Sunday night was a good night for fans of Kansas University football.
However short the moment might have been, the few hours that made up and followed the Denver Broncos’ 24-10 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl 50 gave KU fans an opportunity to brag on a couple of their own.
Former Jayhawks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, starting cornerbacks for the Broncos’ dominant defense, played a big role in knocking off the Panthers and delivering the third world championship to Denver.
Sunday’s Denver victory marked the first time since offensive lineman Justin Hartwig won Super Bowl XLIII with the Pittsburgh Steelers that a former Jayhawk stood on top at the end of an NFL season and just the second time ever that a pair of teammates who played their college ball at Kansas won football’s top prize together, joining Don Davis and Rod Jones, who helped St. Louis win Super Bowl XXXVI.
Obviously, Talib and Harris winning a Super Bowl does not erase the misery of the past six KU football seasons. Nor does it automatically make the outlook for the next year or two suddenly sunnier than it once was.
But bragging rights are bragging rights and when you’re a fan base as starved for success and feel-good moments as KU’s, you take ‘em where you can get ‘em, and this was certainly a place where you could get it.
For starters, Harris is as good of an ambassador for KU football as there is on the planet. He’s proud of his time at Kansas, still keeps up with the program regularly — even going as far as to watch and Tweet about most of KU’s games on Saturdays — and every time I’ve talked with him in the past five years has spent a good 5-10 minutes of each conversation drilling me on the ins and outs of the KU program and the Jayhawks’ chances at turning things around. He lives that whole “Once a Jayhawk, always a Jayhawk” thing.
And he deserves every bit of the success and credit he is getting for helping Denver win it all. Mostly, because he created it for himself.
Undrafted out of college, Harris worked his butt off to make the Broncos’ roster as a free agent and made his way up through the ranks by standing out on special teams. There came a point, early on, when his passion, heart and effort spoke so loudly that the coaches had to put him on the field on defense to see what he could do. The only thing that has pulled him off since then is injury.
And now Harris and Talib, who started in KU’s secondary on that Orange Bowl championship team back in 2008, can put a little NFL hardware next to their college accolades. Knowing these guys, you can bet that simply tasting that kind of success is only going to make both guys even more hungry for more in the future.
Most of this you know. I’m aware of that. But one of the things that seems to be missing from the feel-good narrative of the former Jayhawks turned NFL champs is the incredible amount of work both players have put in to get to this point.
Give former Kansas coach Mark Mangino plenty of credit for recruiting both of them. For different reasons, each player was an overlooked or unwanted two-star prospect with few other options and Mangino saw enough in both of them to roll the dice. I know these guys love the man and appreciate everything he did for them and their careers.
But to say Mangino developed them into the players they are today is wildly underselling the commitment to excellence that both players have displayed throughout their post-KU careers.
Talib, the former All-American, possessed such raw talent and incredible ability — not to mention all of the confidence in the world — that he parlayed his stellar KU career into becoming a first-round pick in the NFL Draft and has been highly sought after throughout his pro career, even if his antics on and off the field have given him less than a sterling reputation. Still, put away all of the extra-curricular activities and trash talk and Talib’s talent is undeniable.
For Harris, it’s been a little bit different. Jerked around throughout college, some by Mangino and a lot more by Mangino replacement Turner Gill, Harris had to overcome way more than going undrafted to get to this point. And he’s done it with a huge smile and even bigger chip on his shoulder every step of the way. Not that you’d ever know about the second part. Harris is one of the genuinely nicest players in the game today and his passion for helping people has earned him all kinds of well deserved recognition in Denver and his native Bixby, Oklahoma.
No one but Harris (along with a handful of his closest friends and personal trainers) helped him make the Broncos’ roster that summer in 2011 after the NFL lockout — another obstacle that made Harris’ path to pro success more difficult — and no one but Harris put in the work to become bigger, stronger, faster and flat-out better to the point where he soon would become one of the top-paid and most respected cornerbacks in today’s game.
During my time covering Kansas, Harris is by far the one athlete, in any sport, who blew my mind with the way he improved by leaps and bounds after he left KU.
Was he a fantastic player at Kansas? You bet. But Harris made himself a future Super Bowl champion and top-tier NFL cornerback by putting crazy amounts of work after he left.
Sunday night it paid off and I don’t doubt for a second that Harris was thrilled to bring KU fans along for the ride.
With the current state of Kansas football leaving more than a little to be desired by the KU fan base, it's often easier to think back about the good days than it is to focus on the present or even forecast the future.
Whether that brings memories of Todd Reesing to Kerry Meier in the snow, the Orange Bowl title in 2008 or a stretch of three bowl appearances in four seasons, the fond memories are there and they did not take place too long ago.
One such memory, or at least a memorable Jayhawk, that just now seems to be gaining serious steam is the four-year career of cornerback Chris Harris. Harris, currently a starter for the Denver Broncos who is widely regarded as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, has gone a long way toward bringing positive vibes to the KU program to fans of professional football.
If you're a regular visitor of this site, you've probably seen and read plenty about Harris. But there's even more to his story than the current success and memorable milestones he's racking up by the day.
The Broncos official web site recently did a fantastic job with Harris' story, in a three-part series known as The Underdog.
Here you get a very candid and entertaining look at Harris' beginning and everything that went into making him the player — and person — he is today.
It's worth a watch for anyone, but will be especially meaningful for KU fans who remember No. 16 making his mark during that magical Orange Bowl season in 2007.
Check it out…
From the "in case you missed it" folder, check out the following video of former Kansas University football standouts Chris Harris and Steven Johnson leading a Colorado symphony in the KU fight song during a recent event put on by the Denver Broncos.
Harris and Johnson were two of a handful of current Broncos players who participated in a battle of the conductors event of sorts. Each player, including Texas A&M product Von Miller and Tennessee legend Peyton Manning, led the musicians in their school fight songs and fans were encouraged to vote for who did the best job of leading the band.
Here's a look at Harris and Johnson in action:
Sure the NFL season remains several months down the road and, yeah, most of the pro football news of late has been about the recent NFL Draft or Tom Brady and Deflategate, but it's not every day that a former Kansas University football player gets tapped as the fourth best player in all of football so we might as well talk about it.
That day came Tuesday, when Pro Football Focus, one of the top resources for NFL analytics, dubbed former Jayhawk Chris Harris as the No. 4 ranked player in the Pro Football Focus 101 of 2014.
Harris, a native of Bixby, Oklahoma, who is about to enter his fifth season with the Denver Broncos, was one of the top cornerbacks in the league last season.
If the season Darrelle Revis had in 2009 was the single best year we have seen from a cornerback in the PFF era – and it was – then Harris in 2014 got as close to it as anybody has come, and did it despite tearing his ACL in the playoffs the previous year. He came into this year just eight months removed from that injury and yet finished the season with a monster coverage grade and statistics that rivaled anybody.
Here are some of those statistics:
Harris was thrown at 89 times and did not allow a single touchdown.
• Harris allowed 46 receptions (51.7 percent) but gave up an average of just 7.7 yards per catch.
• Harris was not beaten for a pass longer than 22 yards all season.
• Harris finished with 3 interceptions and 10 passes defended.
• When opposing QBs threw Harris' way, they finished with a 47.8 passer rating.
According to PFF, those raw coverage numbers rank pretty close to Seattle stud Richard Sherman (the other cornerback in the Top 10) and are made all the more impressive given that Harris lines up all over the field, left side, right side, slot, nickel.
Although his numbers and the praise he receives from players, coaches and analysts throughout the league certainly put Harris in the elite players at his position, Pro Football Focus believes that Harris' old school mentality, which favors hard work over flash, may be keeping him from being thought of in the same regard as Sherman, Revis or others like him in the past.
Harris has never been used as creatively as Rex Ryan or Bill Belichick used Revis, and he isn’t the masterful self-promoter that Sherman is. He sticks to the old attitude of letting his play do the talking. Unfortunately, in today’s NFL, that doesn’t necessarily get you ahead, and Harris’ understated excellence hasn’t been enough to get him the recognition he deserves. Last season he was truly excellent. Better than Darrelle Revis. Better than Richard Sherman. Better than Joe Haden, Patrick Peterson or any other cornerback that has been in the conversation for best in the league.
Knowing Harris like I do, these are the things that drive him. He likes knowing that people still doubt him and loves going out there and proving everybody wrong. More than that, though, he just wants to win. He gladly would give up all of the stats and recognition for a ring and now that he has that hefty new contract and some financial security for his family's future, the only thing on his mind from here on out will be delivering a championship back to Denver.
Seasons like 2014, as hard as they might be to duplicate, certainly help and you can bet Harris will be looking to top those numbers when things get crackin' this fall.
When the best of the best in the NFL hit the field for Sunday's Pro Bowl in Arizona, the rosters will include three former Jayhawks for the first time in more than 50 years.
Chris Harris (2007-10), Darrell Stuckey (2006-09) and Aqib Talib (2005-07), who shared the same KU secondary during the 12-1, 2007 season and 2008 Orange Bowl victory, will be the first trio of Jayhawks to play in the Pro Bowl since Galen Fiss (1950-52), Mike McCormack (1948-50) and Curtis McClinton (1959-61) represented their pro teams in the 1963 Pro Bowl.
It will mark the first appearance in the postseason all-star showcase for all three players. Talib was selected to the AFC Pro Bowl squad last season but did not play because of injury and Harris and Stuckey were named to the team for the first time in their careers.
Harris and Talib, both starting cornerbacks for the Denver Broncos, were two of the top defensive backs in the league during the 2014 season. Talib led the Broncos with four interceptions and finished fourth on the team with 64 tackles. He also added a sack. Harris, who was ranked as the NFL's top cornerback by Pro Football Focus — which took into account overall performance including percentage of receptions and yards given up — was right behind him with three interceptions, 53 tackles and a sack.
Stuckey, a back-up safety in his fifth season with the San Diego Chargers, again was a star on special teams, which earned him the trip to the Pro Bowl. He led the Chargers with 15 special teams tackles and made 27 more tackles in 155 defensive snaps.
Stuckey's addition to the Pro Bowl roster was made official earlier this week, as he finished as an alternate in the voting but took the place of New England's Matthew Slater, who is preparing for the Super Bowl.
This trio is largely responsible for the more favorable light that KU football has enjoyed in pro football. Not only have all three performed well enough to be respected for their stats and play on the field, but each has been part of some of the top teams in football during the past few seasons.
This weekend will mark just the second time in history that three former Jayhawks will play in the Pro Bowl together. KU has enjoyed seven different seasons with two former Jayhawks playing in the Pro Bowl at the same time and the program has had a representative in the game 29 different times, with the first coming in 1939, when Pete Mehringer, a former KU offensive lineman and 1932 Olympic wrestling gold medalist, represented the Los Angeles Bulldogs and the most recent until this season being former San Francisco 49ers stud Dana Stubblefield in 1998.
John Hadl and Mike McCormack are the Jayhawks who made the most Pro Bowl appearances, with six apiece, and KU packed its biggest punch in 1966 and 1970, when both Hadl and Gale Sayers played in the Pro Bowl.
Here's a quick look at KU's all-time Pro Bowl representatives:
• Frank Bausch — Chicago — 1940
• Larry Brown — Pittsburgh — 1983
• Nolan Cromwell — Los Angeles — 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984
• Galen Fiss — Cleveland — 1963, 1964
• John Hadl — San Diego & Los Angeles — 1965, 1966, 1969, 1970, 1973, 1974
• Chris Harris — Denver — 2014
• LeRoy Irvin — Los Angeles — 1986, 1987
• Ron Jessie — Los Angeles — 1977
• Curtis McClinton — Dallas Texans & Kansas City — 1963, 1967, 1968
• Mike McCormack — New York & Cleveland — 1952, 1957, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963
• Peter Mehringer — Los Angeles Bulldogs — 1939
• John Riggins — New York Jets — 1976
• Gale Sayers — Chicago — 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970
• Dana Stubblefield — San Francisco — 1995, 1996, 1998
• Darrell Stuckey — San Diego — 2014
• Aqib Talib — New England & Denver — 2013, 2014
• Delvin Williams — San Francisco & Miami — 1977, 1979
• John Zook — Atlanta — 1974
By now, it's a well-known fact around KU Nation that the Denver Broncos have two former Jayhawks starting in their secondary.
When Denver added free agent Aqib Talib to its roster in the offseason, the signing reunited the former KU cornerback and star of the Jayhawks' victory over Virginia Tech in the 2008 Orange Bowl with his running mate from that game, Denver cornerback Chris Harris.
For many KU fans, having a couple of their favorite former Jayhawks on the Broncos' roster is a nightmare since so many of them are also fans of the Kansas City Chiefs. But Sunday night, during the Broncos home game with San Francisco on Sunday Night Football, Talib gave KU fans a reason to smile whether they dislike the Broncos or not.
For the first time in years (if not ever) Talib gave a shout-out to KU during his introduction that plays along the bottom on the screen on all Sunday night games.
In recent years, Talib often represented his hometown or his high school or said North Dallas after introducing himself. Not Sunday. This time, he simply said, "Aqib Talib, Kansas."
There was some speculation that Talib started leaving KU out of his intro because of his displeasure with the way KU coach Mark Mangino was treated during the end of his time with the Jayhawks. I've never heard that confirmed, but do know it's a popular opinion.
As for why it changed, I don't know the exact details but I know that Talib's snub of the Jayhawks during his intros always rubbed KU fans and several people within the football program the wrong way and I heard that someone at KU reached out to Talib and talked to him about giving KU some love. I even heard one account that Talib spoke to the team before this year's spring game and former KU coach Charlie Weis asked him to start saying KU during the intros. Who knows? But whatever it was, it obviously worked.
During Denver's only other primetime game on NBC this season, they mysteriously did not introduce the Broncos' defense, so this was the first time we were able to see Talib make the change.
As for Harris, he's always been proud to rep KU. He typically says "Chris Harris, Kansas University," but on Sunday he said, "Chris Harris, Kansas Jayhawks."
Regardless of what they say during the intros, it's still so wild to see two former Jayhawks starting for one of the best teams in pro football.
There's a heck of a reunion taking place in the Mile High City and, believe it or not, at the center of it are a couple of former Kansas University football players.
When news broke Tuesday night that the Denver Broncos had reached an agreement with free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib on a six-year, $57-million deal, my mind immediately shifted to the 2008 Orange Bowl, where Talib lined up at one corner position and true freshman Chris Harris lined up at the other.
Together, Harris and Talib helped lead the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl championship that capped off a magical 12-1 season. Harris recorded an interception and four tackles in that game and Talib, never one to be outdone, made the most memorable play of the game, a pick-six interception in the first quarter that, after the game, led to these four famous words: “I felt like Deion!”
With Talib joining Harris in the Broncos secondary, the move qualifies as an instant upgrade at one of the biggest areas of weakness for the team that represented the AFC in last year's Super Bowl.
According to a report from the Denver Post's Mike Klis, in the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Talib, the Broncos have secured the kind of big, physical cornerback that Broncos general manager John Elway has coveted since he took control of the team's football operations three years ago.
Talib, 28, snagged four interceptions and 14 pass break-ups during the 2013 season with the New England Patriots, who often lined him up on the opponent's best wide receiver.
While all of that — the age, the talent, the size, the swagger — is great news for the Broncos' defense, I can't help but think about how pumped Harris must be about reuniting with his old KU teammate. Because of the timing of Harris' one season with Talib in Lawrence — Talib was a junior and Harris just a freshman — the relationship between the two always felt like one of big brother, little brother. Harris had great admiration for Talib's skills and always appreciated how he helped him along as a true freshman playing big-time college football for the first time.
Now that both are starters in the NFL, it doesn't to figure to be that way in Denver, but, in Harris, Talib will have a friendly face who can help him break into the Broncos' culture and show him the ropes of how to play for head coach John Fox, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and, perhaps most importantly, a team led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.
The early days of Talib's career were marred by off-the-field incidents and immaturity but his talent and ability were never questioned. After leaving Tampa Bay midway through the 2012 season, Talib latched on in New England, where Patriots coach Bill Belichick helped him clean up his image and focus on making plays and helping the team win. Although Belichick and Manning will never be mistaken for one another, being under Manning's eye figures to help keep Talib on the straight and narrow the way playing for Belichick did during the past season and a half.
Of course, being around an old running mate like Harris, who is wildly respected in the Denver community and arguably was the Broncos' most important player on defense last season, won't hurt either.
And, of course, having a pair of starters in the secondary of one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites, is nothing but good news for Kansas football.
When the San Diego Chargers visit the Denver Broncos at 3:40 p.m. Sunday, the game will pit three former Kansas University football players vying for a spot in the AFC championship game.
The meeting between San Diego's Darrell Stuckey (25 above) and Denver's Chris Harris (16 above) and Steven Johnson represents arguably the biggest NFL game in quite some time that features former Jayhawks on both sides.
And the reunion is made even cooler by the fact that the trio of KU alums played on the same Jayhawk teams for two seasons and even lived together for a short time during their college careers.
Although Sunday's meeting brings the three former teammates together at the same key point in time, their paths to get there were significantly different.
Stuckey was the first of the three to reach the NFL, drafted by San Diego in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
During his first four seasons in the league, the Kansas City, Kan., native has made a name for himself as a special teams standout. His 12 special teams tackles in 2012 were tops on the team and his total of nearly 40 special teams tackles during the past three seasons rank in the Top 10 in the NFL despite Stuckey having played in fewer games than most players on the list above him.
Of late, Stuckey has begun to make a greater impact on defense, as well, finishing last week's playoff victory over Cincinnati with a career-high five tackles and two passes defended. His 26 tackles this season came through both defense and special teams, where he has garnered mention for a spot in the pro bowl during the past couple of seasons.
"Stuck might be the best I've seen in my 11 years," San Diego punter Mike Scifres said in a recent interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Some of the things he can do, the way he can change games, it's almost second to none right now."
Added Chargers place kicker Nick Novak: "He's virtually unstoppable because his technique is that good. He's such a student of the game. He just has, it seems, a counter move for every move they're bringing at him. Of course, he's human, but sometimes you think he's made for special teams."
Harris followed Stuckey into the league in 2011 but went the route of joining the Broncos as an undrafted free agent following the NFL lockout. Like Stuckey, the Bixby, Okla., native first made his mark on special teams, but when the Broncos' secondary endured key injuries, Harris was tossed into the lineup on defense and quickly became one of the team's top utility men, thanks largely to the many roles he played while at Kansas.
He has been referred to by some as the NFL's best coverage guy on slot receivers and his intelligence, physicality and tackling ability have made him one of the most valuable defensive players on the AFC's top seeded team that finished 13-3 during back-to-back seasons.
Harris' contributions to the Mile High City have reached far beyond the field. He's one of the team's most active members in the community and, recently, was given the Darrent Williams Good Guy award by the Denver media.
"He’s a stand-up guy even when times aren’t going real well," Denver coach John Fox said of Harris. "He’s, I think, mature beyond his years. I think he’s done a tremendous job just where he came from and what he’s accomplished in a short time here with the Broncos. It doesn’t surprise me.”
Johnson, who, like Stuckey, was invited to the NFL combine, went undrafted but quickly agreed to a free-agent deal with Denver following the completion of the 2012 draft.
The former Jayhawk, who led Kansas in tackles during his junior and senior seasons, said Harris' trailblazing paved the way for him to land in Denver.
“It actually meant a lot,” Johnson told the Journal-World at the time. “He was the one who called me and told me they were trying to draft me. He called me and told me all about Denver and told me they were a team on the rise, and I wanted to go to a team that could contend and win Super Bowls and stuff like that.”
Johnson spent his early days at Kansas as a walk-on desperate for an opportunity. He spent a chunk of time living on teammates couches and had to overcome a couple of major injuries prior to college that slowed his development. Despite all the adversity, Johnson stuck it out and wound up becoming one of the top tacklers in the Big 12 before leaving college.
That relentless style and attitude seems to be serving him well in the NFL, too.
"He's the guy that if anything happens, he's so into the game he's like, 'Now, Coach? I'm ready,' " Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio told the Denver Post.
Sunday is not the first NFL meeting between these three former Jayhawks. The Broncos and Chargers played twice during the regular season in 2012 and twice this season, as well. Denver won three of the four meetings, but San Diego emerged victorious during the most recent match-up, which has added significant intrigue to the showdown between the AFC's top-seeded and bottom-seeded teams this weekend.
Because of each team's Jayhawk ties, that showdown figures to be even more interesting for Kansas football fans.
As an appetizer, former KU All-American Aqib Talib and the New England Patriots will face the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night in the weekend's other AFC playoff game. If Talib and the Patriots prevail, they'll play the winner of the San Diego-Denver game on Jan. 19 for the right to go to the Super Bowl, and the book of biggest pro football games between former Jayhawks will include another chapter.
I didn't catch it, but more than a few people brought to my attention the fact that former Kansas University offensive lineman Anthony Collins, now a starter for the Cincinnati Bengals, introduced himself with his high school (Central High in Beaumont, Texas) instead of his college during the Bengals' loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday night.
This has become a bit of a trend for former KU players lately and one that has been met by disappointment from KU fans.
In a world in which every other player on these introductions is from USC, Alabama or “The Ohio State University,” hearing Kansas represented surely would be not only a nice treat for Jayhawk fans but also a huge lift for KU's recruiting.
One of the biggest culprits is New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, who, for years, has been saying “North Dallas, Texas,” in place of the school he became an All-American. But evidently Collins has joined in on the fun now, too.
It should be noted that, until recently, not many former Jayhawks were in the position of announcing anything during Sunday or Monday night football intros because very few had become starters, so it's not like the list of guys snubbing KU is all that long. In a sense, though, that may be why it stings the fan base in the first place.
Denver defensive back Chris Harris is one former Jayhawk who has been a fixture in these pre-game introductions during the past couple of years and he has continued to say “Kansas University” each time.
I caught up with Harris quickly the other night for a little insight into why the other guys might be choosing to leave out KU and his answer was nothing short of hilarious. “You never know with those cats,” he said of Talib and Collins, his former Orange Bowl teammates.
Short of asking Talib or Collins themselves, I can't really pick out a good answer. But there are a few options.
They truly might just love their high schools. Many guys, especially athletes, are proud of where they come from and enjoy the opportunity to give the school that got them started a little shout-out. Nothing wrong with that.
It's possible they're just trying to be funny. I can't remember who started it, but a few years ago, guys started repping their preschools or their kindergarten teachers. Nothing wrong with that either.
The last thing I can think of may very well be the reason here and it's something that current KU coach Charlie Weis has talked a lot about since he arrived in town a couple of years ago. When reaching out to former KU football players, Weis found that many guys identified themselves with the coaches for whom they played. They were Glen Mason guys, Mark Mangino guys or Terry Allen guys instead of being Jayhawks. Weis has taken steps to eliminate the division and has hopes of getting all former Jayhawks to view themselves as exactly that. It'll take time, though. And maybe, since they don't know Weis or any of the coaches who came after Mark Mangino, those two are doing it as a way of showing their support for the man who was forced out after one of the most successful stints in KU football history. I know there were a lot of guys who played for Mangino who were upset about how his whole departure went down, so that could very easily be a factor, too.
Regardless of the reason, it's definitely nothing to get worked up about, but it is worth pointing out that them changing their tune certainly would not hurt KU in recruiting and would give KU football fans a reason to smile.
Making his second start of the 2012 season, former Kansas University cornerback and current Denver Bronco, Chris Harris, made quite a name for himself on Monday Night Football during Denver’s 35-24, come-from-behind victory over San Diego.
Harris, a 2011 KU grad, known by all of those who ever covered him as one of the nicest dudes around, finished with two interceptions, four tackles and the game-clinching pick-six touchdown during Denver’s historic comeback. The Broncos' victory, after digging out of a 24-0 halftime hole, was the biggest comeback in Monday Night Football history.
Harris’ success in the NFL has caught many by surprise, and it’s a classic example of one of those situations where raw talent and a ton of hard work can pay off for these players in the end.
It happens all the time in the NBA. How many random point guards have you come across where you have to look up where he went to college or wonder why you’ve never heard of him?
Harris, no doubt, is one of those guys for NFL fans everywhere but, to the Broncos, he’s an absolute steal.
Not only has he produced on the field, he already has become a fan-favorite around the Denver area for his signature smile and never-ending kindness. He's done a ton of charity work in the city and also is a regular weekly guest on a local talk radio show.
For those who watched him in college, Harris’ rise to NFL starter came as quite a surprise. After starting opposite future first-rounder Aqib Talib for the Jayhawks in the Orange Bowl, Harris’ next few seasons were a little quieter. He always seemed solid, but rarely stood out as a guy who had an NFL future. Part of the reason for that was coaching, as Harris was moved around to a lot of different positions and was not always used in a way that showcased his strengths. He never complained. Instead, he soaked up everything he could from each position and each coach, and it was that versatility and depth of knowledge that caught NFL eyes.
Another thing Harris did during all this time was work — hard. I’ve never seen a player get so much bigger and so much better in the few months between the end of his senior season and that April’s Draft as I did with Harris. The leap he made was immediately noticeable and very impressive.
I love the guy, and he was a favorite of mine from his freshman year on. But, love him or not, he definitely was a guy that you had to feel good for when everything worked out the way it did.
Harris joined Denver as an undrafted free agent following the 2011 NFL Draft. He had interest and offers from other teams but chose Denver because he believed he had a chance to play. He was right.
While playing in all 16 games as a rookie in 2011, including making four starts, Harris finished among the top five rookies in total tackles and was one of the true bright spots on a Denver defense that helped quarterback Tim Tebow lead the Broncos to the second round of the playoffs.
He finished the season with 72 tackles and one interception. He had two picks tonight while giving new Denver QB Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense a chance at the crazy comeback. Heck, Harris was so good that former NFL coach and current MNF broadcaster Jon Gruden named him one of his two "Gruden Grinders" for the night. This, just a week after former NFL QB and current CBS broadcaster Phil Simms called Harris "one of the best slot defenders in the NFL."
There were a dozen big plays Monday night by some names far bigger than Harris. But when the game was on the line, it was the former Jayhawk who sealed the deal. And, for those in Jayhawkland who were watching, Harris’ name was the biggest of them all.
What a night.