Editor’s note: ahead of a huge day of college football action, make sure you check out today’s early Bowl Game Previews, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl Previews, and all of our 2018 Rookie Profiles. Before you know it, it will be NFL draft day!
In a rematch of the 2016 National Championship, Alabama and Clemson will face off once again on New Year’s day. This time a berth to the championship game is on the line. As the two storied programs continue to churn out high caliber prospects, one name that has flown under the radar is Alabama running back, Damien Harris.
In line to follow the steps of some of the best NFL running backs to come out of Alabama, Harris has not received the recognition he deserves this year. However, rest assured he has put in a tremendous amount of work this season and will prove it nationally against Clemson.
Assuming Harris does forgo his senior year and enter into the NFL Draft, from a numbers standpoint he should be one of the freshest backs out of college. He had just over 300 carries in his three years at Alabama, compare to 450 for LSU’s Derrius Guice and 404 for Stanford’s Bryce Love. This is partially due to the running back committee Alabama has used this season, but nonetheless, it is a statistic worth noting when we look at the longevity of backs in the NFL.
Early College Career
As the number one recruit coming out of the state of Kentucky in 2015 and the second-ranked back in the nation, Damien Harris was widely sought after by nearly every school in the Power 5 conferences. In early January, the 5’11” 205 pound tailback committed to Alabama. It was a seemingly perfect match for a bruising back at his size.
At Nike’s The Opening, Harris tested out at a Sparq rating of 126.93, running a 4.48, 40-Yard dash with a 37.9 vertical jump. For his size coming out of high school, these numbers were pretty staggering. For comparison, Bryce Love scored just higher with a rating of 129.75, while Saquon Barkley scored a surprising 116.79.
As a sophomore at Alabama, both Harris and fellow 2015 commit Bo Scarbrough shared the workload of a run-heavy Alabama offense. Harris rushed for 1040 yards on just 145 carries (7.2 YPC) but to the surprise of many, the powerful back was only able to find the end zone twice all season long. As the season progressed, Scarbrough seemed to steal the show, rushing for 11 touchdowns at the same clip.
Scouts watched as Harris would often burst through a hole into the secondary, only to be caught from behind by trailing linebackers and defensive backs. The impressive 4.48 speed that he had brought with him to Alabama was seemingly non-existent and many began to write him off as the feature back for the Tide as the season came to an end.
Strong Junior Campaign
Over the summer leading up to this season, Harris saw the writing on the wall. He had gained too much weight since his arrival at college, costing him much of the top speed and explosiveness he was recruited for. In danger of losing carries and ultimately his shot of being a top back in the country, Harris shed about ten pounds this summer. He gave up up sugary snacks and decided to get right with the weight room.
His hard work has certainly paid off this season, as Harris has found favor once again with NFL scouts who many are now placing above his counterpart, Scarbrough. This season, Harris has rushed for 906 yards, 11 touchdowns on only 110 carries (8.2 yards per). Three of his rushing touchdowns in 2017 have been on rushes of 60 yards or more. By comparison in 2016, he had no touchdowns longer than 25 yards.
Harris has the opportunity over the next week to really heighten his draft stock before the eyes of a national audience. A stiff Clemson run defense will be ready for the test on Monday, but a new-look Harris will look to redeem the Tide from a matchup a year ago. In the 2016 matchup, Harris only carried the ball five times for 24 yards.
Harris breaks away from the mold of mammoth-sized backs that Alabama has produced over the last several years. However he fits seamlessly into the “feature back” frame NFL scouts are looking for. At 5’11” and now 221 pounds after dropping weight during the off-season, Harris is back in proper shape and ready to take on the workload of an every down back at the next level. Physically, he looks like the next Mark Ingram.
While he may not make many jaw-dropping plays, you can expect Harris to do all the things that NFL teams are looking for. His low center of gravity and jump-cut ability allows Harris to navigate in the trenches with the ability to quickly fit through holes and break into the secondary. A majority of his long runs come from breaking tackles – he is averaging nearly an additional 5.3 yards after contact.
The NFL combine will give Harris an excellent opportunity to display the raw power that he possesses. He’ll also have a chance to show areas he has improved in such as pass blocking and catching. Both of those areas have already been pointed out as weaknesses in his game, and as he prepares for the draft, scouts will want to see his potential to grow in those traits.
Because he is an NFL-ready running back, as many of the Alabama prospects are, expect to see Harris get a chance early in the preseason with some carries and potentially earn a starting job at some point in the 2018 season. While you most likely will not see him playing on third downs for a few years, NFL teams are going to love the workhorse mentality that he has to grind out every yard possible.
Harris could end up being the sixth running back selected in the draft, or in my opinion could jump up to the fourth back taken depending on how the combine and College Football Playoff ends up. Either way, he is a late second to early third round draft pick this season. For your dynasty squads, you will want to grab Harris early while you still can and watch him develop on the field.
While Harris may take a few years to develop in PPR format leagues, expect him to be an effective runner early on as a rookie. Given the opportunity, his impressive balance and tackle breaking abilities will certainly earn him playing time in the NFL. That alone gives him immediate worth in dynasty leagues, and he should not be slept on. The speed he shows up with at the combine will be a determining factor of how high he gets drafted, but he does also hold the benefit of potentially starring in two final college football games. This might give viewers a true picture of what is to come in his near future.