TUSCALOOSA — Christian Harris’ return to his Baton Rouge-based alma mater this past Friday allowed University Lab head coach Andy Martin the opportunity to check in on his prized pupil six months into his freshman year at Alabama.
“He’s enjoying it,” Martin told the Montgomery Advertiser this week. “He said it’s much faster in college than in high school, obviously, but he’s having a (good) time.”
But it was the encouraging report he got from first-year Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Pete Golding — Harris’ position coach — that put Martin’s mind at ease.
“He just said Christian is doing a great job of being physical, and that was my biggest concern with him,” Martin said of a recent conversation with Golding. “He knows a freshman is going to make mistakes in terms of the mental game, and (Harris) has to keep learning that part of it, but if he can be physical, that’s half the game and he’s doing a good job of that.”
Much like the true freshman Harris, Golding is a Louisiana native from Hammond — an hour’s drive from Baton Rouge — and was the mastermind behind the forward-thinking idea to move a multi-positional threat like Harris to inside linebacker at the next level, and convince him to sign with his hometown’s rival program located 350 miles north in Tuscaloosa.
According to Martin, LSU initially recruited Harris as a versatile H-back/running back/tight end, taking advantage of his playmaking ability on offense instead of defense.
But it was Golding’s plan to take University Lab’s cornerback/receiver/running back/kickoff returner and turn him into a weakside middle linebacker at the heart of Alabama’s defense.
“I didn’t necessarily see it right away, and I’ll be honest, I told other people (at the time), if somebody said (Harris) would be starting on one of the top defenses in the nation as a freshman, I’d say that’s going to be difficult to do,” Martin said. “But a credit to (Harris), and by all accounts, he’s just gotten so physical and is doing such a good job. That’s a great thing for him.”
Harris is the third product of University Lab, which is located in the middle of LSU’s campus, to defect to Tuscaloosa in the last six years, following in the footsteps of former Alabama outside linebacker Tim Williams in 2013 and junior inside linebacker Dylan Moses, who is sitting out the year after suffering a season-ending ACL injury in August. There’s also redshirt-sophomore reserve outside linebacker Christopher Allen, another Baton Rouge product by way of Southern Lab, among 10 Louisiana products on the Crimson Tide’s roster this season.
“Coach Golding does a great job recruiting down here and has good relationships down here,” Martin said, “and I think that definitely helps Alabama get some of these kids to go up there too.”
And so far, Golding’s gamble is paying dividends for everyone involved.
“(Harris has) done a good job and he’s really conscientious, works hard at it,” Saban said earlier this week. “I think the more reps he gets in practice and preparation, the better he plays in the game.”
Despite some early-season struggles against the pace and complexities of SEC offenses, including getting pulled off the field at various points this season, Harris has continued to prove himself capable of handling his responsibilities at the starting Will linebacker spot.
“I think he’s handled it really great,” Martin said of Harris. “We’ve talked to him a little bit about it and he even said it, ‘I’ve got to take off sometimes because I just didn’t know some of the things and wasn’t doing it right.’”
Since earning his first start in the season opener alongside fellow freshman Shane Lee following preseason ACL injuries to veterans Josh McMillon and Moses, Harris has used his natural athleticism and play-making ability to rank fourth on the team with 40 tackles, including registering at least six tackles in five of Alabama’s eight games this season and four of the last five.
“He’s a very explosive player. He can run fast. He’s a good cover guy. He plays well in space. We’re pleased with the progress that he’s made,” Saban said. “We still have work to be done as each and every week presents some new challenges, especially for the young guys. But he’s been very conscientious in his preparation and I think that’s all we can ask at this point, and he has continually improved as the season has gone one.”
That includes showing off his speed on a 37-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown in the first quarter of the Arkansas game two weeks ago.
“He’s progressed a lot. Coming in as a freshman and having to play and take on responsibility, it’s something you can’t even dream about,” senior outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings said of Harris this week. “It’s hard — I mean, he’s still up to the challenge and he’s done a great job and continuing to get better.”
Harris’ willingness to embrace that challenge rather than wilt from it, or succumb to the occasional hard coaching Saban is known for has also helped show he’s got what it takes to continue earning considerable playing time.
“I think he’s handling it great, I think his attitude is great about it, and there’s no time to pout about it,” Martin said of Harris. “It’s, ‘Let me fix it and see what I have to do to make sure I stay on the field.’”
That attitude will have Harris starting Saturday against his hometown team as No. 3 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) hosts No. 2 LSU (8-0, 4-0 SEC) at 2:30 p.m. for an annual divisional rivalry game with series implications for both the SEC championship and College Football Playoff.
It’s because of that significance that Martin believes the 6-foot-2 and 244-pound former four-star signee out of LSU’s backyard will experience some nerves early Saturday.
But just like everything else Harris has experienced this season, Martin knows he’ll settle in and prosper.
“I think there’s a little bit of nerves there, just (because) it is a place where you were for four years on campus,” Martin said. “But I think once the ball is kicked off, I think it’s going to be like any other opponent. He wants to do well, he wants to do whatever he can to help his team win. I think there may be some nerves early on, but once they get going, it’s the next opponent (and) he’s going to ready.”