Najee Harris owns first down and what that might mean for Alabama football vs Tennessee

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Najee Harris has developed a reputation as a finisher. Of his 21 touchdown runs in his last 10 games, 15 of them have been of 6 or fewer yards.

Without much acclaim, he’s also become quite the table-setter.

Alabama football has handed the ball to Harris on one-third of its first-down plays this season, far more than any other member of the Crimson Tide. His 48 first-down carries are far more than DeVonta Smith’s 20 first-down receptions, Brian Robinson Jr.’s 18 first-down carries and Jaylen Waddle’s 12 first-down receptions.

The success has helped UA become the nation’s best third-down offense coming into Saturday’s game against Tennessee. The Crimson Tide has benefitted from nearly half of its third-down attempts (20 of 42) coming with 4 or fewer yards to gain, partially thanks to Harris giving it a good start to most series.

“I always tell people that I think we have the best (offensive line) in the country,” Harris said. “For them to progress each week, each game, each day in practice, I think they need to have more attention brought to them than what they are. (Offensive line) Coach (Kyle) Flood and everyone in that room are doing an amazing job, progressing each week, every day in practice, and they don’t get enough attention.”

It’s possible Harris’ most impactful first-down run came at the end of the first half against Georgia. Alabama regaining possession on its own 25 with 23 seconds left is almost always a situation where UA coach Nick Saban elects to play it conservatively, running once and taking the game to halftime.

UA did, after all, hand the ball to Harris, but he took it for 14 yards. Alabama called a timeout and completed a pass for 14 yards, then completed another for 13 yards after a second timeout, bringing UA to the 34 — where Will Reichard made a 52-yard field goal.

Had Harris not busted his first-down run for a big gain, UA may not have attempted the pass plays that followed to take it to field goal range.

Harris was effective on first down through the entire game against the Bulldogs — 17 of his 31 carries and 92 of his 152 yards came on first down. He had four runs of 10 yards or more against Georgia, and three of them came on first down.

Tennessee could prove to be a favorable matchup for Harris and UA’s rushing attack. The Volunteers have allowed 20 runs of 10 yards or more. Among SEC teams, only Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Ole Miss are worse. Tennessee is also one of just five SEC defenses to allow a run of 40 yards or more.

Tennessee could also stop Harris in the backfield at a higher rate than previous opponents. The Volunteers are tied for the SEC lead in tackles for a loss and have two linebackers, Henry To’o To’o and Deandre Johnson, in the top 10 in the SEC as individuals. If tasked with making tacklers miss in the backfield, UA has faith in Harris.

“Najee Harris in my eyes is the best running back in college football most definitely,” UA linebacker Christian Harris said.

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson