FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Don’t be fooled by the big smile. Najee Harris is not much of a talker. But he is a good listener.
“He is a sponge to football,” Alabama running backs coach Joe Pannunzio said. “He really is a sponge to running plays and running the ball. He likes to learn. He studies other backs, like he knows a lot of the backs in the NFL that I don’t even know.”
Harris can take notes on different players and incorporate certain aspects into his own game all he wants, but it’ll still translate differently on the field because of how he’s built. That’s not a knock on him. It’s what makes him different.
Standing 6-foot-2, Harris is the Crimson Tide’s tallest running back. Josh Jacobs is 5-foot-10. Damien Harris is 5-foot-11.
Harris’ size has helped him develop quickly as a blocker, considering he’s only a sophomore.
“That’s a work in progress for all young backs,” Pannunzio said. “He is still really young at college football. What happens is, in high school, they’re really not asked to block a lot in pass protection. Then you get to our level and you start to see this multitude of blitzes and different looks. You have to be pretty smart, and he obviously is that.”
Harris puts the work in. Always has.
“When he first came in, he did a lot of film work,” Jacobs said. “I’ve seen him take that seriously. So that’s the key to a lot of the success he’s had and that’s why he’s playing so well.”
Harris is the Crimson Tide’s second-leading rusher, as Alabama prepares to play Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff’s Orange Bowl semifinal on Saturday in Miami. He has ran the ball 102 times, picked up 679 yards and scored four touchdowns. He has also caught three passes for 3 yards.
As a freshman, Harris finished out the season with 370 rushing yards and three scores on 61 carries in addition to six receptions for 45 yards.
Harris’ yards-per-game average went from 26.4 to 52.23, and he has played in every game since he joined the Crimson Tide.
“He has a unique ability to get more yards on a lot of plays that a lot of running backs can’t,” Pannunzio said.
Sometimes that’s because Harris hurdles over defenders. It makes his position coach and teammates a bit nervous, but they know it’s a part of his personal style and he has the hops to clear whoever is in his way.
“Plays like that, it’s huge,” Jacobs said. “But the only thing I think of is ‘please don’t land wrong.’”
The moments that follow are when Harris’ personality shines through, as his teammates joke around about what he just accomplished.
Apparently Harris laughs a lot and likes to crack jokes. Jacobs even called him goofy. But that side of Harris is reserved for those who really know him.
“He has a very bright personality once he opens up to you and is very energetic,” Jacobs said. “He’s a great teammate.”
Reach Terrin Waack at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0229.