A Shaun Alexander – Damien Harris Connection
By Larry Burton
Connections help land recruits. Maybe it’s that their parents attended the university. Maybe it’s that a brother played or is playing there. Sometimes it’s a childhood hero you always looked up to. And sometimes it’s because someone from your neck of the woods plays the local card.
And sometimes it’s a combination of things, but connections do help.
When Alabama shocked many recruiting experts by landing Damien Harris, one of the nation’s top running backs, many were scratching their heads and wondering how Alabama pulled that off.
After all, Harris would have had a great shot at being an instant star at Kentucky, if not becoming a starter, at least seeing significant playing time. At Alabama he would enter one of the most highly contested positions on a team full of stars and studs. It might be two years until Harris gets any playing time at running back in Tuscaloosa if at all.
Others have come to Alabama with the dreams that all running backs have, bursting through a hole in the Crimson Tide offensive line and streaking down the field with others in futile pursuit only to give the dream up and take their skills to other teams. Such happened just this week with a onetime top recruit, Altee Tenpenny saw the writing on the wall and took his skills and left for a team that would actually use his talents in his preferred skill set.
You can bet that Kentucky coach Mike Stoops inferred to Harris that such things could happen to him should he go to Alabama and in all honesty, the chances of it happening to him at Alabama are greatly higher than if he went to Kentucky. Harris had also said that his family, friends and heart were all in Kentucky, and most experts had him in the Wildcat column.
So what could have tipped the scale for Harris?
Could it be that someone else that had been in his shoes, standing in bluegrass himself, faced with all these feelings too gave him some advice and a story about that other young man and how things turned out.
Who could that have been?
How about Shaun Alexander. Yes the Shaun Alexander who went from the bench to stardom. Indeed, even in high school he went from second string to star and ended his high school career with the same kind of stardom and splash that Harris enjoyed. Alexander was known as “Alexander the Great”, he was Kentucky’s “Mr. Football” and the biggest name in the state. Parade Magazine, USA Today and Sports Illustrated all sang his praises.
Most thought Alexander would go to Notre Dame where his brother attended. But like Harris, Alexander shocked most by picking the Tide.
What could Alexander tell Harris that would have helped sway his mind?
Could it be the fact that it’s a blessing not to be the featured back at a major college for more than a year or two? It’s easy to point to other great running backs who took too many carries over too many years and paid the price for it. One of the best running backs lately in the SEC was Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. But he was ridden like a rented mule and by the time he finally made it to the NFL, he was a beaten up, used up running back with a long history of injuries that he could just never get over to make it in the NFL.
Many wonder how the injury to Todd Gurley will affect his draft status, and I could list so many others. Let’s face it, playing running back in the SEC or any major college is like playing “Russian Roulette”, an injury could happen at any time.
Now let’s look at the recent history of running backs at Alabama. Glen Coffee, only started two years, went to the NFL. Mark Ingram, only started for two years, won the Heisman, first round NFL. Trent Richards, only started for two years, first round NFL pick. Eddie Lacy, only started one year for Alabama, but despite only having the spotlight on him for one year, he’s not only in the NFL, but was Rookie of the Year and a pro bowl player.
These guys hit the NFL with fresh legs and no serious injuries and were schooled in one of the most NFL like college offenses in the country. Every NFL coach and general manager knew that not only were they great running backs, but in a Nick Saban offense, every starting running back has to prove himself as a great blocker and pass catcher too. They come in 100% NFL ready and everyone knows it.
By the way, in case you forgot, maybe Alexander reminded him that his time at Alabama made him a top running back recruit for the NFL and he went on to earn the NFL’s MVP award as well as multiple pro bowl appearances himself.
Maybe such words were the final thoughts that helped persuade Harris to wear the Crimson, but in truth, we’ll never know the exact reasons, but these connections and connecting these dots are surely a probable reason. Especially when you see the tweet that Alexander sent Harris when word of his commitment was made public.