Najee Harris proving he's a 'full-service back' for Alabama
Around this time last year, Najee Harris was steaming.
The Alabama back was fresh off a standout performance against LSU where he ran for 146 yards and a touchdown while also pulling in three catches for 44 yards, including a highlight-reel touchdown grab over future first-rounder Patrick Queen. Although, that didn’t help much in lightening the mood in the room.
While the sting of a 46-41 defeat to the Tigers still lingered, what really set Harris off was a question about his improvement as a receiver.
“Am I catching a lot more or am I playing a lot more?” he shot back. “There’s a difference.”
Growing increasingly frustrated, he continued on.
“Well, I think that I’m playing a lot,” he said. “Because people keep asking me (about this and) it’s like, ‘Bro, you’ve never given me the chance to catch a ball, so how can you say that?’ How can you criticize somebody if you never even gave me a chance to? I don’t understand it.”
It was then explained that the question wasn’t intended as a slight. However, Harris continued to vent about the perception that being a gifted receiver was something new for him.
“I’m just saying, in general, people keep saying that,” he said. “It’s like, Bro. Did I work on it? No. I’m just getting chances to catch the ball. We have receivers, so it’s really no point for us to catch the ball as a back, because we’ve got good receivers on the edge. So there’s no, really, point for us to catch the ball, just to stay in and block. Whatever to help the team.”
At first glance, it’s easy to look at Harris’ frame and typecast him as a typical power back. Listed at 6-foot-2, 230-pounds, the senior has a similar build to former Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough, who while successful for the Tide, was never much of a threat in the passing game.
Harris has been fighting that perception for a while now.
“I always say he’s had the best hands on the team,” Harris’ longtime trainer Marcus Malu said. “A lot of people don’t understand what I mean by that because they had Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith. I always remind people that they were all in the same class, and Najee was the No. 1 recruit in the country.”
Last year, Harris was finally allowed to flash his receiving skills, reeling in 27 receptions for 304 yards and seven touchdowns, the most receiving touchdowns by an Alabama back in a single season. This year, the senior already has 20 catches for 183 yards, including 12 receptions for 97 yards in his last two games.
“He’s just getting more opportunities,” Malu said. “These are the things we always knew he could do. If he didn’t play running back, he’d play receiver. If he wasn’t at one of those two positions he’d probably be one of the best outside linebackers.”
It’s the fact that Harris actually looks like he can play linebacker that throws people off. Typically, smaller backs are the ones who excel in the passing game as their athleticism allows them to sidestep defenders in open space. Although, despite Harris’ size, he’s also been surprisingly elusive.
The Alabama back ranks third in the nation with 45 combined avoided tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. For comparison, that’s seven more than Clemson running back Travis Ettienne, who has played in two more games.
Nine of those avoided tackles have come after the catch as Harris has either juked past, jumped over or barreled through defenders for extra yards.
Many of Harris’ most memorable plays at Alabama have come following receptions. His famous hurdle against South Carolina last season occurred after he caught a crossing route from Tua Tagovailoa. He showed the same athleticism last month when he shoved off an Ole Miss defender on a screen before hurdling another for a first down.
“I think he’s making people miss a little more,” said Dan Shonka, a former NFL scout who now serves as the general manager and national scout at Ourlads. “Usually when you’re that size, you’re strictly a power guy. A lot of times these big strong backs want to run you over just to show that they can. The thing about him is he can avoid tacklers.
”While Shonka still views Harris’ power as his most valuable asset, he calls the former five-star recruit a “full-service back” and believes he has the versatility to play all three downs at the next level.
“In today’s NFL, first down is third down,” he said. “Your base offense a lot of times is three wideouts and one back. You’ve got to have a guy who can catch the ball on first down. You need a guy who can block because with three wideouts out there you need to have someone to protect your quarterback. Then you have to have someone to run draws and plays or read-option type stuff. He can do all of that.”
Nick Saban agrees with Shonka’s assessment, referring to Harris as a “very effective third-down player” while stating that he adds another dimension to the Tide’s attack by creating mismatches out of the backfield. The Alabama head coach has been equally impressed by the senior back when he isn’t called on to run a route.
“I think you probably all look at it like pass-catching, but Najee is very good in pass protection,” Saban said. “So even when people blitz and he has to pick somebody up, it kind of goes unnoticed. But he's got a really good understanding of the protections and doesn't make a lot of mistakes and (is someone) you know is big enough to block whoever's coming.”
Many projected Harris to jump to the NFL this offseason. However, after receiving an unfavorable draft evaluation, he elected to return to the Tide for his senior year. Looking to become more explosive, he spent the summer fine-tuning his craft, training with Malu in his hometown of Antioch, Calif. while also traveling across the nation to work with different specialists and speed coaches.
While Harris’ added horsepower has yet to yield many big plays this season, it has provided him with more of a push on hard-to-get yards. That’s certainly played a part in his SEC-leading 14 rushing touchdowns, eight of which have come from 3 yards and in.
“To me, I always look at the running back who can get those really powerful short-yardage runs, the 2- and 3-yard runs that help you get first downs when you need to keep the chains moving,” Shonka said. “Najee, when he hits that line, if there’s any kind of seam there he’ll get it. Even if there’s not, he can move the pile.”
So far, Harris’ decision to return for a senior season appears to be a wise one. Shonka said he wouldn’t be shocked to see him end up as a late first-rounder, while ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. recently rated the Alabama back as the top player at his position. Chris Landry, a former collegiate and NFL scout who runs Landyfootball.com, says he hasn’t finished evaluating Harris but already sees the back grading out better this year than he did last year.
“I think he has a lot of what you would look for in the next level in terms of being a difference-maker,” said Landry, who served as a scout for the Cleveland Brown under Bill Belichick while Saban was the defensive coordinator. “He’s a guy who could be a feature running back but can also be somebody who can help you in all aspects, including the passing game.”
Harris will have a chance to add to his resume this week as he goes up against a Kentucky defense that has allowed a 100-yard rusher in each of its last four games. The Wildcats have also struggled at times with defending backs in the passing game, allowing Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill to record 15 receptions for 79 yards and Georgia’s James Cook to reel in four catches for 62 yards.
Might that make for another big game for Harris? At this point, no one is doubting him.
“He’s great running the ball and obviously he’s great catching the ball out of the backfield,” tight end Miller Forristall said. “And it’s been a big help for our offense... So hopefully we’ll see that more in the next couple of weeks.”