College Football's Next Big Thing: 2017 No. 1 Overall Recruit Najee Harris

Tyler Donohue@@TDsTakeNational Recruiting AnalystJanuary 25, 2017

Antioch High's Najee Harris is interviewed after a high school football game against Pittsburg High in Antioch, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Najee Harris had little left to prove heading toward his senior season at Antioch High School.

Already regarded as an all-time great in the San Francisco Bay Area's eastern suburbs, the running back claimed every college scholarship offer a young athlete could desire and had already spent more than a year committed to then-reigning national champion Alabama.

Harris surged to the top of recruiting industry rankings as the 2017 cycle's No. 1 overall prospect, a result of rare physical attributes (6'3", 225 lbs) and prolific production (5,172 rushing yards and 63 total touchdowns through less than three full varsity seasons to that point, per MaxPreps). 

With surrounding hype continuing to crescendo and early enrollment at Tuscaloosa just six months away, adversity arrived in the form of a partially torn meniscus. The diagnosis came in July, near the end of an impressive, exhaustive offseason camp circuit, and while doctors said the injury wouldn't worsen, it was guaranteed to linger.

"They told Najee it was going to bother him a lot but wouldn't be detrimental to his career, so as a staff, we told Najee it was his decision," Antioch assistant coach Juan Corral said. "If you want to pull the plug and shut it down, go for it."

According to Corral and offensive coordinator Brett Dudley, Harris didn't hesitate.

"He battled through it all year, never wanted to quit," Dudley said.

Instead of freshening up for his highly anticipated Crimson Tide career, he worked through an arduous preseason rehabilitation process and then posted career-high totals across the stat sheet. Harris erupted for 2,776 yards and 34 scores on 291 carries in 13 games, adding 40 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions while primarily playing safety on defense. 

He underwent a minor procedure this month to repair the meniscus injury, according to Antioch coaches. It should provide a swift remedy after he experienced more than six months of occasional soreness. 

"There was never a doubt—Najee was going to play, and he was going to play at a high level," Corral said.

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Antioch concluded Harris' freshman campaign, when he played sparingly, with a 1-9 record. Each of the following three seasons resulted in playoff appearances, including the program's first sectional title game appearance since 1977.

He gained 7,783 yards on the ground during this period, despite sitting out at least the second half of a game more than a dozen times, according to Antioch's staff.

Harris completed his prep career on the largest high school football platform imaginable earlier this month, competing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He was one of six Player of the Year finalists at the event, which drew more than 5 million viewers to NBC.

Talking to Bleacher Report last month, All-American Bowl national recruiting director Erik Richards compared Harris to Adrian Peterson and Derrick Henry. "Najee is better out of the backfield than both," he said. 

      

The Next Great Running Back?

Harris hears the comparisons. They've swirled around him since attention began to build when he was an underclassman.

Closest thing to Adrian Peterson.

Derrick Henry 2.0.

Best running back recruit since Leonard Fournette.

Harris is flattered but unfazed.

"I've had role models, but I would always want to be better than them at some point," he said. "They can continue to compare me, but at some point I want them to say 'He's better than them.' It takes time."

Alabama may serve as the ideal launch pad for Harris' mission. Under head coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide backfield has produced two Heisman Trophy winners and five rushers selected in the first or second round of NFL drafts. 

"You watched Derrick Henry evolve during his career, this second half of this season Bo Scarbrough caught fire, and now it looks like they won't miss a beat with Najee," Richards said.

Former Alabama RB Derrick Henry won the 2015 Heisman Trophy.
Former Alabama RB Derrick Henry won the 2015 Heisman Trophy.Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

But don't expect a clone when Harris comes to town.

"What he's going to bring, more so than Derrick or Bo, is his ability to catch the ball," Richards said. "Anybody who has watched him in a seven-on-seven event knows he doesn't drop anything. He kind of goes up for it like [Clemson receiver and NFL draft prospect] Mike Williams. Najee attacks the ball no matter where it's at, and he's very fluid."

This is perhaps the most tantalizing component of a complete-package playmaker. Harris was an exceptional pass target while competing against elite defenders in camp settings, and despite largely being used as a decoy in Antioch's aerial attack, he turned 15 receptions into 260 yards and two scores this season.

Simply put, Harris would remain a blue-chip prospect even if he stopped accepting handoffs. 

"The guy is a 5-star wherever you put him on the field," Corral said. "He's a physical specimen and has incredible football IQ. If he wanted to play receiver at Alabama, he could. If he wanted to stick his hand in the dirt and play tight end, he could. If they want to put an extra 100 pounds on him and play him at offensive tackle, he could. He's that gifted of an athlete."

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Top peers also insist Harris warrants the widespread praise. Count UCLA-bound defensive end Jaelan Phillips—another primary contender for No. 1 overall recruit consideration—among them.

"Najee is a monster," Phillips said. "He's one of those freak-of-nature-type people, being that size and being able to do what he does. His explosiveness, his quickness, his top speed—everything. It's ridiculous. From a defensive standpoint, you have to stay honest because he's such a threat. You have to game-plan for him, but sometimes there's nothing you can do about it."

Antioch rival and perennial contender Pittsburg High School has implemented a 4-3 defensive scheme with two high safeties "since the beginning of time," according to Dudley. With Harris looming, Pittsburg opted for a 5-3 front when the teams met in 2015.

"It was the ultimate sign of respect," Dudley said. "They changed what they do just about 100 percent of the time for a chance to stop Najee."

Harris rumbled for 268 yards and four touchdowns on 37 carries against Pittsburg, spearheading a 44-42 victory that helped define an 11-win season.

Fellow U.S. Army Player of the Year finalist and future conference foe Richard LeCounte, an early enrolled Georgia Bulldogs safety, acknowledges the SEC's defensive coordinators could have their hands full.

"The upside of this guy is crazy," LeCounte said. "When you come to the SEC, you have to play ball. He's going to be as great as he wants to be, and determine his destiny. He definitely can do it. He can be the top pick in the NFL."

        

A Relentless (and Quiet) Recruitment

Unlike the majority of his contemporaries on the recruiting trail, Harris resisted joining a Twitter fray that frequently attracts intense supporters and detractors for prized high school players. He briefly developed an anonymous account but decided to deactivate it. 

Harris changed his cellphone number this fall. Though he says the timing was coincidental, only a select few coaching staffs received updated contact information, and they understood to keep their distance and, as Harris put it, "give me my space."

His reserve opened the door for abundant speculation, ranging from in-state interest at USC and Cal to a possible monumental eleventh-hour flip for Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.

Throughout his stay in San Antonio for the All-American Bowl, Harris was at the heart of varied reports that kept college football fans buzzing. Days shy of early enrollment, he was set to board a plane headed to Alabama, Michigan or back home to the Bay Area, depending on which outlet you read. 

His continued reluctance to publicly provide a concrete plan—even his mom, Tianna Hicks, told Bleacher Report's Damon Sayles that she didn't know where he was headed for early enrollment after San Antonio—led others to fill the void on a storyline that nearly overshadowed his game preparation.

Richards cited a night in San Antonio when Harris preferred to eat upstairs in his hotel room rather than attend a group dinner. When reporters realized he wasn't in line for food, it produced even more intrigue.

"That's probably the biggest thing Najee learned that week," he said. "When you try not to create a media stir, it can create even more of a media stir."

Harris eventually landed in Alabama less than 24 hours after the All-American Bowl, a development that Crimson Tide faithful celebrated and Wolverines followers lamented.

His arrival punctuated a 21-month commitment, which began in part because he hoped to avoid the late drama—which happened anyway.

Last month Harris was in Bleacher Report's New York office with four other All-American Player of the Year finalists, one of whom was uncommitted and juggling five finalists. 

"Is his phone busy?" Harris asked. "I've already got enough stress. I'm glad I announced early."

Prior to that April 2015 pledge, his offer sheet had included Tennessee, Michigan, USC and several other schools. Cal kicked off the recruitment in earnest by offering a scholarship before Harris' sophomore season.

Members of Antioch's coaching staff who used to expect maybe five college recruiters throughout the spring evaluation period quickly grew accustomed to welcoming that total in one day. Harris took it all in stride.

"I'd bring Najee over to meet the junior college coaches who were in town to see other guys, and he would treat them like Nick Saban because he respects what they do," Corral said. 

With his recruitment now in the rearview mirror, Harris has finally reached a fresh, long-awaited chapter.

Harris with Antioch offensive coordinator Brett Dudley in 2014 after Cal extended his first offer.
Harris with Antioch offensive coordinator Brett Dudley in 2014 after Cal extended his first offer.Credit: Brett Dudley

   

Never About Najee

Harris' assessment of his heavily monitored high school career always ends with a topic that doesn't showcase him. He's far more comfortable discussing teammates, family and Antioch.

"I really don't pay attention [to rankings and media coverage]," Harris said. "So what I try to do is make it [reflect] on all of my teammates and people around me. I make all the attention I get go to the community."

More comfortable with weights in his hands than a microphone in his face, Harris helped forge a newfound sense of pride in a town not known for its football prowess. 

"He would ask [head coach John Lucido] for keys to the stadium so he could go out and work, even when we were encouraging him to take a step back in physical training," Corral recalled. "Najee wasn't looking to change the culture. He wasn't a vocal guy. He led by example. When you drive by on a Saturday morning and see him working out alone on the field, it lights a fire under everyone."

Harris (No. 2) led Antioch to its first sectional championship game in four decades.
Harris (No. 2) led Antioch to its first sectional championship game in four decades.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press/Associated Press

Harris didn't intend to set the standard. It just naturally happened.

"I don't see myself as a captain," he said. "I see myself as a helper for younger players to mature. It was hard sometimes because we're all human. I'm a kid, too."

Harris may not see a team captain when he looks in the mirror, but his actions show that leadership traits are deeply embeddedThroughout his junior season, he refused to participate in postgame interviews unless Antioch's offensive linemen joined him.

As the spotlight expands at Alabama and possibly beyond, Harris hopes to shine it on others.

"I want to be viewed as a giver who cares about his community," Harris said.

This mindset is a remarkable turnaround from his early upbringing, which included stays in homeless shelters and hotels, according to Ron Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle. Now graduated from high school a semester early and underway with a scholarship collegiate career, he sees a future filled with limitless opportunity.

"Football opens a lot of doors, so if people see me as a role model, and they see me do all this stuff, it could impact their life and help change it around," Harris said.

Selflessness can be rare among high-profile athletes. It resonates when you spend time with Harris. 

"I showed Najee film of our last game and asked him for advice," fellow All-American running back Eno Benjamin, an Arizona State commit from Wylie, Texas, said. "What did he think about my jump-cut? What's something I could've done better? He's really humble, and I know he can be truthful."

Dudley asserts the young man who departed Antioch this winter has only strengthened the characteristics of that soft-spoken 6'1", 190-pound freshman who showed up in 2013.

"He was a lot skinnier back then, and his dreads were a little shorter," he said. "But he always had the ability to lift up others. In his mind, it's never about Najee."

The focus on Harris will only intensify. Despite the presence of Scarbrough, Damien Harris and a stockpile of other former top recruits, many expect him to shake up Alabama's depth chart before his first college game.

"Najee has the skills to truly be able to push and compete for that starting spot," Dudley said. "He's not going to be in a situation where he doesn't play a lot as a freshman. There's no way Najee would allow that to happen to himself. Physically and mentally, he's going to put himself in position to get on the field right away."

Harris knows nothing is promised, regardless of lofty recruiting rankings and wide-ranging high school accolades. A new path for the reluctant star starts on a campus that has served as college football's epicenter for the last decade.

"I know my abilities, and I've got to keep working, but if any college gave me a shot right away, I'm going to take advantage of that," he said. "You've just got to show them who you are. This recruiting stuff only shows so much because no matter what you do, it's high school."

         

Tyler Donohue is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Quotes and observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Prospect ratings courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted.

Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.

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