Tulane linebacker Zach Harris does not talk much, but he has a sly way of getting his point across to teammates and coaches.
“It’s under his breath,” linebackers coach Michael Mutz said. “He’s the biggest smart aleck we’ve got, and he is hilarious. If you make a mistake on film, Zach will point it out if I don’t. He’s great at giving the business to anybody and everybody, coaches included.”
Harris, a 6-foot-0, 225-pound redshirt junior from local Holy Cross, is sneaky good on the field, too. Injuries are the only issues that have slowed him down, with a season-ending torn knee ligament sidelining him for the final seven games of 2014 and another problem ending his 2015 season after three games.
When healthy, he has been very productive. Despite three more missed games because of various ailments last year, Harris finished fifth on the team with 45 tackles. More than a third of them (19) came in his last two starts against Houston and Temple, the most for any player during that stretch.
After sitting out almost all of preseason camp in August with a sprained ankle, he returned with a vengeance against Navy with nine stops off the bench. He regained his starting spot at weakside linebacker and had a career-best 14 tackles — the highest total for any Tulane player this year — against Army, another triple-option team.
“I like that hard-nosed football,” he said. “That’s what football’s all about.”
That is as much as you’ll get out of Harris when he talks about himself. The people around him are more expansive, lauding his contributions to the third-ranked defense in the American Athletic Conference as Tulane (3-2) prepares for a trip to Florida International (3-2) on Saturday.
“He doesn’t miss many tackles,” coach Willie Fritz said. “That's a big deal. Sometimes a guy will make 10 tackles but have three or four misses. Really, they are hurting you more than they are helping you. If he's around 10 tackles, it's either one or zero (missed tackles)."
Harris usually is in position to make the play.
“He’s got really good instincts,” Mutz said. “He just has a sense of where the ball is going, knows the scheme inside out and knows the opponent's tendency inside out. It really allows him to play fast. He’s made a couple of plays this year that just wowed me.”
Number one on that list occurred against Navy late in the fourth quarter. Facing a third-and-8 near midfield and protecting a 23-21 lead, the Midshipmen ran a reverse pitch off the option, expecting to catch the Wave off guard.
Harris took three hard steps to his left, diagnosed the play and raced to his right to stuff the runner near the line of scrimmage.
“He was about the only guy on the field to see it,” Mutz said. “It was a great call for that down and distance, and he made a phenomenal play.”
Harris does not worry about what might have been if he had been healthy from the beginning. His knee injury as a true freshman happened right after he made four tackles in the first half against Rutgers. He was done for the year in 2015 after a then-career-best seven stops against Maine.
Considering that production, he could be a well-decorated senior approaching 200 career tackles. Instead, he is an under-appreciated redshirt junior still working to make a name for himself.
“I just try to worry about what I can control,” he said. “That’s just giving good effort every single day.”
And giving it to his teammates, too. Even Nico Marley, Tulane's ultimate tackling machine in his four years as a starting linebacker, was not immune.
“He (Harris) has speed, he listens and he’s smart,” Marley said last season. “Sometimes he’ll tell me something I said was wrong and I have to check myself.”
Harris’ eyes lit up the most when he talked about Holy Cross’ stunning recent upset of Rummel, ending a 17-game losing streak in the series. The Raiders blew out the Tigers every time they played while he was in high school, but he said he followed their revenge on Twitter in Tulane’s team hotel the night before the Tulsa game.
The next morning, he helped the Wave wipe out the Golden Hurricane.
“He loves Saturdays,” Mutz said. “He’s fun to coach.”