TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The game was over. Rammer Jammer had been played. The home crowd had already left and all there was left inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium were the remaining Alabama fans who were happily enjoying the afterglow of a 62-7 victory Saturday night.
Only there was also senior running back Damien Harris.
The smile on his face couldn’t be ignored, it was almost out-shinning the big video screen looming above the empty Ole Miss student section. When running off the field he jumped up into the air waiving a towel and let out a loud “Yeah” to the celebrating crowd before heading into the locker room.
This from a player who had only made five rushing attempts in the game despite being the Crimson Tide’s starting running back. Although he did catch four short passes, it was his fewest carries since the national championship game against Clemson at the end of the 2016 season.
Yet Harris is having a ball so far this season.
“Yeah. I mean, that’s the goal,” he said. “With all the things that go into this game, I think it’s important to remember just to have fun.
“Why are we playing this game? Why do we start playing this game at such a young age? It’s my last year, the last time I get to go through this year with this team, these coaches. I just try to enjoy it as much as I can.”
Perhaps the most overlooked and least talked aspect of the No. 1 Crimson Tide so far this season has been its impressive leadership and everyone’s willingness to contribute even though they may not like the way they’re being utilized.
Junior quarterback Jalen Hurts is a prime example. There aren’t too many teams that could have a one-time SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a reserve and not have it be a massive distraction.
"Jalen's a great teammate and I think he's handled everything great, whatever the coaches decide to throw at him and however it ends up playing out," Alabama junior left tackle Jonah Williams said. "So I think his leadership and his example of being a great teammate has been really great for us as a unit."
Even though sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has emerged, and is putting up jaw-dropping numbers, Hurts has still played in every game and gone about his business like little has changed. During this day in age, that’s remarkable.
“He's a hard worker, he's a competitor and he never complains," sophomore wide receiver Henry Ruggs III said. "He goes out and does what he has to do. Keeps a great spirit, and we work hard when we're together."
But that way of thinking goes well beyond Hurts.
It also stems from players like senior Ross Pierschbacher, who made the move from guard to center. From junior defensive back Shyheim Carter, who is more valuable to the Crimson Tide as a jack-of-all-trades player than as a set starter in the base defense. From sophomore wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, who often lines up in the slot and like a lot his teammates takes pride in making blocks downfield.
“I just like being on the field,” he said. “It’s not really no challenge. It’s just me out there doing what I love to do, playing wide receiver. I don’t care if it’s outside, inside, I just want to be on the field making plays to help my team win.”
This kind of approach is something that binds every successful team in Crimson Tide history, especially those that have won a national championship. It’s a program that used to take pride in not winning the Heisman Trophy because it celebrated the individual over the team concept.
Nowadays they call that kind of thinking “throwback.” Harris would take being called that a compliment.
He never has to be reminded that football is a team game.
This was supposed to be his year. After turning down the opportunity to head to the NFL after his junior season, Harris came back to try and win another national title. He likes college and the college game.
After notching two 1,000-yard rushing seasons he can become the first player in Crimson Tide history to do it three times, yet through three games he’s not on pace to do so. With 24 attempts for 178 yards, Harris doesn’t lead Alabama in either category. He may top the team in average yards per carry at 7.4, but eight offensive teammates got into the end zone before he finally did on an impressive 43-yard run against the Rebels.
Harris is a rare three-year starter who along with Williams is the most proven player on offense, but is also helping out on special teams, making blocks for his understudies and trying to be better in the one area he wanted to improve the most this season, leading.
Harris knows he’s going to get his chances, especially as the games get bigger. He also knows that it’s a lot easier to smile when the offense is the first in Southeastern Conference history to score 50-plus points in the first three games of a season, and everyone feels like they’re contributing.
“That does help, yeah,” Harris said. “That has been a lot of fun. But we know the season really starts now, playing the first game in the SEC last week and then we’ve got another tough SEC opponent this week. So really looking forward to the challenge.”
Things will get tougher for the Crimson Tide, beginning this Saturday against No. 22 Texas A&M. No one knows for sure how Tagovailoa will handle things when they do, how the team will react when an opponent is able to hit it in the mouth and physically challenge the Crimson Tide, or deal with the pressure that will build with each win.
Saban called the distractions and enormous expectations surrounding the program “rat poison” after last year’s Texas A&M game. Dealing with those things may be his biggest challenge this season, but he’ll have players like Harris helping everyone keep their focus.
They definitely influence the younger players.
“A good season would be winning the national championship,” Jeudy said. “That’d be a good season for me.”