Najee Harris now shouldering the load for Alabama's playoff hopes

Alabama photo by Kent Gidley / With Alabama starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) out for the season, starting running back Najee Harris (22) is sure to become more of the focal point for opposing defenses.

Folks who are discounting Alabama's playoff chances due to the quarterback transition from Tua Tagovailoa to Mac Jones are skipping right over a notable offensive component still very much in play.

Najee Harris.

The Crimson Tide junior running back has rushed for 876 yards and 6.1 yards per carry this season, with 720 of those yards occurring in the past seven games. Harris also has developed into a receiving threat, with his six touchdown catches having already set an Alabama single-season record for his position.

"I think he's played really well and that he's improved as the season has gone on," Alabama coach Nick Saban said this week. "In the last few games, he's played his best football of the year, and I think a lot of it is just confidence - not really confidence in your ability to do things but confidence in how do you press the hole or how do you run the runs that match up with the position of the offensive linemen relative to who they're trying to block.

"Developing a confidence and understanding of that is going to help you have more successful runs, and I think that's an area in which he has really improved, and that has sort of shown in his production."

Harris, the nation's top running back in the 2017 class, rushed for 1,153 combined yards and 6.5 yards per carry during his first two years at Alabama, when Damien Harris was the starter and Josh Jacobs also played significant minutes. Those two backs are now in the NFL, which left the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder from Antioch, California, knowing he would have a lot more opportunities this year.

Those opportunities have yielded plenty of successful moments, with Harris becoming the first player in Tide history to register three first-quarter touchdowns during last Saturday's 38-7 win at Mississippi State.

"What's been working for me? Experience. More experience," Harris said in a recent news conference. "The games are slowing down for me, and I can see stuff better."

Tagovailoa was lost for the year during the second quarter in Starkville, which instantly put a microscope on Jones. Saturday's game against Western Carolina is not expected to be much of a test, leaving Alabama's visit to Auburn on Nov. 30 as its last stage to state its playoff case.

Harris rushed 19 times for 146 yards during the Tide's lone loss this season, the 46-41 setback to visiting LSU on Nov. 9, and he could need similar numbers against an Auburn defense with a stout front headed by Outland Trophy semifinalist and Bronko Nagurski Award finalist Derrick Brown.

Tagovailoa's dislocated hip and ensuing surgery resulted in Alabama losing its spirited offensive leader, but that doesn't mean leadership has been lost.

"All guys have to lead relative to their personality," Saban said. "You can't ask people to be different than who they are. Najee has always been a leader by example. He's a hard worker. He pays attention to detail. He's a really good practice player.

"He's not a talker. He doesn't say a lot, but he does lead by example, and it's just as important to have players on your team who are willing to do that as it is having guys who talk a little more and show more enthusiasm. I think you need both."

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.