There’s a moment, right as the lane breaks open when a running back knows he’s bound for a big gain.
For Alabama running back Damien Harris, one of those moments occurred midway through the third quarter Saturday when the sophomore took a handoff from quarterback Jalen Hurts out of the pistol formation. Harris burst through a hole in the left side before stutter-stepping past Southern California safety Marvel Tell III en route to a 73-yard gain.
“Anytime you’re a running back you see a big hole like that, your eyes kind of light up,” Harris said. “It’s plays like that you really want to thank your O-linemen for and make sure you give them all the credit because without them the play would have never gotten started. They did a great job of opening it up and I guess my eyes did get kind of big. I just wanted to make a play.”
The path was cleared by center Bradley Bozeman and left guard Lester Cotton. Bozeman blocked out defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, while Cotton picked up linebacker Cameron Smith, allowing Harris to work his magic.
From there, Tell didn’t stand a chance.
“It’s something I worked on in the offseason, trying to have better balance, better footwork, bursting out of my cuts,” Harris said. “Those are the things Coach (Burton) Burns emphasizes for us to get North and South as fast as possible. It’s something we work on day in and day out.”
Tell is just the latest of Harris’ many victims. Running behind Heisman winner Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake last season, his elusiveness was often overshadowed. However, according to teammates, Harris has been breaking ankles in practice since arriving at Alabama as a five-star recruit last season.
“Damien runs really hard during practice,” said sophomore defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne. “I think that’s what took over to the game.”
Last season, Harris rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown. He almost equaled that total against USC, racking up 138 yards on nine carries.
Heading into the game, many predicted fellow sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough to lead Alabama’s rushing attack this season. Scarbrough, 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, drew comparisons to Henry, who set a SEC rushing record with 2,219 yards last season.
However, it was Harris who earned the start in the Crimson Tide’s 52-6 victory over the Trojans.
“I didn’t think about that at all, to be honest with you,” he said. “I just worked on getting better every single day.”
Harris gained only one yard on one carry in the first quarter, before settling into the game. After getting stuffed on his second carry, Harris ripped off runs of 5, 4 and 11 yards before breaking a 46-yard run with 5:31 left in the half. The big gain came as Harris again used his stutter step to allow right tackle Jonah Williams to open up a hole on the right side.
One thing that helped Harris get going was the substitution for Hurts at quarterback. The true freshman’s ability to run and roll out with the ball prevented USC from stacking the box and helped open up the run game. Harris gained all of his yards with Hurts in at quarterback.
“Jalen is a great quarterback,” Harris said. “He offers a lot to the offense. Teams have to prepare for him. He can throw the ball, he can run – just like all of our quarterbacks; they can all do a good job of that – so defenses have to prepare for that run-pass threat. That opens up a few more running lanes for the running backs.”
Despite Saturday stellar performance, Harris said he knows there’s still plenty to work on. The running back ran into a miscommunication with Hurts that led to a fumble, as both players tried to hold onto the ball during a read-option play on Hurts’ first collegiate snap.
“It’s just something we have to work on in practice getting a little better timing,” Harris said.
Harris also took a little heat after the game, as he was caught by USC track star Adoree’ Jackson on both of his big runs.
“I mean, Adoree’ Jackson is a great player and he’s fast,” Harris said with a sigh and a smile. “So that’s all there was to it.”
Harris said he is always working on his game, figuring out how to develop himself in order to be ready when big plays arise. Last week he gave Alabama a glimpse of how deadly those moments can be.
“I just think for the future of the program, we are going to build off of those guys,” said sophomore offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher of Alabama’s running backs. “Up front, we need to do our job and execute and let those guys run like they can.”
Harris will handle the rest.
Tony Tsoukalas writes for the Anniston Star. You can write to him at email@example.com