At Alabama, it’s never about individual accolades, but running back Damien Harris is closing in on a milestone. Only seven Crimson Tide players have rushed for over 3,000 yards in their career, and Harris could join that elite company during the 2018 College Football Playoff if he can gain just 84 more yards. Whether or not Alabama defeats Oklahoma this Saturday will determine if Harris has one or two games to do so.
A five-star running back heavily recruited out of Madison Southern High School in Berea, Kentucky, Harris chose Alabama over Kentucky and Ohio State. “All three schools are great, but at the end of the day I felt Alabama was the best fit for me,” Harris told the Lexington Herald-Leader the day he committed.
When Harris arrived at Alabama in 2015, the starting running back position was firmly anchored by Derrick Henry. But who better for Harris to apprentice under in his first year than the man who was running for the Heisman Trophy? Harris got a few carries (157 yards on 47 attempts), but mostly his time was spent sopping up knowledge from Henry and running backs coach Burton Burns, a hard grader with high expectations for his pupils. “He critiqued me hard, but I think it helped me understand the finer points of playing this position,” Harris said of Burns in an article for the Montgomery Advertiser.
When Henry declared for the NFL Draft in 2016, many assumed that Bo Scarbrough, not Harris, would be Henry’s successor. But Harris won the job and got his first start against Southern California in the Advocare Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on September 3, 2016. He wasted no time out of the gate and posted a 138-yard day with runs of 46 and 73 yards.
Alabama’s rushing attack in 2016 produced 2,999 yards divvied up between Hurts, Harris, and Scarbrough, a running back firm specializing in cutbacks and collisions. On a limited number of carries, Harris became the Crimson Tide’s only 1,000-yard rusher that season, rushing for 1,037 yards on only 146 attempts, an average of 7.1 yards per carry. Quarterback Jalen Hurts was the second-leading ground-gainer with 954 yards on 191 attempts, and Scarbrough pitched in 812 yards of his own.
Harris had a great game against Ole Miss, logging 144 yards on 16 carries in a 48-43 nail biter in Oxford. In an October 8 matchup against Arkansas in Fayetteville, he turned in a monster day, rushing for 122 yards (including a 57-yarder), and snagging two passes for 60 yards (including a 56-yarder) and a touchdown.
By 2017, Harris was a bona fide starter and the next marquee back in the Saban running back continuum that began in 2008 with Glen Coffee. He wasn’t the flashiest; he didn’t carry the biggest payload; but Harris could get you 5 yards, and he didn’t fumble. And from time to time, he had a penchant for breaking off a big run, such as the time he welcomed the Arkansas Razorbacks to Bryant-Denny Stadium with this play:
Harris posted nearly identical numbers in 2017 as he did the previous year. His total yards weren’t gaudy; he rushed for exactly 1,000 yards on 135 attempts. He was like the factory worker who goes to work every day, keeps his mouth shut, and with little fanfare puts in his 20 years. But oh, was he effective. His 7.4 yards per carry is second in team history only to Bobby Marlow’s 7.5 yards per carry during the 1950 season.
This season, Harris has rushed for only 771 yards, but Alabama’s numbers for rushing yards per game (202.2) are down considerably from the past two seasons. Again Harris was effective against the Razorbacks, rushing for 111 yards and two touchdowns in a 65-31 rout, and in a hostile environment in Baton Rouge, he cleared 107 yards of turf on 19 carries.
If Harris can reach the 3,000-yard mark, he joins a star-studded group of backs that includes two Heisman trophy winners and one back, Shaun Alexander, who rushed for 1,000 yards in five straight NFL seasons.
Here’s a look at the Top 10 in career rushing yards at the University of Alabama:
10. Dennis Riddle (1994-97) – 2,635 yards
9. Johnny Musso (1969-71) – 2,741 yards
8. Damien Harris (2015-present) – 2,916 yards
7. Trent Richardson (2009-11) – 3,130 yards
6. Mark Ingram Jr. (2008-10) – 3,261 yards
5. T.J. Yeldon (2012-14) – 3,322 yards
4. Kenneth Darby (2003-06) – 3,324 yards
3. Bobby Humphrey (1985-88) – 3,420 yards
2. Shaun Alexander (1997-99) – 3,565 yards
- Derrick Henry (2013-15) – 3,591 yards
So what is Harris’s legacy?
Although he has gotten by far the least number of carries out of this group (453), he holds the highest yards per carry average (6.5) of any other back on the list. One has to wonder what type of numbers Harris could have posted had his number been called more.
In the final analysis, Harris might never be considered the best back of the bunch, but quietly he’s been the most efficient. H&A
Cover photo: Courtesy Alabama Athletics