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Winning No. 1 jersey could be beginning of big season for Jalen Harris in Arizona’s new defense

Arizona v UCLA Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Jalen Harris had a good reason to wear No. 49 at Arizona. The number was a tribute to his father Sean, who also donned it when he was an all-conference linebacker for the Wildcats in the 1990s.

But when Jedd Fisch announced that Arizona’s No. 1 jersey would be awarded based on merit this season, Harris was willing to ditch the family heirloom.

“First of all, not many D linemen wear single digits, so I thought that was a good opportunity to do that,” Harris said. “And also you had to earn it.”

Harris is expecting to have a “big year” in 2021. What better way to set the tone for it than by winning the No. 1 jersey?

“They had to do a lot of different things,” Fisch said of Harris and Stanley Berryhill III, the other recipient of it. “Number one, no misses. They had to be at every practice, had to participate, had to go hard every play every day, can’t be late to any meetings, can’t miss really anything. Have to do well academically. Both of them graduated, both of them still maintain their GPAs and did a nice job there. They had to lead the team when the team is tired. They were certainly two guys that made sure everybody worked extremely hard.

“They really are everything that a Wildcat should be. They’re people that give back to the community. They are people that love the Arizona Wildcats. Both are Arizona natives. They’re both people that dreamt of playing here, and they both are accomplishing it. They both start and I’m proud of both of those guys.”

Harris has always had this kind of potential, but it hasn’t always translated to the field. He has seven sacks over the last four seasons. That is the most among Arizona players during that span, but that doesn’t say much. The Wildcats regularly finish last in the Pac-12 in that category.

And Harris didn’t have any sacks in the shortened 2020 season, a stat that new UA defensive coordinator Don Brown has teased him about.

“It motivated me a lot because I know I’m a player that can get a lot of sacks and I expect that of myself,” Harris said.

Brown’s new blitz-heavy defense should help him out. It allows Harris to do what he believes he does best—“rush the quarterback.”

It sounds simple, but it’s the little details that will take Harris’ game to the next level.

“Focusing on the hands of the offensive linemen, knowing their sets,” he said. “Knowing if they’re setting deep or if they’re gonna overset me and the inside’s open. But if the inside’s open, you got to win and you can’t allow the quarterback to outrun you to contain because then that’s your fault.”

Brown said Harris has improved “a lot” since the spring, comparing him to some of the NFL draft picks he coached at Michigan.

“It’s funny. I parallel him, which is unfair, a little bit to Chase Winovich when I got to Michigan,” Brown said. “They kind of said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this guy at tight end. Why don’t what you guys can do with him on defense?’ And a few years later, he’s a third-round pick for Coach (Bill) Belichick.

“[Harris] is a cross between Winovich and Kwity Paye, who was the 21st pick in the draft last year. I liken him to both of those guys in terms of his willingness to learn and be coached. Both of those guys were outstanding spread run defenders, and I see him kind of following that mold as well.”

Harris has watched film of both players, taking note of their high motor and low pad level. He has also worked closely with defensive line coach Ricky Hunley and even received some pass-rushing tips from his father, who had 14.5 sacks during his UA career and went on to play seven seasons in the NFL.

Of course, Jalen is looking to forge his own path. His new number is proof of it.

“I talked about it a little bit with him,” Harris said. “He said at the end of the day I’m my own person, so I can do what I want to do.”