When Damien Harris first received a scholarship offer from Kentucky, he barely considered it. Now the five-star running back recruit has the Wildcats among his finalists.

By Chris Johnson
November 04, 2014

Kentucky made waves two summers ago when its 2014 recruiting class was briefly ranked No. 1 in the country. By National Signing Day, the group counted 28 players, including 10 assigned four-star ratings. One three-star prospect, defensive tackle Matt Elam, drew scholarship offers from Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Though the Wildcats ultimately fell to No. 17, that was still the highest mark since Rivals.com began ranking recruiting classes in 2002. 

What Kentucky didn’t have in its 2014 class, however, was a player ranked No. 1 at his position. That could change this February.

The Wildcats are one of five schools still in the running for Damien Harris, the top-ranked running back and No. 10 player in the class of 2015. Harris is also the highest-rated prospect from Kentucky in the Rivals database. The Richmond (Ky.) native estimates that he has visited the school between 10-12 times -- he lives about 20 minutes from campus -- and says the coaching staff has displayed a sense of “urgency” with his recruitment.

For Kentucky, the impact of landing Harris could transcend stiff arms, jukes and touchdowns runs. “I think he sends a message nationally, which is what you want in recruiting,” said Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director of Rivals.com. “He’s a local recruit, but he’s become such a big name that it’s going to send a message to recruits all over the country: ‘Hey, maybe I should take a look at Kentucky.’”

As for the schools Kentucky is competing with for Harris, the list is full of the ones you’d probably expect: Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and Texas A&M. Harris was once committed to Michigan, but elected to renounce his pledge in January after offensive coordinator Al Borges was fired. He says he has a strong relationship with Ohio State’s coaching staff; likes Texas A&M’s recent progress and fast-paced offense; and that Alabama’s and Florida’s names speak for themselves, highlighting their histories of winning and producing NFL draft picks.


When Kentucky first offered Harris a scholarship before coach Mark Stoops was hired in November 2012, Harris said he didn’t consider the school a realistic option. The Wildcats’ turnaround under Stoops has changed his mindset. After going winless in SEC play and 2-10 last season, Kentucky is one win away from qualifying for its first bowl game since 2010.

Harris thinks the Wildcats’ improvement may not always reflect in the win-loss record, pointing to the Wildcats’ 45-31 loss to then-No. 1 Mississippi State on Oct. 25 as a “prime example” of the strides Kentucky has made. Harris also spoke glowingly about the new “positive energy” surrounding Kentucky football.

“People are talking about Kentucky being on the rise, [how they] can’t wait to go to games, great atmosphere. Things like that, things that I just didn’t experience when I initially got offered by Kentucky,” Harris said. “My freshman year -- it’s a night-and-day difference than how it is now.”

Still, Harris cautions that the frequency with which he visits the school is not an indication that he’s already made up his mind. Consider that yesterday, Harris congratulated four-star athlete Torrance Gibson on his commitment to Ohio State.

At 5-foot-11, 210 pounds Harris offers an imposing mix of power and speed. He said he’d prefer to work between the tackles in college but that he’s open to running to the outside and making plays on the perimeter. Harris is also a capable pass-catcher. If he has one weakness, it may be protecting the quarterback. The offense he plays in at Madison Southern (Ky.) High is run-oriented and doesn’t offer Harris many opportunities to stick opposing pass rushers. Yet assistant coach Byron Smoot says Harris has improved as a pass-blocker.

Woody Wommack, the Southeast Recruiting Analyst for Rivals.com, said Harris reminds him of LaDainian Tomlinson. “He’s sort of got the perfect combo of the speed that you want but then the power and the willingness to kind of run over people that maybe a bigger guy might have,” Wommack said of Harris. He added: “He’s not afraid to smash you, and then as soon as he runs you over, he’ll run right by everyone else.”

Harris rushed for 2,621 yards and 42 touchdowns as a junior but has missed four games this season while dealing with an MCL sprain. He recently announced he has been cleared to return for the first round of the state playoffs. Smoot said that even though Harris hasn’t directly contributed to games due to his injury, his football IQ and ability to identify scheme nuances is so helpful that it’s “almost like having another coach down there right now.”

Harris, who has already taken his official visit to Ohio State, said he plans to visit Alabama on Nov. 29 but has not decided when he will visit Texas A&M and Florida. Harris also said he may cut his list down to three at some point. He will take his official visit to Kentucky on Dec. 13, with a decision date planned for sometime in January, according to his mother, Esther.

[UPDATE: Harris will take his official visit to Alabama on Nov. 29. He will also take an unofficial visit to Tuscaloosa on the weekend of Nov. 15, according to his mother.]

Last week, Harris retweeted a picture of a t-shirt bearing the answers to two questions he’s asked all the time.

Interestingly, the shirt is white with royal blue letters.

Around the nation

  • Madison (Ore.) High principal Petra Callin announced that the school’s football team is done playing this season. The team’s roster has thinned from 72 players at the beginning of the season to 27 because of injuries -- including at least 10 concussions or possible concussions -- and player defections, according to a report from the TV station KGW. Madison High (0-7) had two games left on its schedule.

“Unfortunately at this time, the Madison High School Varsity Football team will no longer compete in the Fall 2014 season.  Our Freshman/Sophomore team will continue to play in our next two games and finish their Fall 2014 season,” the statement reads.

“After looking over the injury reports from the Varsity team, with the student safety in mind, we feel it is best to discontinue play at the Varsity level. We do not feel it is appropriate or safe to bring Freshmen and Sophomore players to compete at the Varsity level.”

Meanwhile, in Hightstown, N.J., The Peddie School (N.J.) cited “several injured players” in announcing the cancelation of Saturday’s game against The Hun School (N.J.). Parents and students reportedly protested the decision Friday.

“We know this will be a major disappointment to the players, coaches, the Hun team and the Peddie community,” athletic director Jim Domoracki wrote in an e-mail to parents. “We believe that if we were to play this game we would be putting several junior varsity players into a game situation for which they are not prepared.” Domoracki indicated the team could have fielded only 14 varsity players and four “legitimate” linemen.

There are not isolated cases. Across the country, high schools are opting to call off games and seasons.

  • Jacques Patrick announced his verbal commitment to Florida State last week. The five-star running back had narrowed his choices to Florida, Alabama, Texas A&M, Ohio State and the Seminoles.

One factor that may have helped Florida State? Coach Jimbo Fisher’s defense of quarterback Jameis Winston. Recruiting analyst Josh Newberg spoke with Patrick after his decision:

Fisher has stood behind Winston amid questions about an alleged rape and speculation over potential memorabilia signings. It’s important to note Florida State was considered the school to beat for Patrick, so it’s unclear how much Fisher’s handling of the scrutiny against Winston actually swayed Patrick.

  • Purdue apparently sent Bloomington South (Ind.) senior offensive lineman Kamran Beitvashahi an envelope -- ostensibly intended to contain recruiting material -- with nothing inside. He was not impressed.
  • Two Arizona high school teams were forced to forfeit the last game of their regular season after engaging in a brawl that appears to have involved a special-needs student. North Canyon High coach Cornelius Bowick told The Arizona Republic that a Mountain Ridge High player “blind-sided and speared” a tight end who blocked the special-needs student to the ground. Bowick said Mountain Ridge, which reportedly held a 40-point lead when the scuffle began (with about 10 minutes left), put the special-needs student into the game without notifying North Canyon. There weren’t a sufficient number of players available to continue the game after ejections were assessed to everyone who left the sidelines for the brawl.

"We just thought he was a regular football player," Bowick said. "Our guy made a football play.

"They were booing, and we didn't know why. One of their kids came out of nowhere and blind-sided our kid, and it sparked it big time. … It's pretty frustrating. It got out of hand fast."

  • John Carroll Catholic (Fla.) High fell by 21 points to The First Academy (Fla.) Thursday night despite quarterback Jordan Watkins setting new state records for pass attempts (64) and completions (52), according to the Orlando Sentinel. Watkins finished with 512 yards and six touchdowns. It’s strange to see a Florida-based quarterback not-named Tucker Israel mentioned in this space for breaking records.
  • Tarvarus McFadden decided to have a little fun with his college announcement last Friday. The five-star cornerback picked up a white Florida State hat off the table and set it back down. He then grabbed a black Georgia cap, only to pull out a garnet Florida State hat from inside the Georgia lid and slip it on his head.

Step up your game, Cliff Alexander.

Five notable commitments

  • American Heritage (Fla.) High senior Torrance Gibson committed to Ohio State. Gibson is the No. 6 athlete in the class of 2015 but is expected to compete at quarterback for the Buckeyes.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
  • The Westminster School (Ga.) senior Russell Ude committed to Cal. Ude is the No. 20 strongside defensive end in the class of 2015.
  • Five notable performances

    • Ridgefield Park (N.J.) High’s Tommy Visaggio carried only five times but rushed for 359 yards and five touchdowns in a 48-7 win over Fort Lee (N.J.) High.
    • Mansfield (Texas) High sophomore Kennedy Brooks rushed for 323 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-34 win over Cedar Hill (Texas) High.
    • Marysville Getchell (Wash.) High’s Collin Montez reached the end zone five times and recorded 274 rushing yards in a 48-27 win over Lynnwood (Wash.) High.
    • Highland Springs (Va.) sophomore Juwan Carter connected on 16 of his 26 pass attempts for 426 yards with six touchdowns and an interception in a 65-37 win over Atlee (Va.) High.
    • Vincent (Ala.) quarterback Arshon Willis completed 10 of his 19 pass attempts for 380 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-40 loss to Talladega County Central (Ala.) High.

    All rankings according to Rivals.com

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