Ellis was a four-year starter at linebacker under coach Bret Bielema. He played his final game in the middle in December, though, leaving behind a hard-working legacy and a gap in the heart of the defense.
That’s where Harris steps in.
A sophomore from Louisiana. Harris at times played with Ellis at linebacker in Arkansas’ 4-2-5 defense last season. When Dre Greenlaw was lost for the rest of the year halfway through the season against Alabama, it was Harris, then a freshman, who was called to take most of the reps. Trial by fire, they call it. Harris responded in the back half of the season, with 7 tackles against LSU and 10 against Mississippi State.
Now, with Greenlaw still nursing his broken foot, Harris is the group’s elder statesman. It’s a new role that doesn’t come naturally to him, but he’s taking it head on.
“My sense is I’m the starting MIKE (middle) linebacker,” Harris said. “I’m trying to make the defense trust in me right now. Just be that leader, that alpha male of the defense. That’s all right now.”
Arkansas asks, Harris answers
Those words don’t come from a cocky place. Harris wasn’t actively seeking a dominating type of role. Linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves recommended it for him. Hargreaves knows Harris’ potential. And with his experience, too, Harris is almost the leader by default.
Talk about growing up in a hurry. Harris still had to lose baby fat he carried through last season. He played most of the year at 255 pounds. Now he’s around 238. The idea is less weight will make him more svelte which will make him lighter on his feet.
The first step in developing his leadership role was taking responsibility for his body and changing it, Harris said. Hargreaves wanted to challenge his alpha male after the 2016 season, knowing what lay ahead. With the way Harris is handling it, Hargreaves is probably rather proud.
“Coach Hargreaves told me in the offseason, go in and pick out a linebacker in this conference, like Reuben Foster, that was my film. I was just watching him. If I want to be better, I have to start with my weight,” Harris said. Hargreaves “is always trying to remind me, he’s trying to get that alpha male out of me every day. I come into his office and we just watch film. I have to step up and be that guy and run that defense.”