By Brett Hudson
Christian Harris is the kind of player that makes coaches hate touchbacks.
When granted an athlete of Harris’ caliber, the coaches at University Lab High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, were determined to make the most of him, and kick returning was part of that plan.
Then came the third game of his senior season against in-city powerhouse Catholic, which had a good kicker, one who produced touchbacks more often than not. So the coaches gave Harris some freedom, telling him – if the ball is even close to in play, jump and get it before it crosses the goal line. It’s a very risky catch, but the reward was high.
Harris caught the opening kickoff, planted his right foot on the goal line and ran it back, running past several tacklers and bowling over another, for a touchdown,
The University of Alabama football team intends on placing immediate faith in that athleticism, possibly starting the true freshman in Saturday’s season opener against Duke. Harris was listed as the first team Will linebacker on the depth chart; if Harris sees the field as much as that designation suggests, it’s a testament to his ability to craft his obvious gifts to the specific task of linebacker — a position he did not play in high school.
“Did I see him starting as a SEC freshman? No, I cannot lie and say I saw him starting as a freshman for Alabama, there’s no way, but the body’s there and the work ethic is there,” said Andy Martin, Harris’ defensive coordinator at U-High. Martin has since become the head coach at U-High. “I know (UA) Coach (Nick) Saban and they get the most out of those guys. They were able to use the tools and obviously get some good stuff out of him.
“He’s been blessed with the body type to be able to do that (play outside linebacker). He’s so athletic, it’s unbelievable. A kid of that size (6-foot-2, 244 pounds), to be able to run and do the things he can do, and then he’s a smart kid, too. Once they got him over there and he started taking in that playbook, he understood he could do things to be successful at that level.”
As Martin remembers it, colleges had split opinions on how to use Harris. He remembers LSU looking at Harris as an H-Back, with Alabama as one of few to see him as a linebacker. The choice makes sense to Martin, given the open-field tackling and coverage skills required to play corner at U-High; a fellow U-High product, linebacker Dylan Moses, saw the results immediately.
“He shocked me because he just got here a couple of months ago. I told him he has the chance to do something great,” Moses said. “He wasn’t even expecting it. When he first got here and got out on the football field, he just played fast and does what he normally does and caught the eye of the coaches.”
Harris has certainly benefitted from having Moses next to him. Moses said he’s close with Harris’ family, and continuing the relationship with this timing is convenient for Harris, given Moses is one of few proven veteran commodities in the front seven.
Moses is enjoying making the linebacking corps, “like a Louisiana all-star team.”
The off-field ties surely accelerated Harris’ acclimation process, and pairing that with his proven athletic ability made him a clear choice for Saban.
“Sometimes you have to make decisions with young players, even though they may not have a total understanding of doing things exactly like you would like for them to do it,” Saban said. “Their abilities to make plays and their want-to in terms of leaning how to do it and developing is going to allow them to make the improvement they need to make to be the most consistent player.
“We felt like after two scrimmages, with the way he played, that he was the guy that would give us the best chance long term and develop at that position.”
The long-term benefits to seeing Harris get game snaps over Ale Kaho and Jaylen Moody, both sophomores, is obvious, but this is not simply a long-term play. Harris has the raw athleticism required to stand out on Alabama’s practice field, thus the athleticism required to survive any task in college football.
“Even when you thought you beat him, when he was playing at corner, he would come out of nowhere and intercept it,” Martin said. “He would bait quarterbacks into trying to throw over him and he’d just go intercept it and take it the other way.”