GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Marcell Harris says he doesn’t feel any mounting pressure while hoping to step into a bigger role in his third season and fourth year overall with the Florida Gators.
That’s not how he cares to look at it, at least, though others may see this as a rather pivotal season for the redshirt-junior safety.
A 4-star recruit coming out of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Harris was courted by fellow college football heavyweights like Texas, Florida State, Oklahoma, Auburn, Notre Dame, LSU and others. His father Mike Harris had played for the Gators from 1994-97, and Marcell chose to follow his path to Gainesville.
But for as heralded a recruit as he was, his time with the Gators has been rather quiet to this point. After a redshirt year in 2013, most of his impact has come on special teams the last two seasons while he also drew one start last fall against East Carolina.
That could change in 2016 with the Gators needing to fill the void at strong safety left by first-round draft pick Keanu Neal.
“It’s just a stepping stone, honestly. You have to take steps,” Harris said. “… Honestly, I waited for the opportunity and once the opportunity hits you have to make the best of whatever you’re getting.”
Harris and fellow redshirt-junior Nick Washington, who started four games at safety last season, are competing for playing time alongside returning starting free safety Marcus Maye.
With the next influx of promising young defensive backs not far behind him, this would seem a make-or-break season for Harris.
He said he does’t try to put such pressure on himself, but he does feel plenty of motivation.
“When you have first-rounders in front of you in Keanu Neal, you have great people to learn from. You’ve still got one of the best safeties in the game, Marcus Maye, to learn from as well,” Harris said this week. “But coming from that standpoint, I want to be one of the best who ever played this game as well. So (it’s about) coming out there every day to be great and making plays and as a unit making it to that national championship level.”
Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain was asked early in preseason camp what Harris had to do to take the next step this season.
His response was encouraging.
“I think he’s taken it,” McElwain said. “He had a great offseason. His communication has been, he’s so much surer of what he’s doing and he’s communicating with the other guys. We’ve got some real interchangeable parts there.”
From his perspective, Maye said the Gators are going to need to lean on both Harris and Washington this season. He also seconded McElwain’s assessment that Harris is communicating better in the secondary and looks like a more confident player.
“Just seeing him be more comfortable back there, just competing every day is definitely good,” Maye said.
The Gators’ secondary brings lofty expectations into the fall because of the star power at cornerback with Jalen “Teez” Tabor and Quincy Wilson, and Maye’s return at safety, but the loss of Neal can’t be overlooked. He was third on the team with 96 total tackles last season.
During a recent practice open for a portion to the media, Harris and Washington were on the field at the same time as part of the first-team defense during the “fastball period,” with Harris getting work at the nickel spot. Junior Duke Dawson, the projected starter at nickel, has gotten some work at cornerback as well as the Gators try to develop more depth there.
However it shakes out, Harris should have the opportunity this fall to show whether he’s ready to cash in on the potential he brought with him to Florida.
And that’s what the coaches are hoping to see.
“Marcell is a guy that just keeps getting better and better,” McElwain said Thursday. “He obviously is a huge piece on special teams as well and he’ll to do that. Between he, Nick and Marcus, that gives us some flexibility in a lot of different ways as you talk about that position.”
Recruiting ratings and rankings come from the 247Sports Composite.
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.