TUSCALOOSA — Najee Harris didn’t even have to contemplate the question.
As a knowing smile crept across his face, Alabama’s junior running back was quite candid when asked about the biggest lesson he’s learned in his first two years in Tuscaloosa: “Being patient. Being patient and waiting for your time.”
The former No. 1-rated tailback from California arrived as one of the most significant signings within a program-defining 2017 recruiting class that also included fellow five-star talents in receiver Jerry Jeudy, offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, linebacker Dylan Moses, defensive end LaBryan Ray and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — all of whom have already started games for the Crimson Tide.
Yet, despite his much-ballyhooed recruitment and unquestioned talent, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Harris has yet to start a game at Alabama, or even be the featured option within its traditionally run-heavy offense.
Not that his lack of a significant role inhibited him all that much.
Last season, playing behind senior Damien Harris — a rare three-year starter for the Tide — and junior jack-of-all-trades Josh Jacobs, Najee Harris averaged a team-best 6.7 yards per carry while rushing for 783 rushing yards on 117 carries to rank second and third on the team in those categories, respectively.
But for Harris — a two-time high school All-American and 2016 national running back of the year who averaged nearly 2,600 rushing yards, 32 touchdowns and 270 carries per season over his final three years at Antioch (Calif.) High — those measly 117 rushes last year barely whet his appetite.
Of course, that was all part of the learning process for Harris.
“Yeah, it’s a challenge because, as a running back and (for) me personally, you always want the ball because I know what I can do with it,” Harris said Wednesday afternoon. “At the same time, it is a business (and) as an NFL (decision-maker), you don’t want nobody that gets (too many) carries. I just had to learn the business aspect of it, and I did.”
Harris isn’t alone in that challenge, and in fact is trudging a similar path as fellow elite running back recruits like Derrick Henry, Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson that had to wait until their junior seasons to become the Crimson Tide’s lead tailback. It’s simply part of what happens for Alabama.
“As a running back, anywhere (you go) in the country, you always want to get in the game and show people what you want to do,” Harris said. “Sometimes, you just have to be patient and wait for your opportunity. It’s really just settling down and just waiting for your opportunity to show people what you can do.”
Still, it hasn’t been the easiest experience for the California prep phenom, who often heard about his limited opportunities from concerned family and friends whenever he returned to Antioch.
“I encountered it a lot when I went home, of course but I mean like, it’s part of the game really,” Harris said. “Like I said, it’s just waiting for my opportunity. I never really stressed out or anything like that because I know what I can do when I’m in the game. So, really, I was just waiting my turn. And it really ain’t a big deal.”
Well, at least not any more as Harris prepares to assume his place as Alabama’s lead tailback this season after working exclusively as the team’s No. 1 running back throughout spring and preseason practice.
“I think last year he played well (and) I think he’s going to do the same thing this year,” junior safety Xavier McKinney said of Harris. “Of course, his role is going to be bigger than what it was last year. But I think he’s going to do a great job. I’m sure he’s excited for it, and I’m excited for him, we’re excited for him.
“He’s put in the work, (and) I know what he’s capable of, I know what he can do. So, I’m ready to see it.”
Harris will pair with fellow junior Brian Robinson Jr. to form Alabama’s traditional thunder-and-lightning backfield duo, with Robinson representing the downhill, power rusher while Harris provides the dynamic and explosive plays sideline-to-sideline. And following the potential season-ending injury to five-star freshman Trey Sanders last week, Harris and Robinson will likely carry a heavy burden as the Tide’s top two options at a position that doesn’t have the luxury of the quality depth it’s had the last few years with those two sitting on the bench.
Of course, while it’s unlikely Harris will average 25-plus carries per game like Henry did during his Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2015, there’s little doubt he will be a central figure this year under first-year Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian — a self-described run-first play-caller.
“You know ideally we want Najee to be fresh and continue to get better as the season goes on and later in the year. So you manage those number of carries, importantly, as the games go,” Sarkisian said Aug. 3. “There may be games in which he is that total bell-cow and we have to go the way we need to go to do what we need to do to win the game. (But) there may be other games in which it’s not as many (carries, and) maybe we do find ways to get him the ball in the passing game and different things.”
However it happens, Harris is confident his patience will finally pay off this season — as is everyone who’s watched him toil through limited opportunities his first two years — even if he’s not quite ready to be considered Alabama’s No. 1 tailback just yet.
“I don’t feel like I have a No. 1 spot. I feel like we’re all competing, especially in camp right now,” Harris said, adding: “I feel like we all as a group should feel ownership (of the position) because it’s not just one person doing most of the work. … Everybody should have (it) in their mind that when it’s my time to go, I need to be ready.”