Alabama running back Najee Harris, standing on the sideline during last year’s national championship game in Atlanta, glanced up at the decorative banners scattered around the stadium. He spotted one promoting the 2019 title game in the Bay Area.
“That was the first time I knew this game would be here,” he said. “It was crazy.”
One year later, Harris strolled into SAP Center in San Jose on Saturday with his Crimson Tide teammates. They’re back in the title game, this time facing Clemson on Monday at Levi’s Stadium. That means Harris, the nation’s No. 1 recruit two years ago at Antioch High, is home again.
He returns as part of a potent, three-headed running back platoon for Alabama. Najee Harris, senior Damien Harris and junior Josh Jacobs have combined for 2,136 rushing yards this season, a tidy complement to the high-powered passing game led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Some context: Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor led the nation with 2,194 yards on 307 carries. Alabama’s threesome collectively has 356 carries, spread between Damien Harris (139), Jacobs (109) and Najee Harris (108).
This falls in line with head coach Nick Saban’s longtime blueprint. He prefers not to lean on one workhorse, a luxury he can enjoy because Alabama seems to land the most acclaimed running back recruits nearly every year.
“We always like to have two or three guys at that position who can play,” Saban said. “It keeps everybody fresh and healthy rather than having one guy who carries the ball a lot every game and then gets worn down as the season goes on.
“We’ve been fortunate to have three guys this year who have made a real impact at that position — different guys in different games.”
This is no surprise in some ways, given Alabama’s tradition of pounding opponents on the ground. Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram (the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner) both played for Saban in Tuscaloosa, and previous quarterback Jalen Hurts rushed for more than 850 yards in each of his first two seasons.
Now, with Tagovailoa at the helm, Alabama also fills the air with passes. The Tide rank sixth in the country with nearly 326 passing yards per game — imagine Bear Bryant’s reaction to that — creating space for Harris, Harris and Jacobs to operate.
“We air the ball out a lot, throw to guys on the perimeter, and naturally that frees up the running game,” Damien Harris said. “We’re able to have more explosive runs. It kind of backs people up; there aren’t as many defenders in the box.”
As for Najee Harris, he’s savoring this uncommon West Coast trip; Alabama hasn’t played west of the Central time zone in his two years at the school. This will be his first game in the Bay Area since Dec. 3, 2016, when Antioch fell to Monte Vista-Danville in the North Coast Section Division 1 championship game.
at Levi’s Stadium
vs. Clemson (14-0)
This stage is just a tad bigger.
Harris finds more significance in the location, knowing he will have a rare chance to play in front of family, friends and his former Antioch coaches. Head coach John Lucido, offensive coordinator Brett Dudley and other Antioch assistants are planning to attend Monday’s game. So is Louie Rocha, the school’s principal.
“Every time I come back to Northern California, it feels like home,” Harris said. “This game isn’t any different, it’s just another team. But to be back home, that’s big. I didn’t think I was ever going to play at home again.”
Even so, Harris returns with mixed feelings about his situation at Alabama. He has rushed for 724 yards this season, averaging a team-high 6.7 yards per attempt.
On Saturday, in a 10-minute interview with The Chronicle, he made clear his frustration at not having a bigger role in Alabama’s offense, especially after his breakout performance in last year’s championship game — 64 yards on six carries in the fourth quarter.
“I’m happy to be back home, but I wish I could do more,” Harris said. “I’m limited. … I’m happy, but at the same time I’m disappointed. I want to represent.”
Asked how he’s different as a runner at Alabama than at Antioch, he smiled and said, “I try to break every run, to be honest with you, because I don’t know the next time I’m going to get in. … I’m always ready when my name is called. That’s something I can control.”
Saban is accustomed to the delicate balancing act of rotating high-level players. He praised Harris’ talent, production and work ethic, while also acknowledging the running back committee approach creates some frustration.
“I’m sure, like any competitor, Najee would love to play more and get more opportunities,” Saban said. “But his time will come.”