William Harris knows the nightly commute all too well — the long, round-trip trek from Kansas City to Des Moines, Ankeny or Ames, Iowa, typically four or five times a week.
The drives are Harris’ job. He has been a truck driver for 23 years. But the long road trips are also relaxing and propel thought.
Thoughts about his son — Charles Harris, a star Missouri junior defensive end from Lincoln Prep — have always been prevalent. As of late, the Tigers have struggled to a 2-5 record, losing their last three games.
Last year, Harris thrived in a defense that ranked sixth in the nation in yards allowed per game. Harris garnered 18 1/2 tackles for loss, which ranked second in the Southeastern Conference and 16th in the nation. It was a year that surprised some, but one that propelled him up NFL Draft boards.
This year, Harris has accounted for 28 total tackles, 5 1/2 tackles for loss and 3 1/2 sacks, but the transition to a new defensive scheme and the losing have been frustrating. He said Saturday’s loss to Middle Tennessee was one of his lowest points as a football player.
“I really haven’t seen anything different from Charles, but I’m seeing a lot different things from the coaching staff,” William Harris said. “Me and my wife, we talk about it all the time, but, if (the scheme) wasn’t broken, why try to fix it?”
William Harris saw his son’s disappointment before the season when Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski left for Miami (Fla.).
Kuligowski was the man behind “D-Line Zou,” helping produce 12 NFL Draft picks, including four first-rounders since 2009, as the longest-tenured position coach under former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. At Miami, Kuligowski has transitioned the Hurricanes into the nation’s leader in tackles for loss.
“If you’ve been working with this coach for two years, you’re going to be disappointed (when he leaves),” William Harris said. “The two were very close and that right there, when he left, I think the whole country can see the difference of one coach and what he made there at Mizzou.”
New Missouri coach Barry Odom hired defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross and defensive line coach Jackie Shipp, and then came the scheme change. Kuligowski’s focus was for players to “get up the field.” The new focus is on reading and reacting to plays with an added emphasis on gap integrity.
“Whenever you change something that’s been working so well, it’s frustrating for anybody,” Charles Harris said prior to the Georgia game weeks ago.
Watching from afar, Chuck Smith, a former NFL player who heads Chuck Smith Training Systems in Atlanta, saw this coming.
Smith worked with Charles Harris last summer and has trained former Missouri products Shane Ray and Markus Golden and NFL players Von Miller and Aaron Donald, players he compared Harris to. Smith knew Harris wasn’t going to be able to get off of the line “like a sprinter in the Olympics” in this scheme, and he said “that is critical” to rush the passer.
“Playing contain is just not (Charles Harris’) game,” Smith said.
Rob Rang, an NFL talent evaluator for CBS Sports, said he’d like to see more production from Harris but understands the effect of the scheme change and said he expects the NFL front offices to understand them as well.
William Harris wants his son to earn a college degree and said that if the time comes that the NFL is an option for him, “it’d be a blessing.”
Charles Harris, who was asked about whether this season would affect his decision to depart for the NFL, said Monday: “I feel like if I want to leave, I’m going to leave. If I don’t feel like I want to leave, I’m not going to leave. The NFL is waiting on me, I’m not waiting on the NFL.”
Harris said he is focused on the here and now — on Missouri.
“I can always get better, always do better,” he said Monday. “Personally, just taking each play, just keep working at it. Don’t get down on myself, don’t get mad at myself, just try to keep going.”
Harris will have to be more vocal after the losses of both senior linebacker Michael Scherer and sophomore defensive tackle Terry Beckner to anterior cruciate ligament tears. Missouri junior linebacker Joey Burkett called Harris the biggest defensive leader behind Scherer. Kevin Pendleton also spoke to that quality.
“He’s still been a tremendous leader and his talent is not going anywhere,” Pendleton said. “He’s not falling off or not, not the same guy. He’s still Charles Harris, and I’m excited for him to get a chance to show that this week.”
William Harris said his son’s future is something he’s thought about on his nightly commute. So, too, is what he wants his son to take from this season.
“I think (this year) teaches Charles about the highs and lows in life,” William Harris said. “Basically, you’re going to have good days and you’re going to have bad days, and there have been many of both.
“This whole college football experience, on and off the field, is a teaching experience as he goes on in life.”
Alec Lewis: @alec_lewis