July 22, 2013

Harris takes his game to the next level

Mike Beamish
Vancouver Sun

To survive, you must grow and adapt.

As Exhibit A in the theory of football evolution, we present the new and improved Andrew Harris, the feature back of the BC Lions.

After back-to-back games butting heads with Harris, the Edmonton Eskimos have seen enough. Mercifully, the CFL schedule maker doesn’t have the Eskimos and Lions matched again until Oct. 25, which should give Edmonton’s defence enough time to recover from watching Harris score four times in their two-game series in July.

Harris had three touchdowns Saturday night as the Lions defeated the Esks 31-21 before 26,623 fans at BC Place, which followed up a 17-3 win over Edmonton a week earlier.

After leading the CFL in yards from scrimmage last season, Harris assessed his work and decided: Nice year. Now, what can I do to be better? He already had what great runners possess: the ability to take a handoff and, with a couple of moves, get past the line of scrimmage and turn the tundra into a broken field.

But Harris also wanted to be the guy the Lions could count on when they needed someone to gather the tough yards. He wanted to add some whomp to his whoosh. His off-season workouts in Winnipeg targeted improvement in his core strength.

“I’ve put on about eight pounds since last year,” Harris explained. “I’m probably about 212 now. Edmonton has a tendency not to wrap up (with their tackles). That’s why I just try to keep my feet moving and have them bounce off me. It’s all about doing whatever you can to get those extra yards.”

In the July 13 game in Edmonton, Harris scored on a 13-yard pass from Travis Lulay just after two tacklers, Joe Burnett and T.J. Hill, converged on him simultaneously. The trio collided, but Harris bounced off the tacklers like a pinball, maintained his balance and motored to the end zone.

If a play is blocked, Harris, like most instinctive runners, has the ability to find the soft spot. But with his added heft, he has more power to put his head in there and slam people.

You’ve got to hand it to him…and the Lions are doing that.

In his past three games – all Lions’ victories – Harris has 49 rushing attempts, the most number over a three-game stretch in his five CFL seasons.

“It’s part of the game plan, partly the situation,” Lulay said. “Andrew is very important for our offence. If he can rush the ball 15, 16 times a game that’s probably a good recipe for our offence. With a lead in the fourth quarter, or like last week, in the rain (in Edmonton), you know we’re going to run the football. Our power run game has been good for us.”

On his first of three rushing touchdowns Saturday, Harris bounced into Odell Willis, the Eskimos’ defensive end who outweighs him by close to 50 pounds, played off blocks by Patrick Kabongo, Ben Archibald and Matt Norman and motored into the end zone to complete a 13-yard play.

Roy Shivers, the former NFL running back who is the Lions’ director of player personnel, sees the unmistakable evidence that Harris has become a more powerful runner. But he also notes the improvement in Harris’ awareness. He is better able to read the men shifting in front of him and anticipate when a hole will open.

“He’s stronger and he’s smarter,” Shivers said. “He’s doing what I call ‘pickin’ inside moves.’ He’s giving his blockers a chance to get in front of him. Then he explodes into the holes. You could see that tonight. He does a little stutter step, waits for the block, then off he goes. You can see the evolution.”

Harris scored his second touchdown on a one-yard run in the third quarter, one play after he nearly got in the end zone on a 24-yard pass play from Lulay. Harris vaulted tacklers as he neared the goalline and slid into the end zone, but officials deemed the play dead at the one-yard line. He added his third touchdown on a three-yard run in the fourth quarter after defensive tackle Jabar Westerman intercepted a pass deep in the Eskimos’ zone.

The three rushing touchdowns in a single game were the most for a Lion since Joe Smith did it on July 29, 2006, against the Toronto Argonauts. Harris previously scored three touchdowns in a single game on Nov. 5, 2011 against the Montreal Alouettes – but all three TDs came on passing plays from Lulay.

“You need the ball to make plays,” said Harris, who had 17 carries for 103 yards against the Eskimos. “It’s all about opportunities and making the most of them.”