The Yale football roster lists eight players at the running back position, five of whom have received multiple carries for the Bulldogs this season. To find a solution to the running game’s revolving door of injuries and ineffectiveness, however, head coach Tony Reno and his staff looked to an unexpected source.
As a cornerback, Dale Harris ’17 appeared in all 10 games in 2014 and recorded 20 total tackles in this season’s first four games before missing time due to injury. When he returned two weeks ago, he was thrust into a new role: running back, a position at which he had not taken snaps since his high school days.
Harris, perhaps the fastest Eli to stand in the backfield this season, excelled immediately. He carried the ball 12 times for 71 yards and a touchdown against Brown and added another 177 yards, including a 71-yard highlight-reel score, at Princeton. After a pair of Ivy losses to Penn and Columbia in the middle of the season, Harris’ breakout performances correlated with two wins in which Yale put up a combined eight scores and 882 yards.
“Coach [Reno] simply approached me and asked if I’d be willing to play a new position,” Harris said. “Initially, I had the mentality that’d I’d do anything to help the team.”
After two games, Harris leads the team with 5.9 yards per carry. That mark, which would lead the Ivy League if Harris had reached the minimum number of carries to be eligible, would be a remarkable figure for any player.
According to quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16, the addition to the backfield of Harris, whose 40-yard dash time on his high-school recruit profile is 4.40 seconds, has added explosiveness and intensity to Yale’s offensive formula. While picking up the playbook in such a short time has been a challenge for Harris, Roberts’ leadership has helped the junior running back understand his assignments in high-pressured game situations.
“Do I have to tell him the plays sometimes? Yeah, absolutely,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t throw me off too much to tell him the plays or tell him what side to go on every now and then.”
Roberts himself may have Harris to thank for the signal caller’s own increased performance in the latter part of the season.
Reno noted that in the face of injuries to running backs, wide receivers and offensive linemen this season, the improved run game has opened up holes for the rest of the offense — a statement that Roberts backed up over the past two weeks, notching his best two completion percentages since the first week of the season.
Running backs coach Derrick Lett added that Harris’ experience on defense specifically has also allowed Harris to help his quarterback with an advanced understanding of blocking schemes.
“Dale playing defense really helped in pass protection,” Lett said. “His ability to see the blitzes unfold … and having strong, heavy hands in blitz pickup from doing all the tackling and block destruction drills on the defensive side of the ball also paid dividends.”
While Harris is still growing accustomed to Yale’s offensive schemes, his experience at running back goes back to his high school days. As a senior at St. Paul’s School in Brooklandville, Maryland, Harris ran for a whopping 1,700 yards and 28 touchdowns en route to becoming a Baltimore all-metro player.
Harris described the difficulty of being a star two-way player in high school, explaining that some schools recruited him solely as a defensive back, some as a running back, and some expressed interest in his potential at both positions. For Reno, though, Harris’ versatility was an asset during the recruiting process.
“When you recruit, you recruit for positions, but you also recruit guys you think can play multiple positions,” Reno said. “A guy like Dale Harris, we recruited because he was an exceptional running back in high school.”
Harris was always a running back in the coaches’ minds during his Yale career, Reno said, but he needed to play cornerback immediately because of a shortage in that position and a wealth of talent — mainly in the form of now-NFL running back Tyler Varga ’15 — in the backfield.
While it remains unclear whether Harris will continue to focus on his offensive game as a senior with the expected return of injured running backs Candler Rich ’17 and Deshawn Salter ’18, Reno and his team are focused on Saturday’s matchup with the Crimson, not next season.
Should Harris explode and lead the Bulldogs to their first win over Harvard in nearly a decade, his midseason switch will be considered the turning point of a Yale season that was otherwise headed for yet another season-ending disappointment. For now, though, Harris is simply enjoying the wild turn of events that led him to this unexpected role.
“It feels great, it’s been a long time since I’ve carried the ball but it’s starting to come back to me,” Harris said. “I forgot how exciting it was to score a touchdown. But overall, I’m learning a lot and having fun.”