Making An Impact: Oregon's Cliff Harris
At just 20 years old, Cliff Harris is already many things. He is a devoted son, loyal friend and loving brother, enviable traits to be sure. He is fast, smart and athletic, which makes him particularly impressive on the football field. He is a shutdown cornerback and dynamic punt returner for the University of Oregon who can turn a game in the blink of an eye.
Cliff Harris is a game changer and, as a sophomore, is one of the most significant reasons Oregon is playing Auburn for the BCS National Championship.
If it weren't for Harris' 64-yard punt return for a touchdown, his fourth of the season, Oregon might not have beaten Cal, 15-13, on the road in November. If he didn't secure two interceptions against Andrew Luck in October, including one in the end zone, Stanford might be the team facing Auburn instead of the Ducks.
But Harris did make those plays and as a result, Oregon plays for its first ever national championship in football, a moment every player on the roster is excited about.
"You dream about it, but it's a surreal thing when it happens," Harris said. "Everybody wants to go to the [national championship] and I'm in that position, I'm going so it's a little surreal."
Playing football has been more than a dream for Harris, who began to develop a passion for the game as a 3-year-old when his older brothers, Ronald Easter and Michael Ware started playing Pop Warner.
"Cliff was always an advanced kid for his age," his mother Liz Sears-Harris said. "When his brothers started playing Pop Warner he had to be running around doing something. When they went to practice, he had to go to practice. When his brothers started throwing the ball around the front yard, he had to jump in the middle. He was playing football with his brothers before he was old enough to play Pop Warner."
Those days throwing the ball on the front lawn and the countless number of youth football games he went to and played in helped mold Cliff into the dynamic playmaker he is today.
"When you're the little brother you always watch your older brothers and copy what they do and put it into your own style," Harris said. "That's what I'm doing now. You get me and all my brothers and all their talents wrapped in one. I grew up watching them and now it's my time."
After making a name for himself on the Pop Warner fields in Fresno, Calif., Harris became a U.S. Army All-American at Edison High School under the tutelage of former USC safety and NFL great Tim McDonald.
"I learned a lot playing for Tim," Harris said. "He was the first mentor of a coach that I had. To where I want to go, he's done all of it. He gave me words of wisdom here and there about how I should approach things. He was very helpful."
What McDonald couldn't teach were the physical skills that make Harris so special. The agility, the anticipation and the skills to attack the ball as a defender.
"People underestimate football players' ball instincts," McDonald said. "He sees it in flight and is able to put his body in positions, he can make plays on the football that a lot of people can't make. One thing you see all over the NFL and in college is the DB getting in great position but the wide receiver comes down with the ball. With Cliff, once that ball is in the air, I'll put my money on him coming down with it. Once he sizes it up, if it's not a perfect throw away from him, he's going to come up with that ball because he has such great ball skills. That is something you can't teach. It's a feel, it's instinct and he has that."
At some point, McDonald says, Harris transforms himself from defense to offense.
"The last 10 percent of a receiver's route Cliff becomes the receiver," the 13-year NFL veteran and six-time Pro Bowler said. "I think that makes him pretty unique because he catches the ball like a receiver, he jumps and makes plays on the ball. There's only a few guys who I ever played with who could make plays on the ball like he does."
Harris was the same kind of game-changing weapon in high school that he has quickly become in college. He scored touchdowns on punt and kick returns and when challenged, made interceptions and turned them into scores.
"He's running back kicks just like he did for us his junior and senior years," McDonald said. "He had a bunch of interceptions for touchdowns every year. With our great secondary we'd be lucky to see 10 passes a game and here he is coming down with six or seven interceptions a season and two of them for touchdowns. He's a pretty special kid."
When Harris was preparing for his senior year at Edison, he suffered a blow that shook him. His younger brother, Dominique, was diagnosed with Stage 1 diabetes and fell into a diabetic coma. He was delivered to the hospital just in time to save his life. Growing up, Cliff was to Dominique what Michael and Ronald were to Cliff.
"When Dominique got sick Cliff told him he would always take care of him," his mother said.
As true as that is, Dominique is also taking care of Cliff. The youngest brother is a budding rapper, who has written songs about his older brother. Dominique's music is part of Cliff's pregame repertoire, providing inspiration and helping him become a shutdown corner.
Harris always knew he wanted to play at Oregon. He was committed in his mind before he made his official visit and the pairing has worked out better than he had hoped. As talented as Harris is, even McDonald was surprised by just how quickly he exploded onto the scene.
"He has progressed a little faster than I expected him to," McDonald said. "Until he put on 10 extra pounds I didn't think he'd be making as many plays as he's been making. It's like he hasn't missed a beat."
Oregon's initial plan was to redshirt Harris as a freshman, but injuries forced him into the lineup. Those unique playmaking skills have made it impossible to take him out.
Harris leads the nation in punt returns, averaging 23.2 yards and four touchdowns. He leads the Pac-10 in interceptions with five and passes defensed with 15. His 1.5 passes defensed a game is third in the nation. He ranks fifth on the team in scoring with five touchdowns, pretty remarkable when you consider Oregon is the highest scoring team in the country and he's a defensive back. The five non-offensive touchdowns this season are tied for the most in a career at Oregon. Needless to say, Harris is an impact player.
"Everybody takes my confidence as cockiness, but I'm just confident that I can battle with anyone," Harris said. "I'm not afraid to go up against anyone. That's how I approach it and how I do it."
As talented as he is physically, Harris does spend a lot of time in the film room and that has allowed him to progress so rapidly.
"Jarvis Lewis has helped me tremendously," Harris said of his teammate. "He really got me into watching film and he was the one who taught me how to do the little things when I first got here. I always try to better myself and get the most out of my game so I took what he taught me and ran with it. I prepare myself mentally, physically and emotionally. I do everything to prepare to play every game."
Auburn poses a difficult test with Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton directing an explosive offense. Oregon comes in with the most dynamic offense in the country and most people expect a shootout. Harris warns not to take the Ducks defense for granted.
"The offense puts seats in the stadium but the defense wins the games," Harris said. "They can get all the publicity and blow up the offense, but we know as defense what we need to do to get the W."
Cliff Harris is many things and a W would add national champion to that list.