Marcell Harris insists he didn’t feel he had anything to prove last season and that, in turn, nothing feels different this year as he gears up for his final fall with Florida.
But few if any others would have guessed he’d finish 2016 as the Gators’ leading tackler and now head into his fifth year in Gainesville as one of the faces of the Florida defense.
“I’ve always been ready every time I walked out of the tunnel. I just needed the opportunity to come out and show what I can do,” Harris said.
He got that opportunity, taking over as a full-time player once key defensive cog Marcus Maye sustained a season-ending broken left arm in the ninth game last year. After rotating with Nick Washington at the other safety spot to that point, Harris had his chance to be the guy the rest of the way and delivered.
He finished with a team-best 73 tackles along with 4 tackles for loss, a sack, 2 interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
For perspective, Harris had amassed just 29 tackles through 24 games over his first three years at Florida as a former highly-touted 4-star recruit from Orlando who frankly hadn’t produced to expectations.
It seemed to those on the outside at least that 2016 was set up to be a make-or-break year for Harris.
“I didn’t have to prove too much. I just came out and did what I have to do,” Harris counters. “It was nothing to come out and play. I was ready every game, and once I got the opportunity to actually get my feet set and play a full game it just took on from there. It was like a rose.”
Coming into full bloom.
Flash forward a year later, and Harris was one of three players coach Jim McElwain brought to SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., last week to represent the team. If Florida is going to reload after losing eight key contributors from a defense that ranked fifth nationally last season, Harris must be a driving force.
He got a first-hand lesson on what that entails from the leader of the 2016 defense.
“I lived with one of the faces of the defense, Jarrad Davis. Just seeing how he carried his self throughout the whole season honestly just helped me out during the season and now I know how to carry on the process,” Harris said.
“Just how he carried his self, eating right every day, being on time, being punctual, being a leader, how he talked to the guys from the bottom to the top. He taught me a lot.”
Harris, the son of former Florida defensive back Mike Harris, has no problem being a vocal presence on the field or challenging his teammates. Just ask senior cornerback Duke Dawson, who is admittedly quiet by nature and would be most comfortable remaining in the back of the huddle as the players break it down at practice or before games.
“He always calls me in the middle. I’m always in the back,” Dawson said.
“Marcell is a leader, he’s more of a vocal guy. That’s something that he tries to get me to do. I mean, I’m working on it, but looking at a guy like him I know I have to bring energy as well and bring everything I’ve got day in and day out,” he said.
Harris and Dawson are now the proven veterans in a secondary that also will lean on Washington, budding star sophomore Chauncey Gardner Jr. and a host of young players looking to make their mark.
The linebacker corps is relatively young as well, though sophomore David Reese and redshirt sophomore Kylan Johnson got considerable experience a year ago.
And the defensive line has to replace its two anchors in the middle in Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie, but there is plenty of remaining talent in that unit.
Harris said the expectations for the Gators remain unchanged on that side of the ball: “Best defense in the nation. That’s how we go about things, and that’s just how our attitude is.”
And he’ll be right in the middle of trying to maintain that standard.
Sure, after enough prodding, the fifth-year senior admits that maybe it took a little longer for him to emerge as the player he proved to be last fall. But that was just the start, he teases.
“I mean, who hasn’t [had lofty plans for their college career]? Everybody comes in looking to be a three-and-out type of guy. But at the same time you have to mature. You learn plays better, you see games slower, you just know a lot more and that’s just how I had to mature as a player,” Harris said. “But now I feel like I’m … I don’t know, you’ll have to wait and see.”