Christian Harris, now key cog in Alabama defense, SEC title playing time decision

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It’s been almost a year since Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding sat down in an Orlando hotel ballroom three days before the Citrus Bowl and explained how the need to playing two freshmen inside linebacker hurt the defense last season.

“They had their growing pains,” Golding said on Dec. 29. “I had my growing pains and it wasn’t always perfect, but that was the situation we found ourselves in.”

One of those freshmen, Shane Lee, has played sparingly in sophomore defense this season. The other, Christian Harris, started all 10 games and became one of the team’s most important players in 2021.

Harris, who injured his shoulder in last Saturday’s game opener in Arkansas, remains questionable playing in the SEC Championship game against Florida. Harris trained “for a few days” this week, Nick Saban said Thursday.

“I think he can play, I just don’t know how effective he could be,” Saban said on his weekly radio show. “It will probably be a game time decision.”

One year made a huge difference for Harris, a high school cornerback who was one of Louisiana’s top prospects during the 2019 recruiting cycle. Harris was named a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award and was selected. by Alabama coaches as player of the week after wins against Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Missouri.

Harris leads Alabama in tackles (65), tied for second in quarterback hits (6) and fourth in sacks (2.5).

Saban said part of Harris’ improvement was played next to Dylan Moses, who missed all of last season with a knee injury and forced younger players into the roster.

“I think last year playing freshman was probably tough because he was playing with another freshman so there wasn’t even anyone to lean on to make calls,” Saban said Thursday. . “There probably wasn’t a lot of trust in either guy [Harris or Lee]. They sometimes played with a lot of trepidation in terms of not having a full idea and understanding of what was expected of them.

“With the same knowledge and experience he gained playing with Dylan this year – who has the knowledge and experience to make all the calls – [Harris] play with a lot more confidence. But he’s very athletic. He can run. I think once the gamers get rid of the anxiety of worrying about what I’m supposed to be doing, they really know what they’re supposed to be doing, so they can play fast, play games. He has certainly done a good job for us throughout the year.

If Moses forgoes his extra year of NCAA eligibility and enters the NFL Draft, Harris could enter the 2021 season – his junior year – as one of the team’s most experienced and important players. . The Tide also plan to lose top cornerback Patrick Surtain and possibly cornerback Josh Jobe to the NFL, leaving players like Harris and nose tackle DJ Dale to help lead the defense for the season. next.

If Harris can play on Saturday, his shoulder injury could limit his effectiveness in defending the race. But his athleticism could be a big piece of the puzzle in Florida’s passing defense and tight end Kyle Pitts’ defense.

“Having those kind of athletic guys – like him and Dylan Moses, and the guys we have in high school – is really important when a team is dividing you up like that. You have to have that kind of guy on the pitch, ”Saban said.

Pitts, 6-foot-6, is second in the conference with 11 touchdowns this season.

“He’s one of the guys I talked about,” Saban said. “He didn’t play last week. I think that was one of the things that when he plays he’s a different team. Because they have a lot of other good wide receivers, but when he’s there and he’s playing tight it’s a tough game.

“He’s so big you need a type of linebacker to cover him, but who’s athletic and who can run like a linebacker like he can? And then if you put a defensive back on him, he doesn’t fit you in terms of size. … We certainly anticipate that he will play in our game. He is an exceptional and exceptional player and a very, very good receiver.

In addition to Christian Harris, Alabama may not have defensive lineman LaBryan Ray due to a lingering elbow injury. Ray started the first three games of the season before missing the next three with injury. He returned to play – but not start – three more games before being held against Arkansas.

“He struggled a bit with his elbow injury,” Saban said. “It’s kind of been on again, off again. It is probably questionable for the game.

Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on twitter @mikerodak.

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