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A Salute to the 2018 Alabama Seniors: Damien Harris — “My greatest accomplishment”

In a career filled with achievements...

(C) 2018 University of Alabama Athletics

The 2015 recruiting cycle was loaded with starter (and star)-caliber running backs: Nick Brossette, Derrius Guice, Ronald Jones II, Saquon Barkley, Johnny Frasier, Dexter Williams, Desherrius Flowers (USF via UA), and L.S. Scott would all be impact players at their school (and eventually part of NFL classes).

But, for much of the year, the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit was the bespectacled A- and B-student from Berea, Kentucky, a 5’10”, 210-pound fire plug of a player: Damien Harris, the reigning USA Today Kentucky High School POY.

Growing up just 40 miles away from the Kentucky campus, and in the perpetual shadow of the mighty Buckeyes, his truly was an agonizing decision to make. After years of fierce recruitment, Harris’ final list was whittled down to Ohio State, Alabama, and home state Kentucky (He is still a rabid Wildcat hoops fan.)

“I know the time, the effort, the hard work that goes into (a rebuilding process),” Harris said after last week’s All-America game. “But at the same time I’ve been battling with do I want to go somewhere that’s already established where I have great players around me.”

He said after the Under Armour game that a coach like Nick Saban and the wealth of talent on Alabama’s roster were major selling points in his recruitment, ultimately out-weighing the appeal of staying close to home to play for the emerging Kentucky football program.

In the end, Harris chose the Crimson Tide:

“It was an extremely tough decision,” Harris said at Saturday’s national title game media day. “It came almost up to the last minute. It was clearly a tough decision, but at the end of the day, I felt like I did what was best for me. I’m obviously happy with my decision. Playing in my third national championship in three years, I think I made the right choice.”

That NSD15 class would see the 5-star Harris join a crowded Tide backfield that, at the time, included: Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones, and early enrollee Desherrius Flowers. Half of that backfield would go on to transfer for one reason or another; one would become a national title game hero; another would have one of the most jaw-dropping seasons in college football history en route to a Heisman Trophy. The final one, Damien Harris, has yet to see his pro future written, but he leaves a legacy as one of the best to ever wear a crimson jersey at the position and — on a team stacked with personalities and high character kids — leaves as one of the most well-respected, well-liked players of recent memory.

It did not start off easily for Damien, however; the upgrade in competition had plainly affected him. Harris’ growing pains were apparent as a Freshman — he seemed tentative, looking to pick his way through defenders rather than trust in his blocking and his considerable The upgrade in competition had plainly affected Harris. That year, he would get 46 carries for 147 yards — just 3.4 YPC, and that number is actually skewed favorably too, since he ripped off a 41-yard gain. In reality, he was closer to 2 YPC.

However, the spring of his Sophomore season, it was clear in the A-Day game that he was a very different player. It was a Damien Harris that Tide fans would see for the next three seasons: He ran with more determination, saw holes quicker, hit the line with more determination, used his footwork to his advantage, became more physical in his blocking, and picked up the passing game as a receiver.

Particularly in the last two seasons, he was both a more powerful player and one in better shape. He discovered that breakaway speed that had eluded him — but it took abandoning his love of honey buns.

For the next three years, as part of Alabama’s deep backfield, Harris would average only 10 carries per game, but he garnered close to 7 yards per attempt and became Mr. Consistency. That steady work left him entering last season very much in contention to be the Tide’s all-time leading rusher. He came up short though, finishing his career with 3070 yards rushing, netting 23 TDs (6.4YPC) on the ground, and adding 52 catches for another 408 yards and 2 scores. He was a second-team All-SEC Selection in 2018.

Following stellar sophomore and junior seasons, Harris did encounter somewhat of a wrong-place-wrong-time professional moment. The 2018 NFL Draft class was loaded at running back. And, while Harris’ stock had never been higher, he would have had the misfortune of competing against Saquon Barkley, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Derrius Guice, Ronald Jones and others.

But, you get the feeling that even if he were a first round lock, there’s no guarantee he would have gone pro. For Damien Harris, talented though he is, truly emphasizes the student in student-athlete. Beyond that, he genuinely loves the University of Alabama:

“There were a lot of things that went into this decision,” Harris said. “You could point out Xs and Os, pros and cons for both, but at the end of the day, it just kind of resulted in me wanting to come back to this team for another year. I love this university, and there’s been a lot of great things and a lot of great memories that I’ve had over these three years.

“… I just wasn’t ready to leave yet, and I wanted to come back to this team and continue to try to do something even more special than what we’ve already accomplished. I just wanted to come back. There’s a lot of people that I have a lot of love for. I love this coaching staff, I just really love being a part of this team. … I just really wanted to be a part of this team for one more year.”

That love and leadership is not only reflected on the field, though. Professor Brian Oliu explains more about Harris — the student, the leader, the person:

From the Montgomery Adverstiser:

I have a special place in my heart for students that look out for other students. Student athletes have this mentality built in--it’s one of the things I admire & enjoy about teaching them. (A certain Samoan QB is good at this too.) A rising tide lifts all boats, yeah?

— Brian Oliu (@beoliu) November 24, 2018

But Damien is a perfect example of this--when my freshmen are slacking off, I can message Damien & he’ll take care of it. When you think of a model student-athlete, Damien is the guy. I’m grateful for him.

— Brian Oliu (@beoliu) November 24, 2018

At the end of the day, Harris finishes his Alabama career as the Tide’s 7th-leading rusher, somewhat skewed, since the leader (Derrick Henry) is less than 500 yards ahead of him. You won’t find Damien Harris’ name dotting the record books: He only appears in the top 10 in one other statistical category. But there, he is first, and it is a ‘Bama record that is likely to be his for a long-time. Harris’ 6.4 YPC are obscene. Only two other Tide players have come close to that, and neither (Henry, Trent Richardson) even hit 6 yards a carry for a career.

But that accomplishment in his storied career that saw three SEC titles, two national championships, and four College Football Playoff appearances, doesn’t measure to that achievement of which Harris the proudest.

And it’s what we’ve saved it for last:

“It [Graduation] was my greatest accomplishment to date,” Harris said. “All the national championships we won, all the games we won are special. But graduating, getting my degree, that was the ultimate, ultimate celebration. My family was here, they’re all happy, they’re excited. So, it was just a great time.”

“It was one of the more important reasons why I came back,” Harris said. “My degree is something no one can ever take away from me, and the opportunity to come back and get it was something special for me and my family.”

There truly is nothing left to add. One of the most thoughtful, insightful players in ‘Bama history has said it all. And he is one helluva’ young man that will be missed in the classroom, by his peers, in the locker room, and on the field.

On behalf of Alabama fans everywhere, we truly wish him the very best. Have a great life, and welcome to the family of Alabama alumni, Damien — we know that’s the thing you’re proudest of.

Roll Tide