On Aug. 5, 2016, Jalen Harris made a decision that would change his life when he committed to play football at Arizona. He just had no idea how much of his life it would involve.
“I never expected I’d be here six years,” Harris said Tuesday, ahead of his sixth and final season opener with the Wildcats. “I thought I’d do my three or four years and I’d move on.”
The son of former UA linebacker Sean Harris, Jalen was 17 when he picked the Wildcats over the likes of Illinois, Notre Dame and Washington. He’s now 23, and fending off attempts by younger teammates to call him “Grandpa” as one of the oldest guys on the team.
“I don’t think I’m the oldest, I’m definitely one of them, though,” he said. “Probably top three.”
With age, though, comes respect, as evidenced by Harris being named one of Arizona’s five captains along with cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, safety Christian Young, offensive lineman Jordan Morgan and quarterback Jayden de Laura.
“It just tells me that they look to me as a leader and they like to listen to what I have to say,” Harris said. “I can lead people in the right direction.”
Harris was the second-highest rated player to sign with Arizona in the 2017 class, behind only 4-star running back Nathan Tilford. Also in that class, for a little while at least, was San Diego State quarterback Braxton Burmeister, who originally committed to the UA in 2014 and then again in May 2016 before flipping to Oregon less than a month before National Signing Day.
“We were in a group chat, I never really talked to him one on one,” Harris said of Burmeister, who spent two seasons at Oregon before transferring to Virginia Tech and then SDSU.
While Burmeister is on his third college program, Harris has stuck it out in one place (albeit with three different head coaches, five defensive coordinators and six position coaches). Going elsewhere never entered his mind, especially once younger brother Jason Harris transferred in from Colorado before the 2021 season.
“I’ve grown a lot, I’ve become a man here,” he said. “I’ve learned how to deal with adversity and I know, whatever I do in life, I’ll be well prepared for it.”
If there’s anything that Harris might not want to carry forward from his time at Arizona it’s the eating habits he had to develop early on in career. He’s listed at 275 pounds, though he said Tuesday he’s actually got 260 on his 6-foot-6 frame, but that’s still 60 pounds more than when he arrived as a true freshman.
“I had to force myself to eat, even when I wasn’t hungry,” said Harris, who says he’d regularly have two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and two protein shakes before bed as a means to pack on the pounds. “And it’s just something you have to be consistent with, just like anything in life. If you want to be good, you have to be consistent. So gaining weight, I had to be consistent with my eating.”
Going into what will be his final season opener, Harris said he still figures to be nervous but not combined with the uncertainty he had at the outset of his career. He also understands the urgency that now exists to achieve unfulfilled goals.
“I haven’t won,” he said. “I haven’t been a bowl game since my very first year and that year I didn’t even play much. It’s very important to me that I get out there and we, as a team, we win.”