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Marcell Harris is showing strong in his rookie season

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The rookie safety became a surprise starter in December, and has made the most of it.

Denver Broncos v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The response of a Football Guy™ to injury is always “Next man up!” Rookie Marcell Harris began this season on the San Francisco 49ers injured reserve list, after missing his entire final year at Florida with an Achilles tear, but by December he was the eighth man up as San Francisco’s starting strong safety.

He has been impressive, even with predictable rookie mistakes and a controversial tackle of Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky that led to a sideline brawl. Unlike CB Ahkello Witherspoon, he has show an eagerness to hit and hit hard, as well as a nose for forcing turnovers. By all accounts — including those of GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan — Harris will be competing for the starting job next year.

Harris’ potential was recognized early. He played on a legendary Central Florida 7-on-7 football team, the Rat Pak, alongside the Atlanta Falcons star safety Keanu Neal and Patriots rookie slot CB Duke Dawson. That team’s coach, SEC Defensive Player of the year and future Bengals CB Keiwan Ratliff, told Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel that, “At that age Keanu was more physically imposing, but Marcell was more athletically gifted. It was tomato, tomatoe.”

An All-American safety at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Florida, his college career started slowly due to a right knee injury that caused him to miss his last six high school games, required a second surgery in college, and led him to redshirt his freshman year. After two years as a reserve and special teams ace, he moved up suddenly due to injury, leading the SEC East champion Florida Gators in tackles his redshirt junior year (with 73), despite starting only 8 of 13 games.

He declared for the draft but understandably was not a highly touted prospect. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com predicted he’d be an undrafted free agent, noting his injury as well as “very tight” hips, “below average speed,” and a criticism I’ve never seen before: “Feet barely seem to come off ground when he runs.”

The rest of that downbeat evaluation contained positives that are panning out, however: “high personal character and is well liked,” “NFL-ready frame,” “plays like an alpha,” and “striker with attitude when lurking in middle of the field.”

Harris’ college experience includes other reasons to be positive about his potential. He stepped up in big games, with a sack against Alabama in the SEC championship, 9 tackles against Iowa in the Outback Bowl, and key drive-stopping tackles on 4th-and-1 in wins against both Iowa and an LSU team featuring a running back duo of Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice. He was also on the SEC Academic Honor Roll.

49ers fans will be forgiven if they shuddered when GM John Lynch drafted the injured defensive back, remembering all of predecessor Trent Baalke’s failed “ACL All-Stars.” But Lynch was an All-Pro safety himself and knows exactly what to look for.

When he finally got on the field for San Francisco this year, in Week 9 against Oakland, it was his first snap in almost two years. (He had missed the bulk of training camp and the preseason due to a hamstring injury.) Harris played three games mostly on special teams, increasing his percentage of those snaps from 55 percent to 75 percent against Tampa Bay, before his first start at safety against Seattle.

That game was rough for him, with three missed tackles, but he was a quick learner — and frankly, the team didn’t have that many healthy alternatives. Coach Shanahan was encouraging after the game, while acknowledging the deficiencies.

“He didn’t get to play his last year at Florida. So, I thought he was a little bit rusty, but it was definitely expected. The game wasn’t too big for him. He didn’t turn it down. He didn’t try to pull himself out. He kept going and kept shooting his guns. Connected on some, but also missed on others. He has the ability to be a good tackler. He’ll get better from playing. You’ve just got to take some of the good with the bad as he works through that stuff, just kind of like we have with Dante the last couple weeks too.”

Harris has played every single defensive snap since (and including) that Seattle game, and has quickly made a name for himself. He had two tackles for loss against Denver, and another against Seattle.

In that win against Denver, the Broncos (trailing 20-7) turned the ball over on downs in the middle of the fourth quarter after Harris made the tackle on 2nd, 3rd AND 4th down.

Richard Sherman, who is pretty familiar with what makes a defensive back good, raved about the kid after the Seattle game, to Chris Biderman and David Caraccio of the Sacramento Bee.

“This is insanity. The level he’s playing at, first off, is out of this world. Some of the plays he made last week and the week before, there’s only a handful of players in this league that could have made those plays. And he’s a rookie out there playing like that.”

All the injuries at the safety position have given Harris a solid shot at securing the Niners strong safety job next year. But all of those injured players — Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert, Jimmie Ward, etc. — will likely be back next year and competing for his job.

He shares a lot of traits with hybrid linebacker/safeties such as Deone Bucannon, Josh Jones, and Shaq Thompson, but then would face competition from Fred Warner, Elijah Lee, Dekoda Watson, Mark Nzeocha, and Pita Taumoepenu.

There is no easy path to starting in the NFL for anyone, and certainly not for Marcell Harris. But he has shown the focus, mental strength and heart to overcome adversity and succeed, time and time again.

And he’s certainly not lacking for confidence. As he told Niners Nation legend Jennifer Chan:

“I’m getting my opportunity right now. I’m on the field, and that was my goal to get back at it. I want to be one of the greatest safeties ever.”