The football sailed high through the bright blue sky during the Chiefs’ practice Wednesday, a perfect spiral on a straight line to the left corner of the end zone.
But while most eyes were fixed on the ball — it was hard not to, given how pretty it was — Al Harris was staring like a hawk at its intended target, receiver Tyreek Hill, and the man charged with disrupting the connection, cornerback Steven Nelson.
And when the ball ultimately dropped softly in Hill’s outstretched arms for a touchdown — he’d won the vertical route by separating with a bit of rare burst at the end — Harris, the Chiefs’ expressive secondary coach, didn’t unleash. Instead, he just smiled at Nelson and shrugged.
“Hey, your turn was good, your technique was good,” Harris yelled at Nelson, who was several yards away. “Just need some rocket fuel for that.”
The message hit home for Nelson, a third-round pick who has impressed coach Andy Reid since offseason practices began last week.
“That dude’s got a whole ’nother gear,” Nelson said incredulously, in reference to Hill.
This is where Harris’ background as a former player comes in handy. Harris, now 41, made a name for himself as a dreadlocked, aggressive press-man corner who made two Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers and played for five different teams throughout his 15-year career.
But now, after a one-year stint as a coaching intern with the Dolphins in 2012, Harris is getting his competitive juices flowing as a defensive backs coach for the Chiefs — sans dreads.
“You just kind of want to take away, a little bit, from the player aspect of it, you know?” explained Harris, who now sports a closely cropped haircut. “That part of my life is gone, this is a new part. So I cut them off and got a new look.”
But while his trademark dreads might be gone, Harris is still the same competitor. Following most plays, it’s not unusual to see him enthusiastically rush over to instruct a defensive back about something he could have done better or praise him for his play.
“I tell them I’m going to be just as fired up as they’re going to be out here,” Harris said. “I know what they’re going through, and I know what I wanted from my coach when I was playing. Man, I’m fired up, just like if it was a game.”
Harris, to that end, challenges his corners to match his passion and aggressiveness on the field, something he says they’ve responded well to because of their overall makeup.
“In our room, you want to have like-minded guys,” Harris said. “You can’t be an aggressive coach, and your guys are timid. That’s all we preach is aggression, aggression, aggression.”
Harris pounded his hand in his fist each time he said the word aggression, and he credited general manager John Dorsey and director of football operations Chris Ballard with bringing in guys who already have that kind of attitude.
“His coaching style is aggressive — he wants our DBs and corners up in the receivers’ face, pressing,” safety Ron Parker said. “He wants tight coverage everywhere.”
Perhaps no one fits that prototype more than second-year pro Marcus Peters, the No. 18 overall pick a year ago who intercepted eight passes, made the Pro Bowl and won the 2015 defensive rookie of the year award.
Peters was widely considered a first-round talent, but there were questions surrounding his coachability after he was dismissed from the University of Washington midway through his final season after repeated run-ins with the coaching staff.
But the Chiefs took him anyway, saying they were confident they could reach him, and in Peters’ first news conference following his selection, he mentioned how much he respected Harris and fellow defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas, and how much he was looking forward to working with them.
“Al Harris … I saw him play when I was growing up and to have him as one of my coaches and embrace him as a mentor, it’s going to be crazy and it’s going to be fun at the same time,” Peters said at the time. “He’s going to help me grow into a player that I need to be, and I’m trying to go win us some Super Bowls.”
Peters, of course, went on to have a terrific rookie campaign under their tutelage, as they built a relationship based on respect. While Thomas is already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Peters said in January that he believes Harris should be a Hall of Famer, as well.
“You know what, from day one, me and Marcus have had a different relationship,” Harris said. “We hit it off from day one, and I’ve never had a problem with him. I know what to expect from him, he knows what to expect from me.
“You’ve got to give (respect) to receive it, do you know what I mean?” Harris said. “So I’ve got to respect him as a man, and he respects me as a man.”
Peters’ success as a rookie preceded Harris’ promotion in April from assistant defensive backs coach to his current position of secondary coach with an emphasis on cornerbacks, while Thomas is listed as a defensive backs coach.
But Harris added that responsibilitywise, nothing has changed at all.
“I’m still doing the same thing I’ve been doing since I got here,” Harris said. “It’s just a changed title. … Emmitt has been great as far as helping me along as a young coach. I was coached by Emmitt when he was in Philly, and he’s done a great job of helping coach a young coach. So if I get stuck on something, he explains it to me.”
And in turn, Harris explains it to his players, all while enthusiastically making sure the message gets through — good or bad.
“He’s real passionate, man,” Parker said. “Sometimes you forget that he’s been out there playing football, too, the way he comes at us sometimes. But he’s a real good coach, he does a good job of lining us up and getting us ready.”