Chris Harris Jr. heard the question — what’s it like to be a Jayhawk alum in the NFL? — and immediately started laughing. The reaction was both telling, and endearing.
The NFL is stockpiled with players from blue-blood programs who both love to represent their alma maters and aren’t shy about taking playful jabs about the current state of less-successful programs. Harris knows this all too well.
“The players, man, they make it hard for you,” Harris said with a hearty laugh during the run up to Super Bowl 50. “Being a Jayhawk alum, there’s not too many of us. But we have a lot of guys growing and coming into the NFL, so right now man, it feels good to represent us, even though we had a bad season.”
In the five seasons since Harris — a 26-year-old star cornerback for the Denver Broncos — left Kansas for the NFL, the Jayhawks have compiled a 9-51 record and cycled through three coaches.
Yet, there are a handful of Jayhawks who are starring in the NFL, led by Harris and his Broncos teammate Aqib Talib, who in 2008 became the first KU player since Dana Stubblefield in 1993 to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.
“When they give us grief, man, I say last thing I know is we won the Orange Bowl when I was there, so that’s all that matters to me,” said Talib, who starred for Kansas’ 2007 team, which went 12-1.
And though the Jayhawks just suffered through an 0-12 season, Harris said he is happy with the direction of the program under second-year coach David Beaty, whose team was forced to compete this year with a scholarship count in the mid-60s after a disastrous three-year tenure by Charlie Weis.
“I love coach Beaty,” Harris said. “I think last year, Charlie Weis made it real hard on him … it’s going to be hard to build it back until we get all our scholarships back.”
Fortunately for Jayhawk fans, Harris and Talib are proudly representing a Kansas program still looking to find its footing after the end of the Mark Mangino era. Together, they form the league’s best cornerback duo. Both have been chosen to the Pro Bowl the last two years after spending only one season together at Kansas (2007).
“We’re definitely friends,” Harris said. “I was 17 when I first got to KU. He had already been at Kansas four years, so I was just like the little brother … being able to play with him in the NFL is like a dream come true.”
Yet facing the duo is more like a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. The Broncos boast the league’s No. 1 passing defense, and their lockdown pair of ex-KU corners is a big reason why.
“Those guys — Chris Harris and the whole “No Fly Zone” – they match up well with any receiving corps,” said Denver outside linebacker Von Miller. “When it comes to matching up, we match up well (in the) secondary.”
Talib, 29, is a big corner at 6 feet 1 and 205 pounds who combines excellent ball skills (three interceptions) with a knack for finding the end zone. He’s scored eight defensive touchdowns in his eight years in the league, including three this season.
“I used to love playing offense,” Talib said. “I played offense in high school, in college, and I don’t get to play it in the league. So when I get the ball I have to score my touchdowns like I’m on offense.”
Harris isn’t as big as Talib — he stands 5 feet 10 and 199 pounds. But he’s recorded 58 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions while providing reliably sticky coverage and serving as the vocal leader of the secondary.
“My hips, the way I can turn is on another level than a lot of players in this league,” Harris said. “To be able to play left, right, play the slot and all over the field, it really shows that I have no weakness in my coverages.”
Harris will have an opportunity to prove as much Sunday, when he and Talib will be tasked with grounding the dynamic offense of the 17-1 Panthers, guided by star quarterback Cam Newton.
But no matter what happens in the game, both players say they know Jayhawks fans will continue to show them love. And they, in turn, will continue to represent Kansas proudly.
“It’s nice man — when we go back to Lawrence, we get love,” Talib said. “It feels good to be able to go back there and get great texts from guys, old coaches, alums. It’s wonderful.”