A slimmer Damien Harris blazes past defendersBy Ben Stansell | 10/11/2017 10:30pm
When running back Damien Harris broke free in the first quarter of Alabama’s 27-19 win against Texas A&M last Saturday, he was determined not to get caught from behind.
The run against Texas A&M became the longest of his collegiate career, supplanting a 73-yard run he recorded against USC in last season’s opener. However, the difference between Harris’ two runs was greater than merely two yards; while the USC run ended on the six-yard line with Harris being tackled by a USC defender, the Texas A&M run concluded with Harris celebrating in the end zone.
After being tracked down on several lengthy runs before he could find pay-dirt last year, Harris entered the offseason with a specific goal in mind: improve his speed and better his physique to finish off major runs by putting six points on the board. According to Harris, the goal was relatively easy to attain. All it took was a few tweaks to his diet, some extra running and Alabama’s demanding summer practices.
“I changed up the way I ate a little bit," Harris said. "Practice is tough. It was kind of in the middle summer workouts, the summer conditioning program, and into fall camp, so it wasn’t too hard. I just dieted a little, ate a little better, ran a little extra sometimes. It’s not hard when you practice the way that we do, as hard as we do. If you’re not in shape, they’ll get you in shape.”
For Harris, the most challenging part of altering his diet was taking a hiatus from eating one of his most beloved snacks: honey buns.
“I love honey buns," Harris said. I haven’t had one in months, since probably June or July, and it hurts to talk about it."
Harris’ offseason sacrifices have translated into impressive results on the field. With a slightly lighter frame and added explosiveness, Harris has been more efficient with each carry he has received this season. Not only is Harris leading the team with seven rushing touchdowns, but he is also first in the SEC with an average of 8.5 yards per carry, an improvement from his average of 7.2 yards per carry in the 2016 campaign.
Alabama offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher says Harris' patience is another key that helps him run so efficiently.
"He is just a really smart, tough back," Pierschbacher said. "He’s running hard. He knows where to hit the hole. I think he is very patient as well. If something opens up maybe backside, he’ll cut it back and make the right read and makes us look good. We like that."
Although Harris has proven to be Alabama’s most effective running back so far, he is still only averaging around 10 carries per contest – which is exactly what Head Coach Nick Saban wants. Having a backfield as talented as Alabama’s comes with perks, one of which is that the offense does not have to rely on a single running back to be successful.
The deep backfield gives Saban and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll the advantage of keeping running backs fresh and healthy by limiting their usage.
“He has good burst and acceleration when there is an opening and he's made more explosive runs for us than anybody on our team but I still feel that in the long run, the way he's playing, the way we're using the backs is probably the best thing for our team,” Saban said. “Maybe one of the reasons he is healthy and he's staying healthy and able to do what he's doing is that we're playing more guys at the position and he doesn't have to play as many plays. I'd rather see him do that over the long haul of the season rather than start running him 30 times in a game and all of a sudden, he's not able to run at all.”
Understanding and respecting Saban’s management of Alabama’s loaded backfield, Harris is not worried about the number of opportunities he will get to tote the ball, only how he can take advantage of them.
“The way I look at it is, on every run you want to make the most of the opportunity, because you never know when someone is going to come in with fresh legs,” Harris said. “So anytime you get the ball you want to do the most that you can, not only for yourself but for the team. Gain the most yards, get as close to the end zone, make the offense as efficient as you can and make the offense have positive plays.”
Now, when Harris breaks off a big run and no one is standing in between him and the open field, do not assume he will be stopped short of the goal line; instead, expect to see him racing into the end zone.