Even in a world of coronavirus testing, quarantines and a delayed start to the Southeastern Conference football season, this year may be more normal than last year for Alabama sophomore inside linebacker Christian Harris.
Harris entered preseason camp a year ago as an understudy to veterans Joshua McMillon and Dylan Moses, a Butkus Award finalist from the season before, but McMillon and Moses sustained season-ending knee injuries before the Crimson Tide kicked off their year against Duke inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That left Harris and fellow true freshman Shane Lee as the inside starters against the Blue Devils, and they responded by helping Alabama roll 42-3.
In his college debut, Harris made six tackles and helped limit Duke to 204 total yards.
"It was pretty amazing, traveling and getting off the bus — that was all a new experience for me," Harris said Monday afternoon on a Zoom call. "I think I handled it pretty well, and I think our team handled it pretty well. The game is a lot faster than it was in high school, but I feel like the coaches got me prepared well enough to be able to do whatever I could to help the team be successful."
Alabama's defense didn't handle every opposing offense with such ease, especially in the 46-41 loss to LSU and the 48-45 setback at Auburn, but Harris made the most of his opportunity and progressed along the way. The 6-foot-2, 232-pounder from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, started 12 of 13 games and compiled 63 tackles with 7.5 for loss, leading all SEC freshmen in lost-yardage stops.
Both ESPN and USA Today named Harris to their respective Freshman All-America teams, and he capped his inaugural year by racking up nine tackles and two tackles for loss in the 35-16 defeat of Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
"They had their growing pains, and I had my growing pains," Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding said of Harris and Lee last December at the bowl game. "It wasn't always perfect, by any means, but it was a situation that we were put in, and I'm extremely proud of how they handled themselves.
"A lot of schools play freshmen, and we've played a lot of freshmen before. The unique part was having two 18-year-olds who have never been in the system who were side by side. They were the signal callers playing side by side."
Linebacker was new to Harris, who played receiver, cornerback and returned kicks in high school. He had plenty of coaches involved with his development last season, starting with Golding and head coach Nick Saban and including Moses after his injury five days before the opener.
"I've known Dylan since I was 6 years old," Harris said. "I've been growing up with him, running track and playing football, and coming here to Alabama after Dylan was a big help for me. He's really like a big brother to me and is always helping me out, even when he got hurt. He was always on the sidelines giving me tips.
"This year, it's great having him back out there. He is the leader of our defense and gives everybody else a little bit of confidence."
Harris may take a hit in playing time with Moses back on the field, but he is certain to be a quality contributor for a unit and a team seeking to rebound after missing out on the College Football Playoff for the first time.
"The Alabama standard is something we talk about every single day — workouts, meetings, practice," Harris said. "Being 11-2 at Alabama is not something we will look back and be proud of. We want to win national championships.
"That's the Alabama standard."