When Najee Harris arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2017, he came with lofty expectations even by Alabama standards. He had enjoyed a stellar prep career at Antioch High School where he rushed for 7,948 career yards. That was good enough for fourth-most in California high school football history, which might be the most talent-filled state in the nation.
He ended his phenomenal career with 2,776 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns during his senior season and perhaps the most impressive highlight film since Reggie Bush.
Many people, including myself, thought he would arrive and supplant Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough as the feature back. However, it would never happen, and for most of the season, he was a non-factor. That is until his name was called at the most crucial time, in the National Championship game. While most people will remember and reflect on the performance by fellow freshman Tua Tagovailoa, the heroics of Tua would have been in vain had it not been for Harris.
Najee would finish the National Championship game with 64 yards on just six carries. While not a record-breaking performance, they were enough to allow Tua to settle down and settle in. The electric performance by the freshman running back would lead to high expectations once again for Harris headed into the offseason.
In 2018, Najee finished second on the team in rushing with 783 yards. That was 143 yards more than his teammate and first-round draft pick Josh Jacobs on three fewer carries.
Most running backs would consider this a great season but for Najee, who was supposed to be a Heisman candidate by this point in his career, it was a little underwhelming. It wasn’t because of his level of play but because of the lack of opportunities. For the first time under Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide was a dominant passing team and this lowered the opportunities for an already crowded backfield.
In 2017, the Crimson Tide quarterbacks combined for 276 passing attempts for 2,401 yards. Those numbers ballooned to 374 passing attempts for 4,231 yards in 2018.
Because of this new approach, the Tide coaching staff would give the bulk of the carries to whichever running back got hot first. With Najee being the youngest, he would be the last to get the opportunity and many times it was too late. He remained prepared and when his number was called, he would make the most of his opportunities.
Despite sharing the backfield with a first-round and third-round draft pick, Harris would lead the team in yards-per-carry by a full yard. Here is the scariest part, from a pure talent perspective, Najee is the most talented running back that Coach Saban has had while at Alabama.
Najee has a rare combination of size and explosiveness at the running back position with exceptional body control. He is a nightmare to try to wrap up one-on-one with the suddenness of his stop-start ability. Najee can freeze defenders with his ability to change speeds and direction when in space. Perhaps most impressive is how quickly he can reach top-speed once he gets a second level seam.
Harris is not just special, he is a generational talent. That doesn’t guarantee him greatness or that he will reach his full potential. However, if he stays healthy and hungry, he will be a nightmare and Saban could have one of the top QB-RB combinations in NCAA history.