FLOWERY BRANCH – The importance of making a good first impression in most job environments is vital.
Strangely enough, that general employment rule applies to players seeking long-term work in the National Football League.
Through the first six practices of training camp, Falcons rookie linebacker Jerrell Harris has successfully made a good first impression and has caught the eye of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
“He stands out because he’s got long hair like everybody else,” Nolan quipped.
Then he flipped on the serious switch. “I think he stands out because of his size, everybody is impressed with his size,” Nolan said. “He moves well for a big man.”
Harris stands 6-feet-3 and weighs 242 pounds. He made a strong impression on the first full-squad training camp practice in pads on Sunday.
He was gliding around with the third-team defense and making solid hits on running backs.
“It kind of helped today to have the pads on,” linebacker coach Glenn Pires said. “In the run game, he came up and made some nice hits. He was playing on the tight end, too. Those are strengths for a man his size.”
Harris described his style of play thusly, “The thing that I like to hear is that I’m an old-school versatile linebacker. I don’t do everything great, but I do everything well.”
After helping Alabama win two national championships, Harris went undrafted while he watched six other members from their vaunted defense get selected.
He was considered one of the top undrafted players available. He received the second-highest signing bonus ($4,000) of the Falcons’ undrafted class. Only defensive end Louis Nzegwu received a higher ($5,000) signing bonus.
But it’s not just Harris’ stature that’s been impressive.
“He hasn’t dropped off much since the OTAs, which is kind of pleasing,” Nolan said. “Sometimes rooks come back and they’ve forgotten the whole thing. But he’s done a good job. I’m watching him myself because he’s definitely a big guy that can run.”
Harris was a Parade All-American coming out of Gadsden (Ala.) City High and considered the No. 3 prospect in the state on The Birmingham News’ Super Seniors List and was the 22nd rated prospect in the nation according to SuperPrep Magazine.
He flirted with attending Southern California, but eventually decided to roll with the Crimson Tide.
He played in 10 games as a true freshman, but went on to have a patchy career for Nick Saban. He played both weak and strong outside linebacker positions, but couldn’t crack the starting line up his senior year.
Harris missed part of his sophomore year after getting suspended for six-games by the NCAA after not being forthright when questioned about accepting a laptop computer from a businessman.
“It was hard spending so much time away from the team and not be able to get in rhythm with everybody else,” Harris said.
Before the suspension, Saban had said that Harris was set to start and admitted that he kind of got lost in the shuffle after his return.
Harris watched as Alabama players flew off draft boards in April.
The Alabama defensive players selected included: safety Mark Barron (first round, 7th overall by Tampa Bay), cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (first, 17, Cincinnati), linebackers Dont’a Hightower (first, 25, New England) and Courtney Upshaw (second, 35, Baltimore), defensive tackle Josh Chapman (fifth, 136, Indianapolis) and cornerback DeQuan Menzie (fifth, 146, Kansas City).
“Not getting drafted wasn’t even a big deal for me,” Harris said. “Being at Alabama and doing what we did, I knew I was going to get a shot and that’s all I really needed. I knew it would be up to me after that.”
He had several options after the draft before deciding to sign with the Falcons.
“They were the most truthful about their linebacker situation,” Harris said.
Alabama plays a pros-style 3-4 defense with some 4-3 principles. The Falcons’ base alignment is a 4-3, so there is some carryover for Harris.
“I knew that would give me a chance for a smooth transition and a shot to make the team,” Harris said.
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog