Blair Kerkhoff

Former Blue Springs South star is college football’s top tackler

Lindenwood linebacker Connor Harris says he’d gladly swap some of his individual numbers for more team success.

But it’s difficult to imagine any kind of team success without Harris’ production.

Last week, Harris became college football’s career tackles leader in all classifications. Late in the first quarter at Fort Hays State, Harris made a touchdown-saving tackle for No. 551 in his career. The 6-foot, 243-pound linebacker stands at 565 as the Lions play host to Missouri Western on Saturday.

But the notion of finding more victories is real. In the rugged Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, Lindenwood has dropped four straight since winning its opener and is seeking its first winning season since 2012.

“The record is cool and a great honor, but this is a team game and it’s all about winning,” Harris said. “So it’s a bittersweet thing. Wins mean more to me than any record.”

Big numbers aren’t unusual for Harris. As a do-it-all senior at Blue Springs South in 2011, Harris passed for 15 touchdowns, came up with eight interceptions as a safety and converted 61 extra points and six field goals while punting for a 39-yard average for a Jaguars team that won the Missouri Class 6 championship.

He was The Star’s Player of the Year and Missouri’s defensive player of the year for his class.

But even as Harris was putting together his magical season, colleges considered his large frame and had in mind another position.

“I went into the recruiting process knowing I’d have to change positions,” Harris said. “Not a lot of schools were recruiting me as a quarterback and with my size, it was looking more like linebacker.”

Harris would have to learn a new position, and the transition opened with some rough patches.

“When you’re a free safety you’re 10, 12, 15 yards back and you don’t worry about taking on an offensive lineman,” Harris said. “My biggest challenge was being five yards from the ball, playing my gaps, learning to take on blocks.”

But Harris proved a quick study. As a freshman he started every game and led the MIAA in total tackles. The numbers and honors piled up as a sophomore, when he was chosen the team’s defensive MVP, and as a junior as the MIAA co-defensive player of the year.

Last season, Harris set a Division II record by averaging 16.7 tackles per game. By the season’s end, he held the MIAA record for career tackles and was third on the Division II list. Tackles became an official NCAA statistic in 2000.

Harris said defensive coordinator Deion Melvin played a major role in his development at the position, and he’s correct when he says that he can’t do his job unless teammates are doing theirs.

But one person has the tackle record.

“I think it’s just my willingness to find the ball,” Harris said.

Another factor in his success: marriage. In June 2015, Harris married Marissa. They met as high school freshmen.

“She’s my biggest fan, my biggest supporter, always there to talk to me when things are going good and bad,” Harris said.

Things have been going great lately, and attendance at Lions’ games now includes NFL scouts. Harris grew up a huge Chiefs fan, and ironically, the player whose career record he broke was drafted by the Chiefs.

Boomer Grigsby spent three of his four NFL seasons with the Chiefs after setting the record during his senior year at Illinois State in 2004.

“It’s kind of surreal, just thinking about the NFL,” Harris said. “But we’ve got six weeks left in the season to turn things around and hopefully I can leave the program set in the right direction.”

Game of the week

No. 9 Tennessee at No. 8 Texas A&M, 2:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS

The Vols are in a tough spot here. After successive emotional victories over Georgia and Florida and with Alabama looming next weekend, Tennessee has to confront a stout Aggies squad in juiced Kyle Field. Some are comparing the Vols’ fortune in recent games to Auburn’s charmed 2013 season, with last week’s Hail Mary on the final play to beat the Bulldogs as the latest evidence. Quarterback Josh Dobbs is playing at an all-conference level. Unknown is the health and availability of A&M stud defensive end Myles Garrett.

Upset alert

Oregon at home over No. 5 Washington, 6:30 p.m. Saturday on Fox

Yes, the Huskies demolished Stanford last weekend, but they were fortunate to escape Arizona a week earlier. These aren’t your older sibling’s Ducks. Slumping Oregon has lost three straight for the first time since 2007. How can Nike let that happen? But the Ducks have won a dozen straight in the series and have the ability to outscore opponents.

Others to watch

No. 20 Oklahoma vs. Texas, 11 a.m. Saturday in Dallas, Fox Sports 1

The Sooners have won four of the last six in the Red River Rivalry, but Texas entered this game a year ago with a 1-4 record and took down No. 10 Oklahoma for coach Charlie Strong’s biggest victory. There haven’t been enough of those since then, and Strong’s seat is getting hotter in Austin.

No. 1 Alabama at No. 16 Arkansas, 6 p.m. on ESPN

The Razorbacks are a two-touchdown underdog. They’ve made the Crimson Tide sweat in their previous two meetings, and this begins the toughest stretch of Alabama’s season. After this it’s at Tennessee, Texas A&M, at LSU.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff