Analyzing the tape of college football's best players... and the NFL's future stars.

Futures: Ronnie Harrison

Futures: Ronnie Harrison
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

Versatility is a premium on defense. The more multi-faceted players a defense employs, the tougher it is for an offense to pinpoint and expose a weakness. Players such as Harrison Smith, a do-it-all safety, and Lorenzo Alexander, a hybrid pass-rusher and off-ball linebacker, allow a defensive coordinator to get creative without necessarily changing personnel.

Alabama's Ronnie Harrison fits the mold of the multi-faceted safety that NFL teams desire. Harrison can play as a single-high centerfielder, work in man coverage out of the slot, and handle run responsibilities as an alley player. Though Harrison's role was a bit more defined than teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick's, Harrison was every bit as versatile and necessary to Alabama's defensive structure.

Communication and awareness are at the core of Harrison's skill set. Nick Saban's defense is predicated on remaining a step ahead of the offense, even if that means adjusting on the fly. Harrison had few issues keeping up with the intense responsibility.

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Auburn chooses to attack Alabama with trips to the field. At the snap, two Auburn receivers begin vertical stems, while the third fakes a screen route. Harrison (No. 15, the innermost deep defender over the trips) is responsible for the middle portion of the field; he cannot allow anyone to cross his face. As one Auburn receiver tries to cross over the middle, Harrison sinks his hips and prepares to follow, but the receiver suddenly pivots. Rather than sit dead in his tracks, Harrison immediately responds by getting vertical to help the deep post. Harrison motions Fitzpatrick (No. 29) to cover the receiver who is now cutting toward the sideline.

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Harrison has no more than a second-and-a-half to soak in the information available to him and act accordingly. The quarterback does not get a throw off, but Harrison did his part to ensure that the coverage would have beaten an incoming throw.


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Again, Harrison flashes a heads-up mentality and communication with teammates. Prior to the snap, Auburn motions the outside receiver to a new alignment closer to the slot. The new formation calls for a coverage tweak, so Harrison and cornerback Anthony Averett (No. 28) confirm to each other the new coverage with a hand signal. Auburn's tight alignment is designed to create a rub or pick versus man coverage, but Alabama's coverage tweak is to switch man-coverage assignments as the two receivers cross paths after the snap. Harrison executes the switch to perfection and delivers a crushing blow to the receiver short of the sticks to force a fourth down.

Harrison does not always have to win through communication, though. Similar to Fitzpatrick, Harrison can match up in the slot and play man coverage. Harrison sports the flexibility and strength to press up the sideline, as well as the twitch to combat underneath routes.

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On this play, Harrison rolls down to the slot from a traditional two-deep safety alignment. (That's him at the bottom of the screen, at the 25-yard line when the ball is snapped.) The original slot cornerback then slides inside to blitz off the edge, putting Harrison in direct man coverage. As the play unfolds, Harrison allows the receiver to eat the cushion between the two, then jams him toward the sideline. Harrison is able to work the inside hip of the receiver and run with him step for step, forcing the quarterback to look elsewhere.


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With this play, LSU attempts to force-feed their best player, running back Derrius Guice, but Harrison is too quick to react. LSU comes out in an empty set with Guice (No. 5) as the slot player to the short side of the field. More often than not, a star running back lined up on the short side of the field in an obvious passing formation is going to get the ball. Harrison reads the situation well and anticipates the quick throw to Guice. With no time for the quarterback to course-correct, Harrison, lined up directly across from Guice when the ball is snapped, jumps the route and rips the ball away. LSU expected to get a cheap handful of yards, but instead gave up an interception in the hands of Harrison.

If the bevy of pass coverage skills were not reason enough to be entranced by Harrison, the hard-nosed safety has the willingness and trigger to be an quality run defender. Harrison excels particularly as an alley defender. It is rare to find Harrison late to make his way down to the line of scrimmage, just as it is rare to find him attempting to fill the wrong gap.

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Jet sweeps from under center can be difficult for a defense to diagnose (hat tip @alltwentytwo). The transfer of the ball from quarterback to receiver happens quickly after the snap, and much of the exchange is hidden. Often, it is tough to gauge whether or not the receiver actually has the ball until it is too late.

Harrison (the deep safety to the lower side of the screen) approaches this play appropriately by shuffling until he can confirm the receiver has the ball. Once Harrison confirms his suspicion, he fires toward the line of scrimmage and closes the running lane before the ballcarrier can get going. Harrison keeps the gain to a minimum to force a third-and-long.

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Harrison has to get a bit dirtier in this example versus Mississippi State. As the play gets rolling, the edge defender (Anfernee Jennings, No. 33) in front of Harrison takes on the outside shoulder of the widest blocker. In effect, the play should be forced inside of the edge defender (to the C gap) because the edge defender should be able to contain a bounce to the outside (the D gap). Harrison recognizes the development and fills accordingly, sliding into the C gap just inside the widest blocker. The running back has nowhere to go but right into the waiting arms of Harrison.

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Where Harrison may fall short, for some, is consistency when tackling. However, it feels as though every single safety prospect gets burdened with the knock of poor tackling consistency. Given the nature of the position, it just is not realistic to expect safeties to make every tackle. Trying to gauge angles of professional athletes from 10 to 12 yards out can be a tricky game, and not one that can always be won. Harrison may overpursue occasionally, and there is no doubt that at times he tries to hit rather than tackle, but he does not do so at an alarming rate that feels particularly damning. The value of Harrison's full skill set should mask spurts of poor tackling, as is the case with many top-tier safeties.

Poking holes in Ronnie Harrison's skill set is a tall order. Harrison may not be flashy the way Derwin James is, or unique in the way Minkah Fitzpatrick is, but he can handle multiple roles and make an impact. Harrison is the type of player who glues a defense together and enables the stars to do what they do, just as he did with Fitzpatrick at Alabama. For teams who need quality safety play, but do not have a high enough pick to secure one early in the first round, Harrison should be the primary target.


1 comment, Last at 19 Apr 2018, 10:40am