ATLANTA — In the middle of the postgame chaos at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, a blur of crimson and white confetti and cameras and microphones, Najee Harris felt a hand firmly clasp his shoulder from behind.
Harris, one of the heroes of Alabama’s come-from-behind title win over Georgia, turned around to find his curmudgeonly running backs coach Burton Burns standing before him. Burns smiled and extended his arms to Harris, a gesture that would have seemed unthinkable a few hours earlier.
“That was the first time he ever hugged me and was, like, ‘Man, I love you,'” Harris said. “I was, like, ‘What?’ He’s just not that type of dude.”
Harris earned that embrace — and much more — with his breakout performance in the fourth quarter of the Crimson Tide’s 26-23 victory in the College Football Playoff national championship game on Jan. 8.
As a true freshman who entered the night as Alabama’s fourth-leading rusher, Harris was a surprise spark in the fourth quarter with the Crimson Tide trailing by 10 points. All six of Harris’ carries came in that quarter, including a tackle-busting 35-yard run that set up Alabama for the field goal that cut Georgia’s lead to a single score.
It was the kind of showing, both abbreviated and belated, that confirmed Harris could indeed be everything his coaches, scouts and recruiting analysts said he would be when he arrived in Tuscaloosa last January as an early enrollee.
“When you hand him the ball, you can see the talent,” said Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director. “As far as being a runner, he’s an Adrian Peterson [in college] type of player. His talent as a running back is as high as anyone there in Tuscaloosa.”
Depending on the recruiting service, Harris ranked somewhere between the nation’s best college prospect (his blurb in Alabama’s media guide called him “the nation’s top recruit coming out of high school”) and No. 11 nationally on the ESPN list for the Class of 2017. Harris earned that stature with a tantalizing combination of size (6-foot-2 and 227 pounds), speed and production at Antioch High School, about 35 miles northeast of Oakland.
Harris first made a name as a ninth-grader, playing his way onto the varsity late in the year. By the end of a one-win season in 2013, Harris was already one of the best players on a defense that helped hold five-star running back Joe Mixon (a former Oklahoma star now with the Cincinnati Bengals) to a season-low 59 yards.
“You could see it was sort of a passing of the torch to Najee,” Antioch assistant head coach Brett Dudley said. “It was kind of like a coming-out party for him.” Harris ran wild against the competition in Northern California the next three years, compiling 7,947 yards and 94 touchdowns while averaging nearly a first down (9.6) per carry. His career rushing total was good for fourth in state history, according to Cal-Hi Sports.
His Herculean efforts also turned Antioch into a respectable program, leading the Panthers to four playoff wins in his three years at a school that had won only three total from 1975-2013. And thus a program that hadn’t won more than six games in a season in more than two decades went 7-5, 11-1, and 8-5 in his final three years.
It was highly unusual for a talent of Harris’ magnitude to wind up at Antioch, Hundley said. Most of the area’s top players tend to cluster at the better public school programs or De La Salle, the nearby private school power that once won a national-record 151 straight games.
“We got very lucky that he slipped through the cracks to us,” Hundley said. “He literally put the team on his back so many times. To me, he changed Antioch.”
But holding scholarship offers from every top college program in the country, Harris went in the other direction and signed with Alabama.
Harris was the kind of signing day luxury the Crimson Tide have become accustomed to under head coach Nick Saban, a five-star — and possibly the nation’s best recruit overall — willing to get in line behind talented veterans that included a returning 1,000-yard rusher (Damien Harris) and a preseason All-American (Bo Scarbrough). His arrival helped Alabama secure the nation’s top recruiting class for the eighth time in 10 years, according to ESPN.
“By choosing Alabama, he may have been looking at the bigger picture,” Luginbill said. “There’s an awful lot of running backs from this program who have moved on to the next level.”
Burns, who has been with Saban since their first season at Alabama in 2007, has been able to sell recruit after recruit on a system that spreads around the playing time and carries but still manages to produce Heisman winners like Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry and future NFL talents like T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy.
“They see the earlier guys do it and they know it can be done,” Burns said. “They made it easy to show that it can work and show that you can be a high [NFL draft] pick.”
Harris still managed to stand out amid the crowded backfield in the spring, earning praise from teammates and even the notoriously hard-to-please Saban. “Najee had a great spring,” Saban said in May during the SEC’s football teleconference. “I think his knowledge and experience of the game in the spring is going to be very beneficial.”
That seemed to set the stage — and create expectations — for a big fall debut from Harris.
But that never materialized, as Harris had a pair of 70-yard rushing efforts against Fresno State and Vanderbilt early in the season but had only six carries total (all against Mercer, of the FCS) after an Oct. 21 game against Tennessee.
In the jubilant post-championship locker room in Atlanta, Harris couldn’t hide his frustration with the final couple months of the regular season even as he declined to elaborate on it.
“That’s a whole different story,” he said. “I can just tell you now, it was extremely tough.”
That’s what made his fourth-quarter appearance in the title game, with the Crimson Tide down 10 points with only 11 minutes left to go and their offense looking for answers against Georgia’s defense, such a surprise. They had already turned to Harris’ close friend and roommate Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback for struggling starter Jalen Hurts, an especially desperate move for a program that traditionally leans hard on its trusted, battle-tested veterans.
Harris came up big in his short but pivotal stint, rushing for 16 yards on his first carry and 35 on the next. He also had an 11-yard run on Alabama’s final possession in regulation, a first down that helped Crimson Tide get into position for a potentially game-winning field goal.
Harris finished the game as Alabama’s leading rusher, with 64 yards on six carries. He ultimately closed the year as many thought he would: as one of the Tide’s most important players.
“The performance he put on shows that he’s a man among boys out there,” said Trent Richardson, the former Alabama running back who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 2011 and was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. “I was talking to Burns’ wife and she said that he says that [Harris] reminded [Burns] a lot of me. That’s big shoes to fill.”
Told that, then one of the championship game’s heroes, Harris could barely believe it.
“No way. That’s amazing. That’s crazy,” Harris said, standing frozen with a smile on his face for a few seconds. “I barely get anything from Burns — that’s his way of coaching, though. I’m surprised he even said anything like that about me. He expects us to do that.”
Yes, at a program where the extraordinary has somehow become ordinary, the surprises are few and far between.
But 2,300 miles away in Antioch, his coaches believe Harris is gearing up for the kind of sophomore breakthrough that may change the assumptions baked into Burns’ system and depth chart.
“I’m very biased,” Hundley said, “but Najee is the best guy.”