UK Football

No one in Kentucky should have ill feelings toward Damien Harris

Before suffering an ankle injury in the first quarter last Saturday against Kent State, Damien Harris, No. 34, was averaging 109 rushing yards a game and 9.1 yards a carry for Alabama.
Before suffering an ankle injury in the first quarter last Saturday against Kent State, Damien Harris, No. 34, was averaging 109 rushing yards a game and 9.1 yards a carry for Alabama. Associated Press

At 7:44 p.m. Sunday, Alabama running back Damien Harris took to Twitter to express his feelings.

With the Crimson Tide set to face Harris’ home-state school, the University of Kentucky, Saturday night, @DHx34 tweeted “this week is personal …”

Within minutes, the tweet was deleted.

Nationally, there may not be much excitement about No. 1 Alabama (4-0, 1-0 SEC) meeting UK (2-2, 1-1), but locally the Harris vs. UK angle gives an expected mismatch a compelling subplot.

From Harris’ tweet, it seems safe to surmise the back intends to play vs. UK. That looked in doubt when he was carted off the field last Saturday in the first quarter of Alabama’s 48-0 pasting of Kent State after an ankle injury.

Subsequently, Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban said it was an ankle sprain. On Monday, Saban declared Harris “day-to-day.”

So the melodrama that has been Harris and UK seems apt to have an on-field climax.

As he should have when the No. 1-rated running back in the country went to high school 36.9 miles from Commonwealth Stadium, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops went all in on recruiting Harris.

UK seemed to have Harris’ ear, too. The 5-foot-11, 214-pound back attended six Kentucky home games in 2014.

Asked Monday at his weekly news conference how close Kentucky believed it was to landing Harris, Stoops said “I thought we were very close.”

For my money, if you want to know where UK’s bid went bad, you need only look at Kentucky’s on-the-field performance down the stretch of that 2014 season.

After starting 5-1, the Cats ended the year losing six in a row. Worse, UK was not competitive in three of those games: a 41-3 loss at LSU; a 63-31 defeat to Georgia; and a 50-16 strafing at Tennessee.

With UK’s play sowing doubt, Alabama’s recruiting pitch had to look increasingly enticing to Harris. Come play on the biggest stage in college football. Compete for national championships. Get on the most-proven route to the pros.

In other words, Harris choosing Alabama reflected exactly the same calculations that a small army of out-of-state basketball stars have made in choosing Kentucky during the John Calipari era.

The fact that Kentucky had been consistently portrayed as the leader for Harris in the recruiting media throughout the fall of 2014 made the social media backlash he endured in his home state worse when he instead chose Alabama.

The UK coaches, who had put so much into the recruitment of Harris, may have understandably felt jilted. No one else had — or has — the right to feel that way.

Interestingly, Stoops said he and Harris met this past summer to talk things through.

“(I) had lunch with Damien,” Stoops said. “And I will keep (what was said) between he and I.”

A season ago, as a true freshman, Harris played sparingly behind eventual Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. He ran 46 times for 157 total yards and one touchdown.

Harris also got a national championship ring.

This year, Harris has emerged as Alabama’s top back. Before his abbreviated performance (four carries, 18 yards) against Kent State, he was the Tide’s leading rusher, having run for 327 yards on 36 carries. That was good for robust averages of 109 yards a game and 9.1 yards a carry.

“Damien looks very good, just like we knew recruiting him and watching him play right here in Kentucky,” Stoops said. “He looks very explosive, and the great vision and great jump cuts … that’s what you see out of him.”

During the Stoops era, UK has actually fared pretty well when going head-to-head in recruiting against Alabama for in-state prospects.

According to the database, John Hardin nose guard Matt Elam, Woodford County center Drake Jackson and Lafayette offensive tackle Landon Young all held scholarship offers from Bama. All three are Kentucky Wildcats.

Elam, Jackson and Young will get to play in front of their family and friends and try to help build something in their home state.

Harris is playing in the best college football program in the country.

Moral: There is no wrong answer for a player in making that recruiting choice.

As for Saturday, UK fans have every reason to pull against Harris.

Otherwise, Kentuckians should be proud of Damien Harris — a commonwealth success story.