Had New England Patriots rookie Kevin Harris been eligible for the NFL draft a year ago, he likely would have heard his name called much earlier than the sixth round.
Harris was the SEC’s second-most productive running back in 2020, trailing only eventual first-round draftee Najee Harris with 1,138 rushing yards during a breakout sophomore season.
One of the few offensive standouts on a bad South Carolina team, he led college football’s best conference with 113.8 rushing yards per game, ranked second (behind Najee Harris) with 15 rushing touchdowns and was third in yards per carry (6.3).
In a November loss to Ole Miss, Kevin Harris racked up 243 yards on 21 carries and scored five touchdowns. Three weeks later, he topped 200 again, going for 210 and a score on 21 attempts in the Gamecocks’ season finale against Kentucky.
Then, Harris underwent offseason back surgery, sidelining him for most of his team’s spring and summer practice schedule. And when he did return to the field last September, he simply did not look like the same player.
Over his first seven games of 2021, Harris contributed an average of 10 carries for 34 yards per contest — both way down from his prior-year marks — and found the end zone just twice, picking up a nagging ankle injury along the way. His full-season stats: 660 yards, four touchdowns, 4.3 yards per carry over 12 games, just six of which he started.
There were weeks late in his final collegiate season, however, that more resembled the 2020 version of Harris — and provided glimpses of what he might be able to bring to the Patriots, who drafted him 183rd overall, if he stays healthy.
One of those games was a runaway win over Florida in early November. After rushing just twice for zero yards the previous week and starting on the bench in favor of teammate Zaquandre White, Harris erupted for 128 yards on 16 carries — a season-best 8.0 yards-per-rush clip.
Measuring in at a sturdy 5-foot-10, 221 pounds, Harris isn’t especially fast (4.62-second 40-yard dash) or quick (7.39-second three-cone drill), but he is explosive (his vertical and broad jumps both ranked in the 90th percentile or better for running backs), sees holes well and runs with impressive physicality when he’s on his game. All three of those positive attributes were on display as he bull-rushed through the Gators’ defense.
“Now that’s the guy we saw last season,” ESPN’s play-by-play announcer proclaimed as Harris broke off a 22-yard run.
The highlight of Harris’ evening came when he felled a Florida defensive back with a mean stiff-arm before galloping down the sideline for a 40-yard gain.
Harris regressed in the ensuing weeks (14 carries, 36 yards against Missouri; eight carries, 13 yards against Clemson) but rebounded to deliver an even stronger audition in South Carolina’s bowl game.
Starting against North Carolina with White sidelined, Harris saw by far his largest workload of the season and rose to the challenge, racking up 182 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. His power was evident throughout as he ran through would-be tackles and dragged defenders through the Tarheels’ secondary, rarely being taken down by just one.
“This guy is a really strong runner,” Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh said on draft night.
It is important to reiterate that those two banner performances were the exception, not the norm for Harris last season, accounting for 47% of his total rushing yards. Over his other 10 games, he averaged an uninspiring 3.3 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. He also never offered much as a pass-catcher or pass blocker, totaling 11 catches for 89 yards despite seeing ample playing time in passing situations.
As a sixth-round pick, Harris won’t be guaranteed a roster spot this summer, and separating himself in a talented running back room headlined by Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson won’t be easy. But there is intriguing thunder-and-lightning potential with him and fourth-round rookie Pierre Strong, who boasts elite speed and could succeed James White as New England’s top third-down back. Harris also has the ball-security skills the Patriots covet, fumbling just once in 394 collegiate touches.
If the Harris we saw against Florida and North Carolina shows up in training camp, he could force the Patriots to make some difficult roster decisions.