COLUMBIA, MO. • Missouri defensive end Charles Harris was ordained the next superstar along the program’s defensive line, the next sure-thing NFL prospect who wouldn’t have to bother with his senior season. Then something unexpected happened when the season began. Quarterbacks stayed on their feet against the Tigers.
Has Harris worried about his NFL stock this season?
“I’d by lying if I said I didn’t,” the junior said this week. “That’s just being honest. I’m a productive man. I want sacks. I want TFLs (tackles for loss). I want things like that. But in terms of my ability, there’s no lack of confidence.”
Heading into last week’s trip to South Carolina, Harris’ numbers had fallen off dramatically from last year, when he led the Tigers with 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. But in the second game since Barry Odom re-installed the defensive scheme the Tigers used last year, Harris sacked Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley twice among his season-high eight tackles.
“He’s like a different dude now,” defensive tackle Rickey Hatley said.
As the Tigers (2-7, 0-5 Southeastern Conference) approach the final stretch of the season with Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff against Vanderbilt (4-5, 1-4), Harris’ numbers have crept closer to last year’s pace. His 43 tackles rank fourth on the team and third among SEC down linemen. At his current pace, he’ll finish with 57 in 12 games, one more than he had last season. He’s made just 7.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage — four came in one game against Georgia — but with 5.5 sacks, he’s slightly ahead of last year’s pace. Unlike last year, Harris’ production has been more sporadic. In 2015, his first full season as a starter, he had a tackle behind the line in nine of 12 games. This year, he’s made a stop in the backfield in just four games.
“He wants more, which most great competitors do,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said. “I don’t know if he’ll ever be satisfied with his production or where he is. We talked a little (Sunday) night about where we’re at and what I need him to do these next three weeks.”
Odom’s advice to Harris was simple.
“Just go be him. Don’t try to do too much,” Odom said “That’s an easy thing to do for a guy who’s a pretty good player, to try to do too much. But he played really well the other night.”
First-year defensive line coach Jackie Shipp doesn’t doubt Harris got frustrated with his spotty production through the season’s first couple of months.
“Ask Charles Haley did he ever get frustrated when he didn’t get a sack. Yeah, they get frustrated,” he said. “But some teams got rid of the ball quick. And I’m willing to bet when you watch Vanderbilt they’re going to get rid of the ball quick. Is there frustration when you have the ability to get there and you’re (only) getting close? It’s like if there was a million dollars out there and you reach for it and it slides right away from your hand. I think you’d be frustrated, wouldn’t you?”
The popular theory on Harris’ renewed production focused on Odom’s scheme change. The new system, which is technically the team’s old system, unleashes the linemen to rush the pocket on the snap of the ball. They don’t have to read the formation before the snap or make quick calculations on their assignment based on their read.
“I felt like we got back into the groove of things,” said Harris, who was the team’s most outspoken critic of the read-based system new coordinator DeMontie Cross installed before the season. “We got back to getting off the ball and reacting and doing what I want to do.”
Once the season ends in two weeks, Harris faces the same decision former Mizzou linemen Sheldon Richardson, Kony Ealy and Shane Ray had to make after their junior year. (All three indeed skipped their senior season.) Harris is still widely projected as a first-round prospect by draft sites. Pro Football Focus ranked Harris as the No. 17 player available in its latest first-round projection.
Odom plans to stay engaged with Harris when he makes that decision. College teams are allowed to request evaluations from the NFL draft advisory committee for up to five players. Their grades usually come back in late December during bowl season.
“I know what I want him to do,” Odom said this week. “I want him to be successful and do what’s right for him. We’ll have those (conversations.)”
“Coach Odom is being real patient,” Harris said. “He told me when I’m ready to make a decision he let me know that he’s in my corner.”
During his 14 seasons on Oklahoma’s staff, Shipp coached 10 linemen who became NFL draft picks, including first-round picks Tommie Harris and Gerald McCoy. Shipp, a former first-round pick who played six years in the NFL, is convinced Harris will play in the league, too. But is he ready now?
“No, why you all asking me that question?” he said, laughing. “You know I’ve been doing this since I was 15. I did it in the pros and everywhere else. You think I’m going to fall for that one right there? But I appreciate it. I was waiting on that.”