A high school defensive back, Christian Harris probably didn’t envision starting his first collegiate game as an Alabama middle linebacker.
Yet there he was last August, stepping onto the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf in place of a friend he’s known since he was a 6-year old back in Baton Rouge. A game-week knee injury to Dylan Moses thrust Harris into the middle linebacker job that’s become a hallmark of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide defense.
A year later, Harris can reflect on the 13-game trial by fire rookie season after he turned the page for Year 2.
That season opener against Duke in Atlanta was surreal.
“It was pretty amazing,” Harris said Monday. “Getting off the bus, traveling was a new experience for me. I think I handled it pretty well, I think as a team we handled the game pretty well. It’s a little bit, the game’s a lot faster in college than it is in high school. Of course, it was my first college game, but I feel like the coaches got me prepared well enough to be able to do whatever I can to help the team be successful, especially in that game.”
Playing alongside fellow-true freshman Shane Lee, Harris made six tackles in his debut victory. That included a third-and-two stuff assisted by another freshman, DJ Dale, to force a Duke punt in the 42-3 win.
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As expected, however, a prime role plus zero collegiate experience led to some challenging moments for a newcomer thrust into the big time. Nick Saban on several occasions said last year’s defense didn’t play to the program’s standard and Harris didn’t dispute that.
The wave of injuries like those that decimated the middle linebacker position was certainly a factor in the struggles when Alabama lost games with LSU and Auburn.
Before that LSU game last November, Saban called Harris a “contentious” player in the preparation while noting his speed and ability to play in space.
Senior Joshua McMillon, in line to start at middle linebacker before also suffering a preseason torn ACL, was impressed with Harris’ ability to grasp the playbook.
“Me coming in,” McMillon said, “knowing what I knew in my freshman year, I don’t think I’d be able to take on that load and be able to perform at that high standard, so my hat was off to him.”
Now there’s an interesting mix of experience and talent in Alabama’s middle linebacker competition for 2020. Both Moses and McMillon opted to return for one final season while Harris and Lee return after starting 12 and 13 games, respectively in 2019.
Harris’s 63 total tackles ranked fourth with a season-high nine stops coming in the Citrus Bowl win over Michigan. He said it was a season of weekly growth with the benefit experience. Unlike Lee, Harris wasn’t enrolled early for spring practice so all progress started May 27, 2019.
The whole never-playing-linebacker-before thing was another obstacle.
“In the beginning, the first couple of weeks it was a little tough: working on pad level, reading the whole defense, having to communicate a little more,” Harris said. “Coach (Pete) Golding is one of the best coaches in the country and he’s coaching me up every day. I had Josh McMillon, Dylan Moses there to help me out every day. I had no choice but to get better every day, especially with the offense that we have.”
Moses has been in Harris’ orbit for a while. Both started at University Lab in Baton Rouge while Moses eventually moved on to IMG Academy. Looking back, Moses said Harris and Lee performed better than he could’ve if forced into the same position as a freshman.
Harris said Moses was “like a big brother” behind the scenes preparing him for to play middle linebacker in the wake of stars like Rolando McClain, Donta Hightower, C.J. Mosley, Reuben Foster and others.
“He was always on the sidelines giving me tips, extra stuff that’s been helping me out to make sure I’m doing whatever I can to help the team,” Harris said. “This year, it’s pretty big having him back out there. He’s the leader of our defense so it gives everyone else a little confidence, as well.”
Communication was Harris’ biggest need for improvement, he said. Mastering the playbook was another offseason project and Harris said he’s more confident in that ability to play fast has developed for Year 2.
“Now I can just go out there and play football, not think and move slow,” Harris said. “I can just play football like I’ve always been doing.”