PITTSBURGH — Running to his left, Najee Harris took the handoff from Ben Roethlisberger on the second play of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ team run period Saturday afternoon.
Almost instantly, he met a swarm of defenders, including Pro Bowl defensive lineman Cameron Heyward. Harris, though, didn’t stop.
Almost like a magic trick, he bounced off and through the scrum and continued to string out the run, turning what looked to be a negative play into a 5-yard gain.
“Not every play is going to be blocked,” Harris said Saturday. “And I know that. I think what separates the running backs, from the good one and an amateur one is when a play isn’t blocked for what it was, what can he create? That’s what I try to do. I try to create as much as I can when the play is not blocked.”
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With an unproven offensive line in front of him, the first-rounder’s success in his rookie season could very well hinge on that ability to create something from nothing.
Afterward, a reporter in Harris’ media scrum compared the run to something out of the Walter Payton era — one that occurred well before the 23-year-old Harris’ time. Still, he laughed when another reporter suggested he was too young to know the Hall of Famer Payton.
“Come on now, I know Walter Payton,” Harris said. “Gale Sayers, come on now. Herschel Walker. Where else you wanna go? Berry Sanders, yeah.”
Harris knows all the greats, and just nine practices into his first training camp, exterior expectations have already pegged him as one of the next ones.
“This young man is going to do great things with the Steelers,” one fan tweeted.
“This guy might go down as the best Steeler in history if the on-field product matches his personality,” another added.
Drafted to help Roethlisberger win a Super Bowl in the twilight of his career and usher in the next generation of great Pittsburgh running backs, Harris’ demeanor and talent make him the perfect potential star to bridge the old guard and the next era of Steelers football.
The first step to doing that is building a relationship with his 39-year-old quarterback. Early in Saturday’s practice, Harris and Roethlisberger had an extended one-on-one conversation on the sideline as they worked to get on the same page.
“He constantly wants to get better,” Roethlisberger told ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio. “He doesn’t have this attitude that he knows it all, or he’s a superstar or anything like that. You grab him, you pull him aside, you talk to him about something, and he understands that you’re trying to help him and that he can do the little things to get better.”
During rookie minicamp, Harris and the other drafted offensive rookies went over to Roethlisberger’s house — though, as Harris said, describing it as a house doesn’t quite cover it: “I can’t even call it a house. I went to his building. I went to his building, his compound. That thing is huge.” Harris spent time with Roethlisberger, but he also went swimming with his kids.
On the field, the pair are still working on their chemistry and timing. Harris, drafted as much for his pass-catching ability as his impressive runs, had a pair of drops Saturday. The day before, Harris dropped a play-action pass from Mason Rudolph on Roethlisberger’s off day, but he rebounded with a 12-yard run on the next play.
“That’s part of the sport,” Harris said. “You give me the best player, I bet he dropped a couple balls, too. Lot of drops every year in football. That’s part of the sport. It’s not about how many you drop, it’s about coming back the next play and doing something to make up for it.”
Harris’ process of ingratiating himself with the organization hardly stops with the quarterback.
He and general manager Kevin Colbert have built a quick rapport, so much so that Harris even did an impersonation of Colbert and talked about an inside joke that includes the pair swapping music recommendations during his interview Saturday afternoon.
“I was playing Sam Cooke and I was like, ‘Hey, who’s this?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know who this is,’” Harris said, attempting to imitate Colbert’s voice. “You know how he talks. He’s been sending me some stuff. He doesn’t even know who Sam Cooke is.”
He’s also endearing himself to the coaches with his fabled work ethic. Documented as having a tireless motor in high school and college, Harris began the NFL chapter of his legend earlier this summer when Roethlisberger told reporters that running backs coach Eddie Faulkner had to kick Harris out of the Steelers’ practice facility during OTAs because he needed to go home to his family.
“It appears he’s a guy that enjoys the drudgery, the things that maybe others don’t,” coach Mike Tomlin told Paolantonio. “You see that oftentimes in guys like him. He’s a workaholic. I think he’s showing those traits, which is very good obviously, in terms of him being ready to do the things that we’re going to need him to do for us in 2021.
“He’s tireless. He’s tireless out here. He’s tireless in the classroom setting, and I think all of that helps him and us.”
Before each training camp practice, Harris and Tomlin talk about the plan for the day, and Harris implores Tomlin to let him take on bigger, stronger linebackers in the Steelers’ backs-on-backers drill. That’s how he wound up taking on 215-pound inside linebacker Marcus Allen on Day 1 and 242-pound outside linebacker Alex Highsmith in the next padded practice.
“(Tomlin) understands because he likes to compete,” Harris said. “Every now and then he might say, ‘Oh, nah, nah, nah.’ But for the most part, he’s like yeah, for sure, you can do whatever you want.”
For Harris, going up against linebackers of different sizes is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one — and it ensures he won’t be surprised by anything.
“Me, picking out all the guys, me wanting to go up against D-ends, it’s teaching me mentally, to use better technique,” he said. “If you see me out there, you see me pointing out or yelling out for bigger guys stuff like that just so I can get that rep so in a game it won’t be something new to me.”
Harris’ first game experience won’t come until later this week when the Steelers travel to Canton, Ohio to take on the Dallas Cowboys in the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game. But in four public practices at Heinz Field, he’s already gotten a good taste of Steelers fans’ fervor for their new running back.
“The fanbase here is unmatched,” Harris said. “I came from Alabama and we had a big fanbase, but here in Pittsburgh, they’re a little bit crazier than ‘Bama ones.”
For every fan wearing a JuJu Smith-Schuster, T.J. Watt and Roethlisberger jersey into Heinz Field for the open practices, it seemed there were two of Harris’ No. 22. He drew cheers from the crowd when he ripped off a long run or walked over to the sideline near the thousands spread out in the stadium’s lower bowl.
As soon as he was drafted, he talked about getting to know the Pittsburgh community, about serving both fans and people who really needed help, continuing the initiatives he began in his Bay Area hometown and then took to Alabama.
“I know fans are out here and want me to sign stuff,” Harris said. “But I can’t. There’s a set of rules I’ve got to follow myself. All the fans out there calling my name, I’m sorry. It’s just a part of the protocol. I’m following it. But there’s going to be a time where I can talk to the fans and do all that stuff. There’s going to be a time where I can talk to the community more. But right now, since [it’s] my rookie year, I’m trying to get my feet wet, I’m trying to do what I can to make Pittsburgh happy, GM happy, Ben happy, team happy.”
There’s still more than a month before Harris suits up and makes his regular-season debut at Heinz Field, but he’s already a larger-than-life figure making everyone around him happy.
It’s far too early to label him as the next great, but in Pittsburgh, it might be too late to temper expectations.