2018 CFP CHAMPIONSHIP: Freshman impact lifts Bama to victory
By Graham Dunn
ATLANTA – With confetti falling from the rafters of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, freshman running back Najee Harris was fielding questions soon after the improbable 26-23 overtime championship victory over Georgia on Monday.
A gash over his left eye was bleeding as though he had been in a 15-round bout with a heavyweight champion.
He had no idea who gave it to him. And it wasn’t from game action but celebration.
“Somebody pop me when I was running down the field,” he said. “I don’t know who it was but I can’t really feel it.”
It was a numbing moment for Harris and a group of true freshmen that had been thrust on the scene almost inexplicably after a few of the veterans had struggled in the 2018 College Football Playoff Championship.
Last year’s top running back recruit from Antioch, Calif. (near Oakland) was one of several true freshmen who played a big role in what is Alabama’s fifth national title in nine years.
While the list begins with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, it also includes Montgomery native Henry Ruggs, III, who caught the first touchdown of the evening for the Crimson Tide.
He was one of three freshmen to make at least one catch, with the biggest obviously owned by DeVonta Smith on the last play for the game winner.
Harris didn’t get his first carry until there were just under 12 minutes remaining in regulation. But it would be a sign of what was to come as he grinded out a team-high 64 yards on six carries. His 35-yard scamper would set up an Andy Pappanastos field goal that brought the Tide within striking distance at 20-13.
“As a group, of course. We’ve done a lot together. You can’t help but think about something like this and getting an opportunity. I was glad to make the most of it.”
Smith refused to make any more than the annual “line change” and that the freshmen are part of when it comes to substitutions. But when his number was called, he was ready.
“I knew it would be there,” Smith said when asked if he expected to see the football coming his way on the final touchdown. “We saw what defense they were in and Tua made the right read. It was a great job by the entire offense.”
Maybe more impressive than the outcome is the moment didn’t seem too big for a bunch of 18-19 year olds who were (in most cases) starting their final semester of high school this time last year.
While Tagovailoa was one of a handful of freshmen who got an early start with January enrollment 12 months ago, this was still his first significant minutes in a game.
Who cares if the national championship was on the line?
“We practice throughout the year,” Tagovailoa said. “We go in with the ones sometimes. Us freshmen, we go in with the ones sometimes. We trade reps with the ones. We go in with the twos.
"And I think preparation leading up to this point has been the key thing with our offensive coaches helping us throughout the process. And just building the trust within each other, from the O-line to the receivers creating a bond with each other. I think that’s helped us build confidence coming into this game to where, if you’ve got to go in, if your number’s called, then you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to give the team the best placement — or how should I say this? To give the team the best opportunity to win the game.”
Harris wasn’t ready to deem this an “arrival” for this class and not lose focus that everyone contributed.
“Next play. It’s what we hear every day in practice,” he said. “Down 13 we never lost what we had to do. This is the best example of what happens when you keep your focus.”