Mark Story

Mark Story: Does Damien Harris take the Tim Couch route or the Shaun Alexander road?

Madison Southern's Damien Harris is considered the nation's No. 1 running back.
Madison Southern's Damien Harris is considered the nation's No. 1 running back. Herald-Leader

In 1995, Kentucky high school football star Tim Couch weighed offers from a Who's Who of college football powers — Notre Dame, Florida State, Auburn, Tennessee, Penn State, Ohio State — then spurned them all to stay home and play for the University of Kentucky.

The quarterback went on rewrite the UK records books as a passer, led Kentucky to its first New Year's Day bowl in almost five decades and became the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.

To this day, Couch is one of the most popular sports figures in his home state.

Clearly, his decision worked out.

In 1994, Kentucky high school football star Shaun Alexander weighed offers from a Who's Who of college football powers — Notre Dame, Michigan, Alabama — before eventually casting his lot with the tradition-rich Crimson Tide. The running back went on to star on a Bama team that won the 1999 SEC championship, was a first-round pick (19th overall) in the 2000 NFL Draft and became the 2005 NFL MVP.

To this day, Alexander is a respected sports figure in Alabama, as his 2011 induction into that state's Sports Hall of Fame showed.

Clearly, his decision worked out.

Which brings us to Damien Harris.

The Madison Southern running back — a state of Kentucky rarity as a five-star football recruit — is scheduled to announce his college choice Friday at 1:15 p.m. at the high school. He has said his finalists are traditional football titans Alabama and Ohio State and home state UK.

For those seeking "the inside skinny" on what the dynamic 5-foot-11, 205-pounder will do, I have no idea. What I can tell you is that, after months when the general consensus among the recruiting geeks seemed to be that Kentucky was in good shape with Harris, the winds seemed to be shifting strongly toward Alabama on the Thursday before the announcement.

Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals.com, tweeted that "#RollTide is now my revised guess for Damien Harris. Way too many informed people telling me he's not staying home."

What I do know is that there's no bad decision Harris can make.

If he picks Alabama (or Ohio State, though that seems unlikely given that the Buckeyes hold a commitment from running back Mike Weber, the top-ranked prospect in the state of Michigan), Harris would merely be embracing the same dynamics that caused Alabama high school basketball prospects Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins to leave their home state to play for Kentucky.

Nick Saban and Bama offer Harris the chance to play with other lavishly hyped recruits on perhaps the most high-profile college platform in their sport and with a proven route to the pros. In other words, exactly the same formula that John Calipari sells to top hoops recruits.

Anyone who embraces the steady stream of elite, out-of-state talent that has fueled the current success of UK men's basketball has no right to criticize Harris if he chooses to take the same route in the opposite direction.

Conversely, if Thursday's speculation proves errant and Harris picks UK, it is a good decision.

For one, his friends and family will have easy access to see him play college football in person. Harris' presence probably would help Mark Stoops and staff attract other top players. In sophomore-to-be Stanley "Boom" Williams, Kentucky appears to have another star-quality running back, so Harris would not be a one-man band in Lexington.

As Couch showed, a homegrown recruit who turns down college football's "big boys" and leads the Kentucky Wildcats to success earns an enduring place in the affections of The Long Suffering UK Football Fans.

Couch also proved you do not have to leave the commonwealth to play college football to end up going high in the NFL Draft.

So Harris is in the enviable position where he cannot make a bad decision. He simply needs to do what he and his family think is best for him.

Whatever happens, my least favorite part of the mass-media spectacle that these high-profile recruitments have become is the backlash toward high school kids from members of fan bases who feel rejected.

Damien Harris is a state of Kentucky success story.

Here's a novel thought: Regardless of what he announces Friday, be happy for him.

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