One of the last things any player expecting to enter the NFL Draft wants prior to his final season in college is change above his head, meaning a new head coach, new coordinator, new position coach and a new scheme.
But that’s exactly what defensive end and Kansas City native Charles Harris had to deal with heading into his redshirt junior season at Missouri in 2016.
“It was pretty tough, but I’m a savage, so I can adjust to any type of coaching staff,” Harris said. “I can adjust to any type of game plan, whatever it is. I couldn’t cry about (it), couldn’t throw a fit about it. I had to adjust, I had to adapt, I had to survive in my environment. So that’s what I did.”
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Indeed. Harris — who says the changes actually helped him diversify his game — finished 2016 with 12 tackles for loss and nine sacks, numbers that were very similar to the year before, when he had 18 1/2 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
And he did that, despite having a new head coach in former defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who brought in DeMontie Cross to fill his old spot and a new defensive line coach in Jackie Shipp following the departure of guru Craig Kuligowski.
Odom’s first year at Mizzou was rough sailing, with the Tigers going 4-8. Shipp was fired in November after a confrontation with a player before a game, and the change from an upfield, attacking scheme to more of a two-gap, read-and-react system largely proved to be ineffective, so much so that it was eventually scrapped seven games in as Odom resumed calling the defensive plays after seven games.
Harris, though, says he made the most of his different responsibilities until the switch.
“I did lot more dropping and a lot more stand-up,” he said. “I felt comfortable with it. It came natural.”
Harris, though, remained a talented pass-rusher with an assortment of moves off the edge and burst. When told at the combine that he had a good first step, he corrected the reporter — with a smile — that it was a “great” first step.
With that balance of skills and confidence, he perfectly fit the old scheme, the same way former “D-Line Zou” alums Shane Ray, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Aldon Smith — who are now in the NFL — did. So when the switch happened, it was no surprise that Harris racked up 5 1/2 sacks in the five games after the move, compared to 3 1/2 in the seven prior games.
“I got here by sacking the quarterback — that’s not a secret,” Harris said. “So I feel like most teams are gonna play me how I’m supposed to get played — that’s me getting the quarterback, me covering when I need to cover (and) when it’s necessary, me playing special teams. Things like that. I’m big, I’m athletic, I can move.”
That’s why an assortment of NFL teams seem to be interested in Harris. Not just 4-3 teams, but 3-4 teams like the Chiefs, who he said scheduled a formal interview with him.
Harris was prepared for the interview, too, with the help of some of his buddies like Ray and Ealy, who reached out to him before the combine to tip him off as to what to expect.
“They told me about this process right here, the combine, about the medical tests, about the media, and just the onslaught of things you have to do, you have no sleep at all,” Harris said. “But so far, it’s not that bad. It’s not as bad as I thought it was gonna be.”
Transitioning to the NFL won’t be easy, though. It never is for rookies, especially for ones who are taken as early as Harris expects to be.
“Definitely first round, hands down — top 15 at the least,” Harris said. “That’s really how I feel. I feel like my natural ability, my (upside) is just amazing.
“I feel like I’m still raw at the game, I’m young at the game. I think coaches all know that I’m yearning to learn more, I’m eager to be better. I’m eager to be great.”
Part of the reason Harris wants to excel in the NFL is to carry on the legacy of D-Line Zou. It matters to him because he credits the tradition and expectation level for helping him to to this exact point, as Ray, Golden and Ealy each pushed him to be the best he could be.
“If you do bad, we’re gonna get you — in the film room, we’re gonna talk about you,” Harris said. “We’re gonna make you feel it, not doubt. So just having that type of open environment where you can be honest with somebody about the way they’re playing, about the physicality of how they’re playing, about what they need to get better at, just really allows other players to come in and develop.
‘That’s why I developed so quickly because I had Shane Ray, I had Markus Golden, I had Kony Ealy. I had those guys telling me every single day in practice — we’d watch 1-on-1s (and they’d say) ‘Charles, you need to do this,’ and I accepted the criticism.”
Harris knows some guys might not like that, because people in general don’t like criticism.
“But I accepted the challenge … that’s how I was created, that’s how I was bred for the most part,” he said.
Because of that that, Harris embraces the pressure to keep the tradition going.
“I can’t be the drop-off — that’s one thing for sure, and guys coming after me, they also feel the same way,” Harris said. “They cannot be the ones to let us down, let down the ones who came before us.”
The good news for Mizzou fans is that Harris sees no shortage of future NFL pass rushers in the pipeline.
“I’d believe Marcell Frazier, of course Terry Beckner, and Tre Williams, he’s a great player as well, (are next),” Harris said. “They all work hard, they all have great upside.”
But for the time being, Harris knows the best thing he can do to directly continue to the legacy of D-Line Zou is by becoming a dynamite pass rusher in the NFL.
And he has absolutely no doubt about his ability to do that.
“I feel like I’m still raw at the game, I’m young at the game.,” Harris said. “I think coaches all know that I’m yearning to learn more, I’m eager to be better. I’m eager to be great.”