here was a play in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl where Iowa tight end Noah Fant, a 6-foot-5, 241-pound giant, was the target of a dump-off pass. Fant, who has made his presence known to opposing defenses and assorted scouts by dragging defenders at will, turned up-field after catching the pass—and was immediately stood up and dropped for no gain by an Eagle defender, who stood a full 3 inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter.
Boston College strong safety Will Harris was having none of that reception, making it clear to Fant—or anyone else venturing his way—who will be doing the punishing in the secondary.
It’s a fact that opposing wide receivers and tight ends like Fant have to prepare for when they go up against the Eagles, a program that has rapidly established a reputation for producing talented defensive backs. Harris is the latest, alongside classmate Lukas Denis, who are both following in the footsteps of John Johnson III, Justin Simmons, and, most recently, Kamrin Moore and Isaac Yiadom.
Harris, who was recently named as one of the team’s captains, boasts an NFL pedigree and talent to play at the next level. It’s particularly impressive that the Georgia native, just four years ago, was playing on both sides of the ball—and faced the choice to either follow in the footsteps of his father, a wide receiver at Mississippi State and seventh-round NFL draft pick, or set out on his own path defending the position his father once loved.
He clearly made the right choice.
atching Harris’s high school highlight reel, you quickly see a Choate Rosemary School (Wallingford, Conn.) player with immense, positionless talent. There’s Harris, lined up as a halfback, taking a handoff and scampering for a touchdown from 20 yards out. There he is again, this time as a wide receiver, leaping up in the end zone to convert a potential interception into a touchdown. And there he is taking a screen and streaking up the sideline for a huge gain, linebackers and defensive backs fighting to close the angle.
Comparing those offensive highlights to his defensive highlights, it’s as if he flipped a switch. There, lining up across from wide receivers, or pacing methodically deep in a zone before settling into his stance, Harris looks at home. Gaps once open for opposing running backs are quickly filled by his fast-paced closing strides, ending in him unleashing furious hits. Wideouts appear to have the upper hand against one defensive back, but if Harris is there to help, they rarely come down with the ball. His fearsome presence on defense is showcased on 15 minutes of grainy game tape from a faraway camera angle, where you see him almost strutting away from a tackle, or watch him throw an opposing ball carrier down with a hard shoulder while he remains upright, staring down at his opponent like prey.
BC fans were immediately aware of this presence, as Harris seamlessly transitioned from high school to college over the past four years—he’s been a starter since the ninth game of his freshman season. They’ve seen him levying crushing hits and strutting away or tapping his helmet.
ill Harris Sr. was a talented wide receiver, eventual Mississippi State captain, and Buffalo Bills draft pick. His NFL career didn’t pan out, but Harris Sr. passed his love of the game on to his sons. When his namesake approached him and told him he’d be playing defensive back at the next level—a decision he too had to make after playing both sides in high school—Harris Sr. didn’t skip a beat, proudly watching Will Jr. forge his own way.
“I think it was the opportunity to make his mark as far as his own path,” he recalled. “For a long time, back in my earlier days, I was both ways but gravitated toward the offensive side. I think as he got older, he liked playing both ways, but he fell in love with being on defense. I wanted to encourage that, because either way was cool with me.”
Watching his son play on Saturdays, he sees his impact strengthening the defensive back tradition at BC. Then there’s Will Jr.’s captainship, which is no small feat, and clearly reflects his position as the leader of both the secondary and the overall Eagles team.
“The young guys come in and pick this up—they don’t gravitate to the coaches once they get in,” Harris Sr. said of the role his son’s playing in the resurgent program. “They gravitate to the coaches in recruiting, but once they get in the program, they gravitate to that leadership from the players. It’s definitely a beautiful thing—I know what it holds.”
arris’s role in the defensive back depth chart—and in the film room, locker room, and on the practice field—is well known. Constantly competing with his teammate, classmate, and friend in Lukas Denis, the starting strong safety is an anchor of the secondary. Last season, alongside Moore and Yiadom, the BC defensive backs piled up 18 interceptions—good for 12th in the nation, and an even more impressive opposing passer efficiency that ranked third nationally. The passer rating against, 101.84, was over 30 points lower then the year prior. The resurgent year for the secondary was a particularly impressive one for Harris, who went from a lesser-known face on defense to a starring role.
As a sophomore, Harris recorded 47 tackles, starting all 12 games. He had a pair of interceptions and four pass breakups, a respectable number, but the attention was on Johnson III, the heart of the defense. Replicating Johnson III’s 77 total tackles seemed like a tough task, especially with four talented defensive backs all competing for the limelight. It took Harris just one game for fans and scouts alike to realize that he had returned to the Heights as a more complete weapon. In the season opener against Northern Illinois, Harris flew around the field, piling up 10 tackles and one for loss—a career-high for tackles. The next game, he proved that it wasn’t a fluke, logging nine tackles and two for loss against Wake Forest. The rest of the year showcased the junior at his best—coming up to stop running backs, or dropping receivers before they could turn up the field.
Even when he wasn’t recording a tackle, Harris was having quite the impact. He proved opportunistic in games against Florida State and Syracuse—he picked up a pair of fumble recoveries in each game, returning one 30 yards to the house for a touchdown. Harris finished the year with 83 tackles, nearly double his total the season before, and was a crucial piece of a pass defense that needed to be at its best.
BC’s pass defense was strong under Don Brown, but since he departed for Michigan, it’s only gotten stronger under Jim Reid. Reid, and new defensive backs coach Anthony Campanile, have been able to foster a successful environment, to say the least. That success starts with Denis and Harris, who were the nation’s leaders in interceptions and fumble recoveries, respectively, a season ago.
“It starts in the film room, and we’re competitive there or in the weight room,” Harris said of his teammate, who arrived on the Heights with him in 2015. “We try to outdo each other all the time. I think that creates a healthy environment for both of us to get better, and for the whole back end to get better.”
The competitiveness between these elite talents, a carryover from when Simmons and Johnson ran the position group, has produced highly impressive results. Steve Addazio, BC’s head coach, has been able to watch his defensive backs flourish, a result that seems destined to continue. This year’s group, featuring Taj Amir-Torres and Hamp Cheevers, the up-and-comers, and Harris and Denis, the established stars, will make losing a pair to the NFL Draft a lighter blow to BC than with most other programs.
“Both of those guys are big-time guys—Lukas and Will are the older guys in that group,” Addazio said during a preseason press conference, per BCEagles.com. “Those were guys that have a lot of pride and came up in a group that has a lot of pride, starting with Justin Simmons who set that course. Now you have Will and Luke. It’s going to keep rolling. It’s kind of a good deal.”
The strength of the back end can’t be overstated, especially given last season’s turmoil and injuries at the linebacker position. With four NFL-bound prospects holding down the back, Addazio’s team was able to overcome the loss of eventual second-round draft pick Harold Landry to injury, as well as stalwarts Connor Strachan and Max Richardson.
"Both of those guys are big-time guys—Lukas and Will are the older guys in that group." Steve Addazio
his season, the pressure on Harris could be even greater—even with a resurgent offense anchored by a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, as the BC defense needs to play at a level comparable to last season. It’ll have a consensus early-round draft prospect in Zach Allen up front, and a strong linebacking corps, but the Eagles’ historically strong rushing defense slipped in 2017, opening up the field for opposing quarterbacks. Harris and Co. responded accordingly, but maintaining that level of play—a proverbial “no-fly zone”—will be crucial.
“We all communicate with each other,” Harris said on the key to continuing the success. “There’s anticipation from the film room, and kind of seeing things before they happen. On top of all of that, running to the ball—I think that when you run to the ball, it’s been proven that big things happen when the whole team runs to the ball.”
A year removed from a breakout season that established himself as a name on many draft lists, Will Harris Jr. will definitely be leading the charge to the ball in 2018, making opposing wide receivers wish he’d joined their side when he made his pivotal decision.