Byron Smoot was out of options.
His Madison Southern football team was getting beaten badly in its first scrimmage of the season a few years ago fall, so much so the running backs coach of the Berea, Kentucky high school team had one thought: Let’s give the freshman a shot. We’re not moving the ball much anyway.
That’s how a teenage Damien Harris first got on the field as a high schooler.
“His first touch, he takes it around the edge, cuts back, and literally breaks every angle the secondary had on him,” Smoot told BostonSportsJournal.com. “So we’re all like, ‘Wait, was that a fluke? So we give him the ball again, and damned if he didn’t do the same thing, cutting back and making guys miss
“That was the a-ha moment,” Smoot concluded. “From that point on, every time he got the ball in his hands, he was a threat to take it all the way. If he couldn’t out-run you, he would out-juke you.”
For Harris, a former and future teammate of quarterback Jarrett Stidham, that afternoon represented the first step on a high school journey that saw him finish with the second-most touchdowns in state history (122 total; 113 rushing) and the 11th-most rushing yards (6,748), and eventually become the Kentucky Gatorade High School Player of the Year in 2014.
That set the stage for a career at Alabama, where — while sharing snaps with the likes of Derrick Henry and Josh Jacobs — the back managed to finish his four-year career with the Tide with a 6.4-yard per carry average, 3,070 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns. That’s in addition to 52 catches for 407 yards and a pair of scores, all while working in tandem with other backs for most of his time at Alabama.
Now, as he stands on the cusp of his professional career after being taken in the third round of the draft by New England, Harris' coaches from his past (Smoot and Nick Saban) and present (Ivan Fears) paint a picture of a back who sounds uniquely suited for the New England system, both from a mental and physical standpoint.
Saban said one of the reasons Harris was as productive as he was with Alabama for much of the last four years was his ability to thrive in what basically amounted to a platoon-type system.