Missouri's Charles Harris poised for a huge year
The Missouri Tigers have developed a reputation for producing NFL-ready defensive linemen over the past few years, with four players drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft in the past four years. Three of those players — Kony Ealy of the Carolina Panthers, Shane Ray of the Denver Broncos, and Markus Golden of the Arizona Cardinals — have been defensive ends, with Golden and Ray our second- and third-highest graded 4-3 defensive ends in the 2015 draft class.
As good as these past prospects were in college however, don’t be surprised if by the end of the 2016 season we’re calling Charles Harris the best defensive end to come out of Missouri in recent years. Let’s break down why:
Part-time role behind Ray
As a redshirt freshman Harris was always going to struggle for playing time behind Ray and Golden. Both were incredibly productive in college and there was no reason, barring injury for any defensive co-ordinator to want to limit their playing time. That meant Harris was left to fill the role of the backup, playing 301 of his 363 snaps as the primary backup behind Ray. With such limited snaps, it was important for Harris to make whatever impact he could when he got on the field, and while he struggled against the run, he proved himself to be a capable pass rusher, notching three sacks, five hits and 10 hurries on 174 pass rushing attempts. While he couldn’t keep up with Ray and Golden on a per-snap basis, his pass-rushing productivity rating of 8.6 was an indication that he could develop into a very good pass rusher.
Developing as a starter
With a solid freshman year behind Ray to his name, Harris was ready to claim the starting role for himself as a sophomore and he didn’t disappoint. He exploded in the second game of the year against Arkansas State, racking up two sacks, three hits, three hurries and adding four tackles resulting in a defensive stop against the run. At +12.4 it was one of the highest-graded single games we’ve seen from a defensive end in two years of grading college football. He followed that up with another big game as a pass rusher the following week against UConn, with a sack, two hits and two hurries. That was followed up with another five straight games where he graded at +1.2 or better as a pass rusher, before bookending his impressive run with a big game against Mississippi State. Against the Bulldogs he generated more pressure than in any other game in 2015, notching a sack, three hits and eight hurries.
Over that eight-game stretch that began in the second game of the year, only Ohio State’s Joey Bosa and Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah graded higher among 4-3 defensive ends. While he couldn’t match Ray and Golden when he was backing up Ray, as a full time starter his pass rushing productivity jumped to 12.6 — better than either of them could manage in their final seasons at Missouri.
What impresses the most about Harris is that for a player who has been a starter for just one year, he beats blockers in a variety of ways. Of the 37 sacks, hits and hurries he registered by beating a tight end, offensive tackle or guard last year, 19 were won outside, 14 inside, and four via a bull rush. On top of that, there were nine times where he used a spin move out of either an initial inside or outside move to beat his man, like he did in the play below against South Carolina left tackle Brandon Shell.
Improvement still needed
As good as Harris was, there are still some things he needs to do better as a junior to really elevate himself above Ray and Golden. His run defense improved from his freshman to sophomore seasons, jumping from -2.5 in 2015 to +11.9 in 2015. He can still get a lot better as a run defender though, with his 27 tackles resulting in a defensive stop on 336 snaps in run defense giving him a run stop percentage of 8.0 percent, 24th among 4-3 defensive ends in the nation a year ago. What’s encouraging is that he took a significant step forward from 2014 to 2015, and a similar jump would really solidify his case for being one of the best all-around defensive linemen in college football.
The other thing Harris has to improve upon is his consistency. There’s no denying his sophomore year was impressive, but he definitely seemed to tire late in the year. In the final three games he graded negatively twice, including a season-worst grade of -2.4 against Arkansas to end the year, registering just seven total pressures in those three games. How good he was over the eight game stretch that saw him rack up seven sacks, 11 hits and 27 hurries and a monster PFF grade was impressive, but he was almost anonymous in the season opener and those final three games.
For him to etch his name among the great Missouri defensive ends in recent years, he needs to find a way to stay productive throughout the year. The Tigers expect a lot out of their defensive ends, and Harris is almost guaranteed to play somewhere in the region of 700-800 snaps again this year. If he can improve again as he did from his freshman to sophomore years, we could be gearing up to see something really special.