Name: Najee Harris
School: Antioch, Calif.
Position: Running back
When Najee Harris first started as a freshman at Antioch, Calif., he was shocked by what he saw around him.
The Panthers were 1-11 that season and lacked a hunger that Harris might expect to see at a school were 65.8% of the students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch.
“I had never lived in Antioch before moving there,” Harris said. “It’s a depressed area, where it’s cheaper to live and I thought the kids there might be hungry to get out, that they might have a motor. When I first got here, I can remember in the locker room, before the game, the players, the seniors and juniors, were talking about how we were going to lose anyway. I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ They said we were going to lose and we went out and lost by a bunch. I remember after games, people were telling me to go someplace else. I was thinking, ‘Why don’t they have the same drive?’ I thought everybody would be hungry. We came around, that’s the good thing.”
Instead of heading a little west to De La Salle (Concord), which once won 151 consecutive games, still a national record, Harris stayed put and helped turn the Panthers around.
The first varsity touchdown he scored was against Freedom (Oakley) the fourth game of his freshman year. For the game, which his team lost in overtime, he ran for 92 yards, out-rushing Freedom’s star senior running back Joe Mixon, who is now a redshirt sophomore at Oklahoma.
“I can remember thinking, ‘Is that the dude they’re all talking about?’ ” Harris said. “OK, that’s cool.”
As a sophomore, Harris ran for 2,263 yards and 22 touchdowns and Antioch was 7-5. Last year, as a junior, he ran for 2,744 yards and 36 touchdowns and the Panthers finished 11-1.
“This is where I started and it’s where I finish, with my friends and the guys I played with as a freshman,” Harris said. “I know that’s the right thing to do.”
Even as a freshman, Harris stood out to Terrance Leonard, the director of TMP Elite 7on7 in Northern California. Harris was already 6-1 and almost 200 pounds and you could see when he filled out his frame, he could be a special athlete.
However, what set Harris apart was his mental approach to the game. The summer after his sophomore season, he was at a football camp, when he pointed out to Leonard some of his likely opponents the next season.
“He had this look on his face,” Leonard said. “He’s saying, ‘We play him week one. We play him week two.’ He’s naming these guys, saying this guy doesn’t like to tackle, this guy does this. He made it up to week five. It’s only June and he’s already dialed into the season.”
Harris likes to watch opponents’ video, not so much to see how they will play him, but to get a gauge of his competition.
“Teams will switch up their defenses for me, but I just look at the players, really, to see who the dawg is on the team,” Harris said.
Harris was in demand at various camps this summer, including Nike’s The Opening, where he had a celebrated duel with IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) linebacker Dylan Moses. Harris is a workout and competition fiend, so much so that both Leonard and Marcus Malu, his trainer since he was a freshman, have to tell him to occasionally take it easy, to let his now 6-3, 225-pound frame rest.
“I always have to remind him,” Malu said. “You don’t want to blow a hamstring or tweak something. You don’t need to fly around the world to be seen. The people who matter have already seen what you can do. I tell him, the longer it takes you to get to your goal, the longer your mom is in the hood. He doesn’t shy from competing. He’s very competitive. That’s why we sometimes argue that he’s doing too much.”
Harris went to the Clay Helton camp at Southern Cal in June, but was told by Leonard to sit it out.
“I told him, if you go to USC, you cannot work out,” Leonard said. “He had on jeans, but he found a way somehow to get some shorts. I had a dri-fit shirt for him for the flight back and he put that on. The only thing that prevented him from working out was he couldn’t find any cleats.”
Harris committed to Alabama the April of his sophomore year. Because he has continued to visit other schools and because he’s the No. 1-ranked recruit in his class according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings and an American Family Insurance Preseason ALL-USA selection, his recruitment draws a lot of interest. Harris tries to take it in stride, separating the sales job from reality.
“It is like a dream,” Harris said. “You know how a dream only lasts a couple of seconds and then you wake up? You’re going to go to college and they’re going to tell you everything you want to hear. I’m glad colleges are looking at me, but when I get there, I don’t want to get a false image. Be real with me and I’ll be real with you. I do like recruiting because now Antioch is on the map and other players here are getting offers.”
After football, Harris said he would like to return to Antioch to do what he can to help youth sports.
“I want to have my own business, something for kids, where they’re not hanging out on the street,” Harris said. “Something that will help them stay in school and stay away from bad influences. … I’m not a role model. I don’t want people to look up to me, I want them to be better than me.”