A more grounded Najee Harris set to take off for Alabama

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Grounded is a funny term because it can be used in both a positive and negative light.

A pilot being grounded means a person is being prohibited from flying. However, a person who is called grounded is considered well balanced and sensible.

Alabama running back Najee Harris is becoming familiar with both. The junior has made a resolution to shelve his high-flying hurdle move, which arguable got him the most attention during his first two seasons with the Crimson Tide.

“I gotta cut it out,” he said on Wednesday afternoon, making sure to add where the decision stemmed from: “Not coaches, me.

“It’s not the best way to go at it sometimes.”

In fairness, all that can be said right now is he’s making an attempt to no longer do the jaw-dropping hurdles. Harris calls the split-second move more of an instinct rather than something he has much time to think about in the heat of the moment.

If a defender is caught unaware or flat-footed, it can work. But Harris no longer has the element of surprise on his side as everyone knows he’s occasionally tried go over instead of just around an opponent.

So it’s still in his arsenal, only moved to the back like an untraditional golf club that once seemed like a good idea. Getting upended is a huge risk and Harris has landed on his head, or neck, more than once.

“He kind of does some weird stuff that you’ll think like, ‘How did he just do that?’” junior safety Xavier McKinney said. “But he works hard, and everybody sees that.”

That’s why Harris doesn’t need the hurdle any more. There’s going to be plenty of other aspects to his game that will be getting attention in 2019.

Although there are plenty of good running backs in the Southeastern Conference, Harris might be the best — or at least have the most potential. The same could be said of the nation, although he’ll have earn both distinctions while pursuing All-SEC and All-American honors.

For his career, Harris has already exceeded 1,000 rushing yards and averaged 6.5 per carry.

Last season he had 783 carries on 117 attempts, for a 6.7 average per carry, and caught four passes in predictable situations that resulted in just seven more yards.

Harris did so while being a change-of-pace option from the sideline. Not only was Alabama a run-pass-option offense centered around quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, but the backfield reps were being split with Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs.

It wasn’t what Najee Harris was used to. As a high school player he chewed up rushing yards, topping the 2,000-yard milestone not once or twice, but three times at Antioch in California.

He was tabbed at the nation’s top prospect by Rivals, Scout and PrepStar, and a high consensus 5-star prospect.

So it was understandably frustrating. However, he also had to learn the college game and things he didn’t have to do in high school, like pick up blitzers.

“As a running back, anywhere in the country, you always want to get in the game and show people what you want to do,” Harris said. “Sometimes, you just have to be patient and wait for your opportunity. It’s really just settling down and just waiting for your opportunity to show people what you can do.”

Patience is the thing Harris said he’s learned the most with the Crimson Tide. It didn’t help that his non-starting status was continually brought up whenever he went home, or when the National Championship Game was played in the San Francisco area.

Meanwhile, the running back position has continued to change in football, what he called the “business aspect.” The committee approach has become commonplace, especially at the NFL level.

“It’s a challenge because, like I said as a running back and me personally, you always want the ball because I know what I can do with it,” he said.

Everyone else will learn as well. Alabama will still have other running backs involved, but there’s more of an established order with Najee Harris followed by Brian Robinson Jr. and Jerome Ford. Instead of a three-headed backfield it should be more like what Crimson Tide fans have seen for the last 10-plus years.

Moreover, Najee Harris is a traditional lead Alabama running back during the Nick Saban era, big, physical and extremely talented. He isn’t a copy of his predecessors like Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram Jr. or Derrick Henry, but definitely has a comparable style.

Only Eddie Lacy would do a spin move instead of a hurdle.

Alabama has a better passing game with Tagovailoa, which was part of the reason why the Crimson Tide didn’t have a 1,000-yard running back in 2018, but it was also due to the offensive approach.

“I think it starts in running the football,” new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. “In my opinion, every year I’ve called plays in college football I’ve always had a 1,000-yard rusher.”

Everyone knows whom he meant, as Alabama might have its best pick-your-poison offense yet. Defenses can’t afford to play man coverage against the Crimson Tide’s receivers, and the second they go zone the run game hits them.

Harris could have a huge season, one that’s been a long time coming.

“I’m sure he’s excited for it, and I’m excited for him, we’re excited for him,” McKinney said. “He’s put in the work, so I know what he’s capable of, I know what he can do.

“I’m ready to see it.”

Comments (1)
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I think Najee will explode this year. It would not surprise me at all if, next spring, we are talking about Harris being one of the first running backs off the board in the 2020 NFL Draft. Especially now that the offense has less mouths to feed with the unfortunate injury to Trey Sanders.