This is exactly how Najee Harris envisioned life at Alabama, in some ways. The Crimson Tide are 27-1 since he hopped aboard, and now he returns to the Bay Area for Monday’s national championship game at Levi’s Stadium.
In other ways, though, it’s not at all what he pictured.
Make no mistake: Harris, the nation’s No. 1 recruit two years ago at Antioch High School, is having a productive sophomore season. His 724 yards rushing nearly double his output as a freshman, and his 6.7 average per carry leads all Alabama running backs.
Even so, Harris remains restless for more playing time. At one point this season, he told longtime personal trainer Marcus Malu that he feels like he’s letting people down back home. Malu quashed the thought, reminding Harris he’s in line to become Alabama’s featured back next season and his goal of playing in the NFL still lingers on the horizon.
“He’s a kid used to running and scoring all the time, but he’s having to learn about life,” Malu said this week. “You have to regroup and adapt. He has to continue to find the positive in the situation.”
Harris made a loud splash in last year’s title game, when he rumbled for 64 yards in the fourth quarter to help the Crimson Tide rally to beat Georgia. That only raised his hopes for the 2018 season.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban, as he usually does, spread the workload among his running backs. Consider the democratic breakdown of carries this season among senior Damien Harris (139), junior Josh Jacobs (109) and Najee Harris (108).
The three have combined for more than 2,100 yards on the ground, topped by Damien Harris’ 819.
College Football Playoff final
Who: Alabama (14-0) vs. Clemson (14-0)
When: 5 p.m. Monday
Where: Levi’s Stadium
Najee Harris enjoyed his best games earlier in the season, before Jacobs emerged as a bigger factor. Harris gained 135 yards on Sept. 8 against Arkansas State, 73 on Sept. 29 against Louisiana and 83 on six carries Nov. 3 against LSU. He has averaged fewer than five carries per game since then.
Michael Casagrande, who covers Alabama for the Birmingham News/Alabama Media Group, traced Harris’ diminished role to Jacobs’ success more than anything else. Jacobs is widely expected to declare for the NFL draft this offseason, leaving Najee Harris atop the depth chart.
Harris has not done interviews this season and didn’t respond to two text messages this week. In peering toward the season during a May interview with The Chronicle, he said, “I’m so determined. I can’t have fun unless I achieve my goals, or else I’ll be thinking about that the whole time.”
At any rate, Harris recognizes the unique chance to play for a national championship in his home area. Malu, during a recent conversation with Harris, mentioned this wouldn’t have happened if he had gone to other schools on his list.
“Yeah, that’s dope,” he replied.
Harris also traded texts throughout the season with Antioch offensive coordinator Brett Dudley, who — like Malu — became a mentor. Dudley marveled at the strength Harris has added since he left for Alabama. (He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds.)
Harris danced around many high school opponents, but now he often plows ahead rather than try to hit a proverbial home run.
“You can see Najee’s evolution in that he knows he has to go north-south and get those tough yards,” Dudley said. “He might be able to shake a guy, but he knows it’s probably better to put his head down.”
Dudley, ever the coach, watched every snap of every Alabama game this season. He pointed to Harris’ improvement in pass blocking, one shortcoming Saban has mentioned as preventing him from getting more time on the field.
The Tide still lean on Damien Harris in obvious passing situations, according to Dudley. But he also noticed one play in the SEC title game on which Najee Harris stopped a blitzing linebacker from reaching quarterback Tua Tagovailoa before he threw a touchdown pass.
Harris’ skills with the ball in his hands are clear, as he illustrated by repeatedly bouncing off prospective tacklers in last year’s championship game. He’s not easy to bring down.
He could have made those punishing runs at another school and accumulated bigger numbers. But he craved the competition Alabama and the SEC offered.
Malu told Harris it takes a “big man” to go to the best program and wait his turn.
“I really feel like he’s going to get his opportunity against Clemson,” Malu said. “This kid is made for big games. Nothing bothers him. … I’m just excited he’s coming back home. This is the coolest thing.”