Will Harris had a rocky first 2½ seasons in the NFL, but something clicked when he moved to cornerback midway through last year.
Harris, who played the first 42 games of his career at safety, embraced the challenge of being on an island where it was sink or swim against some of the best athletes in the world.
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“Ain’t nothing like being out there,” Harris said Thursday on Day 2 of Detroit Lions training camp. “It’s you and him and sometimes you got to put on that hat and be out there. That’s where the grown men play. That’s where the grown men play, so I love being out there.”
After toying with the idea of making Harris a full-time cornerback this spring, the Lions made the position change official when they released their training camp roster this week.
Harris has taken the majority of first-team reps at left cornerback the past two days, opposite Amani Oruwariye and ahead of Jeff Okudah, and Lions coach Dan Campbell said there are no plans to move him back to safety this summer.
“We feel pretty good about keeping Will outside right now and just letting him compete out there, knowing that if we ever need him in the back end he can do that,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “So, let him continue to grow at corner.”
Harris, who played some cornerback in high school and cross-trained at the position during his offseasons at Boston College, showed immense growth in a short period of time last fall.
He opened the season as a starter at safety, but was only modestly effective — he did not have a pass breakup — through 10 games.
When slot cornerback AJ Parker injured his ankle in November, and with Okudah and rookie third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu on injured reserve, the Lions moved Harris to slot cornerback.
When their injury problems in the secondary multiplied — at one point last December, the Lions were without 10 defensive backs due to long-term injury or COVID-19 — Harris shifted outside and played some of the best football of his career.
“He’s big, he’s strong, he’s physical, he can run, he’s got a chance,” Campbell said. “And you tell him to get out there and compete, and hem a guy up and play technique, he’s pretty good. So we just — sometimes when you take a little bit off a guy’s plate, man, they can really grow. In the meantime, now that he’s played nickel, he’s played safety, and now if he can excel at corner and get better, man, you’ve got a versatile guy that he’s a jack of all trades and now he can play multiple spots on top of special teams when he goes in the game. That’s an asset.”
Harris said his experience at safety has been an asset in his new role.
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He can easily identify formations and has a thorough understanding of what routes to expect based on down-and-distance, personnel and the alignment of the receiver he’s covering.
He knows instinctively where his help is in the secondary, which has made him a quick study with his cornerback technique.
His coaches have thrown their unwavering support behind him at his new position, which has bolstered his confidence.
“It means the world to me, it truly does,” he said.
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And he’s embraced the cornerback mindset to the point he said he feels like he should have been playing the position all along.
“You got to have a short memory out there,” Harris said. “I think any DB, you got to have a short memory because anything that happens out there gets amplified, good or bad. But with that being said, you got to have a short memory, line back up and at the end of the day I don’t believe a guy can just line up from me and catch the ball more than I can stop him from catching the ball, so it just boils down to that. I believe that it’s just in me and I work at that and my mentality is there and I just want to craft at that every day.”