.
Play No. 1: Don't Bring That Weak Crap
I do not know how else to intro this other than to say that this man is 6-foot-2, 230 pounds and if you come at him with anything less than your full effort he will make a highlight reel out of you.
Najee Harris is not as much of a bulldozer by nature as you might expect with his measurables (we will get to that later), but his contact balance is so good he has no hesitation lowering the shoulder, even if it is not his go-to plan of attack. Sometimes players, even of Harris’ size, can have a hard time staying up after initial contact. Najee Harris not only has tackle-breaking power but more importantly tackle-breaking balance. He will get you those yards after contact.
Play No. 2: Shake N’ Bake
While he is actually more of finesse runner than most would think at his size, Najee Harris’ first thought is always to try and make a player miss with a one-cut move — and he is so good at it.
There are not many 230 pound backs that can shift the way he does. The little shimmy and shake (or Shake N’ Bake) can make defenders look foolish.
You simply cannot bring him down. Even if you lower your head, or get reckless with how your approach the tackle, Najee Harris can make you swing at the air as he goes right by you.
Play No. 3: Noted Wide Receiver Najee Harris
Playing running back in the NFL requires more than just what you can do with the ball in your hands. If you want to be the real deal, you have to affect the game without the ball too. This comes in the form of pass blocking, and also how you can separate and have success with pass-catching.
Just as Najee Harris is a natural out of the backfield as a runner, he is also natural out of the backfield as a receiver. How many RBs can you name that can make a back-shoulder touchdown grab look that easy? Heck, I know some WR prospects who would look more clunky trying to pull that off.
Najee Harris can definitely be a third-down weapon at the next level.
Play No. 4: Improved Vision
This the biggest improvement I have seen from Najee Harris in 2019. He has always been big, strong and fast, but Trent Richardson was too. The problem with Richardson was he did not have the vision to make the most of his touches once he got the ball.
Najee Harris seems quicker to react in the backfield and when approaching the line of scrimmage. It gives me faith that as he continues to play this will continue to improve. His processing of open space and running lanes is very fast. Now he is putting that on film.
Play No. 5: That 5-Star Stuff
There is a reason why Najee Harris was the No. 1 overall rusher in the 2017 recruiting class, and it is the same reason why these plays are even possible.
He is special.
That is not to say he is perfect. Najee Harris’ pairing of agility and power, improved vision and hand-eye coordination and choice to overcome any obstacle in front of him makes him a special prospect.
We may only get one year of work from Najee Harris as a full-time starter before he jumps to the NFL, but if this is the baseline for him as a first-year player, there is plenty to get excited about envisioning him at the next level.