Harris Motivated to Rewrite Defensive Chapter

OU free safety Javon Harris

NORMAN, Okla. — Very rarely does a defensive back get torched then come in to face the media and answer all the tough questions right afterward.

But that's just what Sooner safety Javon Harris did after he surrendered a series of big plays last year in a 45-38 loss at Baylor.

Harris was burned time after time in that heartbreaking last second loss to the Bears, but accepted his problems as a man, addressed them the following week in the interview rooms and went to work on them on the practice fields.

Harris placed an emphasis on getting his eyes right, saying he needed to correct where he looked in order to anticipate and make plays.

He placed an emphasis on staying sound in man coverage.

And he also corrected the fluidity in his hips, allowing him to make better breaks on the ball.

All of these things so that the 5-foot-11, 207-pound DB could prevent being on the defensive end of a home run play.

He finished the season out focusing on these points, and in the offseason, he's continued to do so.

Because of that and increased motivation from struggling in such key circumstances, he's grown as a player.

"I think this spring I've been more focused," Harris said. "Just coming here knowing I pretty much lost my spot after the Baylor game and, you know, I have a chip on my shoulder. You know, and I think that's one thing I came in here doing."

Something else has helped with the process of leaving those mishaps behind.

"You know, getting a new coach I think we all start with a blank sheet of paper," Harris said. "It's all about starting over, coming out here and starting strong."

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, of course, has returned from Arizona, where he was the head coach for eight seasons before getting fired last year.

Stoops has taken over duties at defensive coordinator and also with the secondary, as former defensive coordinator Brent Venables left for Clemson and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez was professionally ousted before landing softly on his feet at Auburn.

He's found a way to reach out to his players and make things easier for them even though he's yet to coach a game and isn't quite yet through spring ball.

"You know, I think one thing I like about him is he wants to get the players to know their position and know the defense and be able to play out there loose and not have to think as much," Harris said. "You know, I think that's one thing that I do like about the defense, you know, coming in here and not really simplifying the defense but coming out here, going into the defense and knowing exactly what I need to do and what everybody else is doing.

"Like I said earlier, I think it's the getting everybody to know exactly what they're doing, you know, not being confused out there and just knowing exactly when you get into a position, know what everybody else is doing that way you don't have to think as much and you can play. You know, everybody can ball."

Harris has proved he definitely can, especially in the Florida State game last year.

He recorded a pair of critical interceptions in that Top Five clash which resulted in a 23-13 victory for the Sooners.

The latter of the two came with OU leading by seven and less than six minutes to play.

Linebacker Travis Lewis tipped FSU quarterback Clint Trickett's post pass, and Harris was Johnny on the spot, dove and snatched it out of the air before it hit the ground.

Those two interceptions were part of three he snatched over the course of the season for 94 return yards.

Harris broke up a pair of passes, forced two fumbles, recovered another and had a quarterback hurry, while also finishing 10th on the team with 47 tackles.

So, he produced, but still something wasn't quite right.

"You know, I think last year was a little bit of complacency," Harris said. "And then this year for me is about consistency, coming out here and just going in strong knowing that any time something could happen. You know, I think this year I'm gonna play a little bit more safe, you know, I think with the safety position.

"You can't allow big plays, and that's something that I did a lot last year. But this year I've just been coming in watching film from last year, correcting those mistakes that I needed to work on."

Still, the new man in charge is quick to insist the busted coverages weren't always Harris' fault.

Continuing along the theme of putting the players in the right positions, Stoops suggests he just might not have been in the right spot.

Because of that, Stoops has shifted Harris into the starting strong safety spot from free safety for so he can maximize his potential.

Furthermore, other players in the secondary and on the defense busted coverages, too, that sometimes led to him getting exposed.

"Well, Javon has done a good job [this spring], I think," Stoops said. "Again, you know, at times we lost position on the football. I think we're all responsible for that. But Javon has played well. We moved him from free to strong and that seems to suit him a little bit better. I like Tony [Jefferson] playing on that weak side better, so again, I think we got him in better positions. And as what we ask him to do, you know, that's our responsibility as well."

The shift from free to strong has been a relatively easy one for Harris, but it has featured its fair share of challenges this spring.

Harris cites a broader range at the position, getting in the box and coming down and making plays while roaming the field as the most difficult things to adjust to.

But he's certainly been able to adapt, in large part due to a couple of reasons.

First, it's his hunger to not just prove to others that he's a better player than he was exposed as at times last season but his will to simply perform better.

"I just feel like, like I said, I got a chip on my shoulder," Harris said. "I feel like, you know, I need to be a player that's going to step up out of the rest of us back there. You know, and knowing that I got a lot of doubt on me, one thing I think I have to do is just continue to play the way I know how to play, you know, continue to work hard. And like I said, with the Baylor thing, this is all character with me and that's one thing I always do is come back and dominate what I messed up on.

Second, it's the mentoring he's received from Stoops and the confidence the new man has given him.

"Yeah, you know, when he first got here, he just told me, said, ‘Some of those things last year I'm not going to put you in those positions where if I know you can't do something, I'm not xgonna make you do that,'" Harris said. "And I think that's one thing that I appreciated from him, just knowing that I was still going to have that chance to go out here and do what I do best."

No doubt he has taken advantage of that chance in spring ball and impressed his coaches in doing so.

Maybe it really just was some positional and placement issues.

"You know, we have to know what their strengths and weaknesses are as well and try not to ask them to do certain things that they can't do," Stoops said.

If he works at the free safety position in the fall and has an improved season, that'll be a good indication of that very issue being the case.

Until then, expect him to crank up his attention to detail in many fundamental areas in order to get game ready.

Follow me at twitter.com/joeyhelmer10 or facebook.com/joeyhelmer.

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