USC Football: Cornerback Ajene Harris is a coach’s dream

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Receiver-turned-cornerback Ajene Harris is a coach’s dream, approaching USC Football’s 2017 season with top-level work ethic and football intelligence.

In English soccer, fans of Liverpool FC sing a song to the tune of The Beatles “Yellow Submarine” with the lyrics, “We all dream of a team of Carraghers.”

To understand the chant, non-soccer fans don’t need to know much about Jaimie Carragher’s history. Just that the local-born player, who was never the tallest, strongest, fastest or most skilled, is still a legend at the club for his outstanding play fueled by tenacity, commitment and game intelligence.

The message being, you don’t need a team full of superstar athletes to win games. You just need a team full of players who have the right approach to the game and give their everything, all the time.

USC Football has their own Carragher in 2017: defensive back Ajene Harris.

“He’s one of my favorite guys. I wish we had 11 guys just like him.”

“He’s one of my favorite guys,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “I wish we had 11 guys just like him.”

Harris is an unlikely contributor for the Trojans at nickelback. He started his USC career on the offensive side of the ball. And unlike others before him who have switched sides because they never got their chance to shine in their original position, Harris had a bright beginning at wide receiver.

The former three-star recruit hit the ground running, becoming one of the stars of fall camp as a freshman in 2014. He was listed as the starting slot receiver ahead of USC’s season opener against Fresno State, beating out Adoree’ Jackson and Steven Mitchell in that role before a hamstring injury early in the season essentially ended his debut campaign.

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Offseason hip surgery sidelined him ahead of the 2015 season and by the time he returned healthy in 2016, USC had reloaded at wide receiver, leaving Harris buried on the depth chart.

Seeing USC’s dire depth at cornerback in the spring of 2016, Harris offered to switch sides and play defense.

The experiment was a success. The former wide receiver appeared in all 13 games in 2016, notching 30 tackles, 4 deflections and two interceptions, including a pick six against Notre Dame. He also added 3.5 tackles for loss with a sack.

“Is he the biggest guy? No. Fastest guy? No. But does he produce? Yes, as good as anybody on the field,” Helton said.

For the final four games of the season, Harris nailed down a starting job at nickleback and he has done everything possible to keep that job heading into 2017.

“He’s a true gym rat,” Pendergast said. “He’s always studying tape. Always asking really good questions. And he has a really good feel for the game of football.”

Harris’ offensive background is a boost for the defensive back. He knows offensive concepts and understands the way a quarterback or wide receiver thinks in particular situations.

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His versatility, athleticism and work ethic has allowed him to thrive whether in run support or pass coverage.

Still, there’s always something to improve, from footwork and transitions to understanding plays and schemes.

“Those are things I’m still working on. You don’t ever stop working on those things,” Harris said.

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Motivation to keep working is plainly available. Harris said he watches Saquon Barkley’s 79-yard touchdown run in the Rose Bowl about once a week. He was the first of many Trojan defenders who tried, and failed, to bring down the Penn State running back on that play.

“I learned from that,” Harris said. “I took a bad angle and I didn’t finish through, so it’s nothing that can’t be corrected. He’s a great running back but it’s a technique thing: taking the right angle, getting low, shooting through his legs, wrapping up.”

The hard work seems to be paying off after two weeks of camp with exclusively first team reps as the nickelback.

“I feel like I’m in better positions and I’m going to continue to be in better positions as time goes. I’m going to continue to get better, keep continuing to work hard,” Harris said.

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So while USC fans may not break out into any renditions of “We all dream of a team of Harrises” this year, it’s easy to see why USC’s coaches might.